Unusually Clever People

Jeff Ball on the Past, Present and Future of Gardenwriting

by Susan
Just so you know, JEFF Ball is the veteran gardening (and yardening) educator of stage, screeJeffballn and print (8 years on "The Today Show," no less) and GEORGE Ball
is the owner of Burpees.  After confusing these guys for years, I
finally have it straight.  Jeff’s the guy whose site I’ve consulted
many times for gardening advice, especially about lawn care, and whose
advice always ring true.  Add to that his unofficial role as dean of
American gardenwriters and you can see why I asked for some serious
phone time with him.  Lucky for me, he’s easy.

HOW A GARDEN EDUCATOR GETS STARTED
After 13 years in state government (PA Department of Welfare), Jeff
solicited the publishing upstart Rodale with a book idea, they
responded by asking him to write a book about suburban homesteading,
and he up and quit his day job to pursue a career in gardenwriting. 
The career leap paid off and he now has 8 books under his belt, mostly
for Rodale, with over a million copies sold.  His mission to teach
gardening extends to public speaking, training Master Gardeners and
producing videos, all of which he now says he’d like to throw away
because they’re outdated.  Yes, that’s the thing about garden writing;
best practices evolve with more and better information and Jeff says he
loves that about the field and is excited by the changes.  In fact, he opines that a full-time garden writer is
first and foremost a student.  Hear, hear!

STOP THE PRESSES
Jeff filled me in on the progression of
gardenwriting since he started in the early 70s.  It was a prestigious,
mortgage-paying career then, with about 100 people making a real living
at it, including the full-time gardening editors at all the major
newspapers.  But by
1990 everything was changing and today it’s common for newspapers gardenwriters
to make $25-50 per column, obviously with no benefits.
Newspapers are starting to demand that their gardenwriters add video,
podcasts and blogging to their duties to accompany their columns -
usually for no extra pay – in an attempt to beef up their websites. "I
don’t think there is any question that the newspapers will try to find
new ways to monetize our columns without our getting any share."  The
newspapers "know they are dying but have no clue how to make real money
via the website." 

More changes on the horizon?  "I suspect that in a few years, when we write a column about
roses, all the garden centers in the area will be able to set up links
to the column advertising their roses.  You put in your zip code and
get the three closest garden centers to you.  For that, the garden
centers pay a fee to the newspaper."

GARDENING BOOKS
According to Jeff, sales are way down, with most
books selling in the 20,000 range.  Why?  Mainly because the market is
saturated ("How many
more books about perennials do we need?") but also because of the
decline of gardening in the general public.

GET THEE TO THE INTERNET
As Jeff recently wrote to the GardenWriters Listserv: "We should assume that
just about everything we garden writers do now to make a full or
part-time living is going to be different within the next five years
because of
new developments on the Internet. 
I think we have to take a proactive approach to that change.  If we get
defensive every time another change appears, we might lose out in the
long run being able to take advantage of the new technology.  Sort of
like the photogs still using 35 mm film.  It can’t last forever."
Writers are scrambling to get on line because there’s "serious money"
starting to be made there, says Jeff. 

So as one of those long-time print writers, what does Jeff think of
blogs, anyway?  Well, I loved this – he predicts that the most
successful blogs will be the controversial ones who go after the
"conventional wisdom," even criticize products, something gardenwriters
have been "scared to death" to do.  He’s a regular reader of GardenRant
and finds it "provocative."  Lord knows we try. 

ADVICE TO NEW WRITERS
I’ve always been impressed by the
generosity of gardenwriters toward each other, and Jeff tells me I’d
really see it in action at their big annual meet-ups
and he wouldn’t miss a one, even if it’s in Oklahoma.  (No offense,
Okies, but a gardening mecca it’s not.)  And whenever he’s around other
writers he finds himself mentoring newbies because they’re pretty
clueless about how to make a living at it and after all, we’re not in
competition with each other, are we? 

Good question.  Of course writers seeking newspaper column gigs in
their home towns aren’t competing with others around the country but
what about on the web?  Aren’t blogs and sites all in competition in
the new flat world?  Jeff says no, not even on the web, but I’m not
convinced on that score so readers, what do you think? 

More Jeff Ball advice: do favors, make no enemies, and keep
informed.  And this: "Writing is a lonely profession.  People who
succeed work
their butts off and there are no accidents."  Good mentoring, Jeff.

TEACHING GARDENING TO THE PUBLIC
Okay, enough career stuff.
Let’s look at ways of educating the public in gardening, especially in
the use of more earth-friendly practices.  Jeff’s been in the trenches
fighting the good fight for decades now, using every medium available,
and his target audience has not been the rarified world of gardenblog
readers. Oh, no, his target audience is the yardeners of the world.  I
know that’s a controverial term here on the Rant, but they’re his
peeps!  Oh, I’ll just let Jeff explain:

The public at large includes about 15 million
people who are gardeners at some level; 50 million yardeners who don’t think of
themselves as gardeners but have plants to care for including lawns, shrubs,
and trees.  Then there are maybe 10 million who have their property taken care
of by someone else.  The rest live in apartments and condos with no
land.

Understanding soil and its relation to plants is
a problem for gardeners.  Yardeners don’t even know what roots do or that a
plant might need full sun or part shade.  They just want instant
success.  And most people do everything wrong.

Yeah,
it’s an uphill battle.  But I’m convinced that meeting clueless
homeowners where they are and leading them forward into 21st century
"yard" practices is the way to have the most impact.  Jeff’s approach
of giving them "opportunities, not rules" sounds right to me.

YOUR LIMO WILL PICK YOU UP AT 5 A.M.
Okay, enough depressing news
about the state of gardening knowledge in the general public.  What was
it like appearing on the Today Show?

I did one show a
month, always on a Friday.  I did my own production, and they always
agreed with my topics.  I left Philly on Thursday afternoon to have
time in the NBC studio to set up for the segment, which usually took
only a couple of hours, then off to any restaurant of my choice and a
night’s sleep in a fancy hotel.  At 5:00 a.m. a limo came to pick me up
and drive the terrible long distance of 5 blocks.  Rehearsal took about
10 minutes and my segment was almost always 4.5 minutes, with about 6
million viewers.  Was usually home by noon.

Nice gig if you can get it. 

Posted by on August 21, 2007 at 5:09 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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5 Responses to “Jeff Ball on the Past, Present and Future of Gardenwriting”

  1. Susan Harris says:

    I had an afterthought. About that advice to “make no enemies,” we’re excluding the major polluters and their promoters, right?

  2. I love the term “yardening.” It describes very neatly what my neighbors do.

  3. Jeff is the dean, for sure. And, he’s generous with his advice and wit. His comments about the state of garden writing are right on. I’ve been in the field since 1985 part-time and full time since the early 1990′s. It’s tougher to make a living every year, as Jeff eloquently explained.

    Do favors is the best advice Jeff gives for newcomers. You never know when you need to call in favors. And, speak no evil, too. You may be biting the inside of your lower lip a lot, but it’s sound business practice.

  4. Sara- animal lover says:

    Jeff is a huge animal abuser.

    He’s proud to electrocute deer on his personal property admitted on his web. He tells the Detroit News readers to drowned racoons/oppossums and other pesky critters…at home for themselves.

    His website advises many ways to “dispose” of animals- like shooting and drowning them.

    The word human does not describe Mr Ball…..inhumane does

  5. Humane to animals says:

    Jeff kills and drowns animals.

    He speaks of conservation and eco systems being destroyed by humans- and then drowns a racoon.

    Do your grandchildren watch these gruesome events?

    Jeff let’s hope you get yours from the animal kingdom.

    :)

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