Guest Rants

The End of Organic Gardening

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by Don Boekelheide in Charlotte, North Carolina

During a fierce summer thunderstorm last Friday night, I found out that Organic Gardening will no longer be with us next year. As the lightning flashed and the rain hammered down on the tin roof of the packing shed, I stared in disbelief at the text on my phone’s little screen:

“Yesterday Rodale announced the hiring of James Oseland as the new editor-in-chief for Organic Gardening, soon to become Rodale’s Organic Life.”

Rodale’s Organic Life? No more Organic Gardening? How is that possible, with interest in organics, sustainable farming, and local food at an all-time high? What’s going on?

I had been washing and cleaning summer leeks for market the next morning when I sat down on a cooler for a break, while the storm passed. Glancing through my messages, I opened the innocent-looking email from Doug Hall at Organic Gardening right away. I have been testing varieties for the magazine for over a decade now, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Doug is in charge of all OG’s test gardeners around the country. Besides receiving a terrific annual assortment of seeds in the mail, I get to be part of a network of organic gardeners from Florida to Canada.

We have been eager to learn the name of Organic Gardening’s new editor, but news of the end of OG came as a shock. Starting with the February/March 2015 issue, Rodale’s Organic Life, a new “lifestyle” magazine covering cooking, house and home, style, and gardening, too, will replace Organic Gardening. They call it “rebranding”.

Not everyone is hopelessly bummed out about this. My fellow test gardener Kathy Shaw, in Wisconsin, hopes the new magazine will evolve to include “how to live gently on the land; practical how-tos; bios of good stewards; ecological reporting; gardening advice; and usually some food related stories, too…”

“I think most gardeners make the best of the situation,” Kathy says, “bugs and weather have taught them that too well.”

Besides, Organic Gardening has changed its name before – nine times, Doug says – and been through plenty of makeovers and editors. The last big change in 2010 already added lots of lifestyle content – recipes, designer inedible landscaping, that sort of thing. A few gardeners grumbled, but most (including one GardenRanter) accepted the changes. The magazine has since won awards and gained circulation (though ad revenues have been down, a problem plaguing all print media.)

This time, though, something feels different. I agree with another of my fellow testers, Jackie Smith in Minnesota, who thinks this current change sounds “a bit more drastic” than past ones.

Organic Gardening was the only remaining magazine where food gardening was the main focus.” Jackie says. “If the new magazine leaves that out of their format, where is the public to turn?”

It has been a long, long time since Mr. Wood, my seventh grade gardening teacher (Can you imagine? Gardening was an official class in public school!) changed my life by handing me my first copy of Organic Gardening and growling “Boekelheide, you read too much. Here, read this.”

Over my dad’s objections, I promptly started growing turnips in a corner of our green suburban lawn in Los Angeles. To me, Organic Gardening’s central message was loud and clear: I could grow my own food right where I lived. Me, by myself, I could grow my own delicious tomatoes, like both my grandmothers grew back on the farms my parents had fled, not those flavorless square things at the supermarket. I could take at least partial control over one of the most basic necessities in my life – food.

I could be a producer, not merely a consumer; part of the solution, not part of the problem.

As the decades passed, Organic Gardening continued to lend comfort and support, encouraging me to make compost piles, teaching me to save seed, and constantly reminding me that worms, birds and bees were friends I shouldn’t poison for the sake of appearances. For me and countless gardeners, Organic Gardening became our Bible for backyard and vacant lot food gardens, individual and community, all around the world.

When J.I. Rodale put out the first issue in 1942, originally “Organic Farming and Gardening,” only a handful of people had ever heard of “organic gardening,” or “organic” anything else, for that matter. “Organic” is now a multi-billion-dollar-a-year consumer market, with far more people buying organic than growing organic (obviously, for me as an organic farmer, that’s not entirely a bad thing). But Organic Gardening always left a crack in the great wall of consumerism, encouraging people to grow something themselves, if only a flowerpot of Genovese basil beside the back door.

Rodale borrowed the term “organic” from Walter James, an English noble – Lord Northbourne. James’s 1940 book Look To The Land drew a distinction between viewing a farm as a living organism (thus, “organic”) and treating it as a factory (“chemical farming”). James was inspired by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who grappled with questions of science and spirituality. Rodale added a Moses-like twist to this organic definition, a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” (“Thou shalt use compost”; “thou shalt not spray DDT”.)

The debate over these “holistic”  vs. “prescriptive” definitions of organic rages on today. Organic Gardening offered a unique bridge between the two perspectives by keeping things grounded in practical gardening. That’s another thing I will miss if it morphs into an organic vision of Southern Living magazine, a strange parallel universe where folks barbecue tofu and drink gluten-free iced tea with Stevia.

As the storm rumbled away into the darkness, I thought back over years of Organic Gardening urging me to grow my own food, without spending a fortune and without wearing a hazmat suit. Without Organic Gardening, would I now be growing this good organic food for other folks to eat? I doubt it.

The patter of raindrops, shading slowly into silence, became a soundtrack for the departure of a beloved friend.

Don Boekelheide is an organic grower at the the Lomax Farm Incubator in Concord, North Carolina, and a National Test Gardener for Organic Gardening. His writing appears regularly in the Charlotte Observer.

Posted by Don Boekelheide on August 29, 2014 at 7:49 am, in the category Guest Rants.
8 Comments

8 Responses to “The End of Organic Gardening

  1. Frank Hyman says:

    Organic Gardening has been seguing (that’s a word right?) into a bit of an Organic Living format for a while with stories that aren’t strictly about growing edibles and has seen it’s circulation increase. So I think they are going to be successfully exploiting a market of pro-organic people who don’t garden (which would be a good way to spread the good word). So they may have that field all to themselves. I’ve freelanced a number of stories for OG and hope to keep doing that, so of course I’m curious as to how it all shakes out.

    But contrary to one commenter in the post, there are other mags that focus on food gardening. I write a column on growing edibles and another coming soon on foraging edibles for Urban Farm magazine. The mag strikes me as a Mother-Earth-News for the in town crowd. But don’t take my word for it. Check out these up-rants (pro-rants? What do you call a rant that’s positive?) about Urban Farm magazine from Susan Harris:

    http://gardenrant.com/2009/10/urban-farm.html

    and Amy Stewart:

    http://gardenrant.com/2011/10/urban-farm-magazine-is-awesome.html

  2. Ivette Soler says:

    Boo-hoo! James Oseland is the new editor in chief – how awful! Come on! James Oseland is all about FOOD! His profile is huge, and his magazines are always amazing. Rodale made a very smart move, one that might save it as a print publication. Sorry, but Organic Gardening Magazine needed help – I can’t tell you how much misinformation has been given just on their facebook page! They need a strong presence at the helm, one who understands publishing and the value of a good-looking, well-presented lifestyle. THAT is what will sell ads – not more images of tomatoes and chard. And ads keep a magazine afloat. I think with James Oseland at the helm, I might even subscribe – I let my subscription lapse years ago.
    And if one magazine is the only thing that made you an organic gardener, well – that kind of says alot.
    I don’t know why you are assuming it will be bad just because it will be different. I get your feelings – you work for the current incarnation, after all – but for those of us committed to organic practices AND to bringing that point of view into a larger idea of LIFESTYLE, this is a fantastic move. Because it is what we can integrate into a lifestyle that lasts. Not everybody devotes their life to growing their own food – many people want to know how growing food organically can fit into their lifestyle. How is the gap between the nose-in-the-dirt diehard and the working couple who wants to grow some of their food to be bridged? I am very hopeful that the new incarnation of this magazine will do that! That would be awesome!

  3. Joe Schmitt says:

    As an urban playwright of off-off-Broadway morality plays in the forties, J. I. Rodale wasn’t exactly a rustic Thoreau or conservationist Louis Bromfield, but he was a thinker and a reader and a visionary whose simple discovery of the idea that how one’s food is produced matters resonated with a core of open minded people across the U.S. My 8th grade educated Dad was one of them, and pilgrimages to the Rodale Farm in Emmaus were required summer drives for our family when I was growing up. I had the privilege of meeting both J.I. and son Robert back when they would personally escort you on a walking tour of the place, explaining some of the more intriguing experiments being conducted, like electroculture in the presence of induced electromagnetic fields (plants ringed by wire hoops). And I remember reacting to early changes in the magazine’s format with many of the same feelings expressed in this latest change. But it has endured for over 60 years precisely because that original idea has endured. How we produce our food and treat the planet matters. And we can’t all grow our own, not particularly well at least, but advancing that core idea is supremely important, whatever it takes.

  4. Remy says:

    I stopped subscribing to OG years ago when they got rid of Mike McGrath. It went downhill after his departure, and I’m sure there was a significant drop in overall subscriptions. Every once awhile I would look at a copy, but it never came close to what it once was. The articles were just fluff. So I stopped looking.
    I’m not surprised they are doing this revamp. Whether it will work or not, well we will see.

  5. Don says:

    Thanks to everyone for thought-provoking comments with fresh perspectives. One of the things I’ve always really enjoyed about Gardenrant is the discussions that follow in comments. That’s an endorsement!

    Frank, I also like Mother Earth News and Hobby Farm/Urban Farm, and I’ll watch for your columns. With “lifestyle” the fastest-growing segment in the battered magazine industry, business reasons for the name change are obvious. For better or worse, as Ivette puts its, lifestyle sells ads, not “tomatoes and chard”. And Oseland, a highly creative guy, brings fresh energy and an established fan base. Mike McGrath had a strong following, as Remy reminds us, and left a lasting mark on OG. We all search, all our lives, for voices that speak to us and sustain our passions. I enjoyed Joe’s comments a great deal, thinking back to the early days.

    I’m not saying Organic Gardening was perfect over its many years of changes, or that this latest change is a uniquely Bad Thing. I just wanted to say goodbye to a magazine that brought so much to my life. I will miss it, even knowing it will live on as a web presence and possibly a section within the new magazine, Rodale’s Organic Life.

    (Just to clarify , Ivette, test gardeners are not Rodale employees, and let’s just say we don’t do it for the money. Just like you, Frank, I have to pitch articles to them as a free-lancer.)

    The first word in OG’s title, “organic”, survived the cut. It will simply be joined to lifestyle, not “limited” to gardening. I just hope this won’t help shift organic’s already elusive meaning further in the direction of a becoming mostly a consumer category and status symbol, and that the vital original holistic meaning, directly linking food production to the ecology of our living planet, will not be completely eclipsed.

    We’re losing the word “gardening” completely, and that’s harder for me. It’s an old word, and unlike “organic”, which does not translate even to other European languages (“sustainable” doesn’t either), “garden” is one of those rare cognates that bridges the Germanic and Romance languages. We humans have been gardening for a long, long time, arguably long before we began “farming”. As Michael Pollan suggested in Second Nature, a worthy book about plain ol’ gardening published before we celebritized the poor guy, the garden offers a bridge between the natural world and the Anthropocene marvel and mess we have created for ourselves.

    I guess my howl is most of all for simplicity. Plain ol’ food gardening is worthy of celebration for its own sake and, in an ideal world, it merits a space – a magazine, an online forum, a circle of friends around the kitchen table – of its own. OG at its best was a village green, gone a bit wild and weedy, that welcomed this magical ancient dance. I’m sad to see it replaced by a fancy new condo, even a really nice one with pots of arugula on the decks.

    • Mary Gray says:

      Well said, Don. I can’t stand how everything is packaged now as a “lifestyle”. Maybe they do need to “rebrand” themselves in order to stay afloat, but just the new title of the magazine puts me off. I would sooner buy a magazine with a tomato and chard on it than one with Oprah drinking a kale smoothie.

    • Joe Schmitt says:

      On the upside, we have a plain ol’ food garden on the White House lawn, a Prez who knows what arugula is and how pricey (not pricey enough to anyone who’s done battle with the flea beetles over arugula – it’s flea beetle heroin), and a Farmers’ Market movement sweeping the country. Our summer market on the Capitol square in Madison, WI draws 20,000 people a week and tiny markets are popping up in the tiniest towns around us. In addition, there are something like fifty CSA farms in the greater Madison area CSA coalition known as Fair Share (formerly MACSAC), plus many more who are not members, this in just 20 short years of building on the quintessential Madison spark by MERF, The Madison Eaters Revolutionary Front. Almost every one of these farms utilizes “worker shares”, twenty-somethings and old farts alike, putting in hours of weekly labor in exchange for really fine food. In our part of the world, at least, there’s a whole lot of gardening going on and a fair amount of topical information available through multiple workshops, field days, conferences, paper publications and websites. Consequently, I can’t really drum up much angst over the situation. On the other hand, I too miss the old OG&F, a lot.

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