MEDIA ROUNDUP: Gardening as a media topic shows signs of growth

Gardening remains most common among the baby boomer set, but its popularity may be on the rise as more people focus on the home and the activity is portrayed as a hobby, not yard work.

Gardening remains most common among the baby boomer set, but its popularity may be on the rise as more people focus on the home and the activity is portrayed as a hobby, not yard work.

Given that every major mass merchant, department store, and home-improvement center in the US has a gardening section, people who putter around working on their lawn, flower beds, and vegetable patches may be one of the largest - yet quietest - consumer groups. Virtually every major newspaper has either a dedicated gardening writer or runs a syndicated gardening column. There is also a host of radio and television programs devoted to gardening, including the cable network HGTV. Yet save for maybe a feature each spring and the occasional major story on an event such as the Philadelphia Flower Show, gardening has traditionally been considered a very narrow journalistic niche. This year, the gardening world saw its news hole shrink even further. "The general gardening writers, whether they were individual magazines or at newspapers, continued their coverage," says John Bosser, environmental communications specialist with Scotts, the maker of Miracle-Gro, Turf Builder, and a host of other lawn- and garden-care products. "But we kind of noticed that the overall mainstream media didn't seem to be focusing as much on gardening topics, and I think it was because of the war and because of SARS. Every spring we usually get a couple of calls from reporters doing a feature article on what's new in lawn- and garden-care products, and we didn't get those calls this year." Despite this setback, gardening may be showing some signs over the long term that it's ready to piggyback on the entire "nesting" phenomenon of many Americans. A recent Women's Wear Daily survey found that a surprising 52% of women age 18 and older say gardening is their number-one hobby. "It's become a more general-interest story," says Dr. Valerie Kelsey, president of the National Gardening Association (NGA). "You're not hitting just the niche of people who are master gardeners. A lot of the coverage is now being aimed at people who've never gardened before." Mary Pat McClatchy, account supervisor with the PR and marketing firm Garden Media Group, says that gardening journalism is now being divided into two camps. "A lot of the reporters at newspapers and specialty magazines are very well-educated, and many have degrees in horticulture," she says. Several gardening reporters, including Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post, Better Homes & Gardens' Elvin McDonald, and The Philadelphia Inquirer's Denise Cowey are considered top experts in the field. Portraying gardening as a hobby McClatchy says there's also a group of new gardening reporters out there who are trying to educate readers that gardening can be a fun hobby rather than yard work. "The huge theme right now is gardening made simple," she adds. "It's not so much that you have to do things the English way or you have to plant things in a certain way. Now it's more about trying to make gardening easier, because people are short on time." However, gardening does have to overcome some obstacles before it can emerge as a hot lifestyle topic. Despite the Women's Wear Daily survey, the hobby's demographics haven't changed much. According to the NGA, the two largest gardening demographics remain women age 35-44 and women 55 and older. "We're beginning to see it skew younger, but we're still dealing pretty much with baby boomers," says McClatchy. But the media is trying to add a bit of glamour to planting, tending, and weeding. The new British import TV show Ground Forces, where experts make over a different person's garden each week, is trying to do for gardening what Trading Spaces has done for home interiors. Newsweek now runs a gardening brief about once a month in its Tip Sheet section. And even Vogue got in on the act this year with a huge spread celebrating the launch of the Hermes line of gardening tools. Targeting the experts Most PR people are trying to remain realistic about where they pitch gardening-themed stories. "We always try to pitch outside the category," says Alise Kreditor of Kreditor Marketing Communications, which represents well-known seed company W. Atlee Burpee. "But garden writers are the most important, and you first direct your information to them." "We get an awful lot of play from the traditional gardening outlets," adds Bosser. "Better Homes & Gardens, for instance, will do a special separate outdoor-living magazine that will have a three- or four-month shelf life, or they may do a special lawn-care interest magazine." But given the fact that everything from what flowers you choose to when and how you plant them depends on where in the country you live, Kelsey says. "A lot of the coverage of gardening tends to be regional." The NGA puts out 14 newsletters, many of which are tailored to specific areas. Kelsey adds that a lot of the garden-themed radio programming that tends to air on weekend mornings is regional as well. Many are call-in shows, and Bosser says it's possible to get a Scotts executive on a satellite radio tour to answer questions on everything from fertilizer to pest control. Gardening coverage, however, tends to be very visual, and so PR people stress the need to get pictures out as often as possible. Kreditor says she sends out the Burpee catalog to reporters every December. "That way, the reporters have that as a kind of 'pictionary' of what we are selling this year, and then we can easily send them any of the images that they want," she says. "So the catalog ends up being a great PR tool." While it's unlikely that gardening will ever evolve far beyond its current status as a steady, evergreen media category, the gardening industry is doing all it can to make sure it doesn't slip back. The NGA and Garden Media teamed up last April to relaunch National Garden Month. First proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan back in 1986, the National Garden Month theme is "Celebrate the power of gardening." McClatchy worked with several garden-product companies, more than 30 "green" groups, and 600 garden centers on the program for a festival at the US Botanical Garden in Washington, DC. The event generated coverage in USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Washington Post. "The message that we're trying to get through is the whole spiritual side of gardening," she says. "With people's lives being so hectic and uncertain, we want them to look at their garden as this peaceful place." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Philadelphia Inquirer; USA Today; The Washington Post; The Indianapolis Star; Seattle Times; The Sacramento Bee; Los Angeles Times Magazines Better Homes & Gardens; House Beautiful; Country Gardens; Horticulture; Garden Design; Country Living Gardener; Gardening How-To; American Rose; Casual Living; Martha Stewart Living; Newsweek; Sunset; Good Housekeeping; Real Simple; Women's Day; Garden Compass; Birds & Blooms; This Old House Trade titles Green Profit; American Nurseryman; California Nurseryscape; Grower Talk; Nursery Retailer; Nursery Pro TV & Radio HGTV; Discovery; Lifetime; national and regional morning lifestyle shows; NPR Internet gardenweb.com; greenhouses.com; gardeners.com; gardenseeker.com; garden.org; thegardenhelper.com

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