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Publishers Buoyed by Renewed Interest in Food Gardening

Times are tough, but Americans are showing a willingness to get tougher as well. The economic crisis seems to be forcing us into a sort of wartime mentality of sacrifice and contribution not seen since World War II. Mostly out of plain old honest necessity, more people than at any time in living memory (to be fair, I’m only 31) are growing their own food at home, in the process reconnecting with the Earth and transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s hard to get more local than tomatoes from (what used to be) your front lawn.

And while other book publishers are struggling to stay afloat, those with a strong backlist of sustainable gardening books—like your humble Chelsea Green, proponent of environmental stewardship for 25 years and counting—are flourishing.

From Publishers Weekly:

Despite publishing’s massive layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, many gardening publishers have noted an increase in their annual sales. This is due in large part to a renewed excitement surrounding books on organic gardening and, especially, sustainable gardening techniques. Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin says gardening publishers are releasing titles on sustainability to tap into peoples’ desire to “live simpler, more affordable lives.”

Often, grim financial news brings resurgence in a ‘back to the land’ mentality,” says Storey’s publisher Pam Art. “We saw this in the 1970s in the face of sky-high fuel prices and we’re seeing it again. Gardeners in general are usually more aware of the environment, following environmental practices like composting, avoiding synthetic chemicals and pest deterrents.” Storey’s answer to this “back to the land” movement is The Backyard Homestead, edited by Carleen Madigan, a former Horticulture magazine editor who learned many of the book’s techniques while living on an organic farm in Boston. “The book is a compendium of advice on how to feed families using plants and animals raised at home,” says Art. “It shows readers how to grow fruits, vegetables and nuts; how to churn butter and make their own wine; how to raise chickens and pigs; and how to do it on less than a quarter-acre.”

Paul Kelly, St. Lynn’s Press publisher, thinks the economic downturn is a boon for gardening books: “Because the ever-increasing price of food continues to be a major concern for consumers, new gardeners are becoming more willing to grow their food.” Sustainability meshes so well with gardening, he adds, because “at the root (no pun intended) of the home gardening movement is the thought of eating fresher, locally and healthier.” Kelly argues that when one makes the choice to eat a healthier diet, almost by default they become more attuned to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature—which in turn makes one more conscious of taking better care of the planet. The publisher’s Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More by Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser, now in its third printing, “shows first-timers and old-timers alike that gardening offers many rewards, one of which is healthier and less expensive ‘store bought’ food,” says Kelly.

What might be termed the “old variety” of gardening books hurt the category’s sales, argues Plain White Press publisher Julie Trelstad. “The flood of coffee-table gardening books imported from Europe nearly killed gardening publishing, not only because of their expense but they were not applicable to U.S. gardening conditions.” But because of society’s current fascination with going green, Trelstad has noticed the “shift from ornamental gardening to food/sustenance gardening. People value organic food now and want to know where it comes from. Growing your own is the ultimate local food.” You Bet Your Tomatoes!: How to Grow Great-Tasting Tomatoes in Your Own Backyard. Or Garden. by Mike McGrath, out this month, will help facilitate this shift due to what Trelstad describes as its “funny, practical, inexpensive advice that will help me not only grow tomatoes but keep them alive, and will help me grow my own tasty, organic food.”

Coming next month from Eno Publishers is Rain Gardening in the South: Ecologically Designed Gardens for Drought, Deluge, & Everything in Between by Helen Kraus and Anne Spafford, which “teaches gardeners to use our most precious resource—water—wisely,” says publisher Elizabeth Woodman. “Rain gardens maximize rainwater, enhance the landscape and promote good environmental stewardship.”

Though a few publishers disagreed with the general enthusiasm encountered by PW, many supported their optimism with hard numbers. According to Baldwin at Chelsea Green, “This is the most significant category of books for us, accounting for 32% of our net sales in the last twelve months versus 22% in the previous twelve months.” She adds that net sales grew by an “astounding” 56% in the same period, while the entire list was up 5.4%. The publisher’s bestseller has been Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, which is up 91% in the last twelve months and selling almost three times as well as it did three years ago. Baldwin has high hopes for Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses, which she explains champions the revival of small-scale, sustainable farming: “Eliot offers clear, concise details on greenhouse construction and maintenance, planting schedules, crop management and harvesting practices.”

Read the whole article here.


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