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 Harmoniagardener) 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.

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15 Comments

  1. 18th May 2015 at 3:50 am —

    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.

  2. 12th November 2016 at 3:33 pm —

    “pro-rants? What do you call a rant that’s positive?”

  3. 15th November 2016 at 3:51 am —

    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!

  4. 15th November 2016 at 5:03 pm —

    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. 18th November 2016 at 11:06 pm —

    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!

  6. 22nd November 2016 at 8:34 pm —

    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.

  7. 23rd November 2016 at 4:25 am —

    I just read the first copy of the new “Organic Life”. Blah, just fluff. I want my gardening magazine back!! Why couln’t they do both?? What are all of us organic gardeners supposed to do to fill the void? I am profoundly sad and disappointed. OG(&F) changed the world, in my opinion. What a sad end. After being a loyal reader for about 35 years, I can’t believe it is over. I am amazed that the Rodale family have let this happen. I have asked to be refunded my remaining subscription.

  8. 23rd November 2016 at 3:30 pm —

    I completely agree! Loved Organic Gardening for years and then didn’t subscribe for a awhile. Decided to try Organic Life and just received first issue yesterday–cancelled subscription today. (was a little startled to find an article on organic sex toys… What?!?!? where’s the advice on worm bins and compost piles??) SO disappointing!

  9. 24th November 2016 at 11:13 am —

    I am so disappointed at the changes, I literally had a few tears welling up when I got the 2nd issue of this “new” magazine. I wanted to give it a chance past the first issue but I don’t feel any better so far. My mother received Organic Gardening throughout my childhood and it helped me develop my love of vegetable gardening. I’m almost 40 and she still gifts me a subscription every year! How sad that I hardly find it worthwhile now. Are there any magazines out there which focus on organic gardening, without all the “fluff”? So disappointed.

  10. 24th November 2016 at 11:48 am —

    Sandy…I too was disappointed and cancelled after the first issue. I suggest Mother Earth News mag…chock full of practical, useful info without “fluff”.

  11. 24th November 2016 at 11:58 am —

    Does anyone know if the OG Forums website is still online? Or have they, too, been composted along with their affiliated original magazine?

  12. 24th November 2016 at 12:06 pm —

    Organic Gardening /Organic Life has become the Oprah O mag of gardening, expensive, irrelevant products, lost your way, lost your focus

  13. 24th November 2016 at 12:45 pm —

    I accidentally ordered Organic Life mag, thinking I was getting Organic Gardening. When the first issue arrived, I was very disappointed. It looked like a Vogue-esque mag for people who like reading about restaurants and a vegetarian/organic mindset…and found minute amounts of information about gardening. more ads than useful information. I gave my son a subscription to Organic mag before all the changes. Looks like it will be Mother Earth News for us both. Keep your mag.

  14. 25th November 2016 at 2:22 am —

    I have been an Organic Gardening subscriber for many, many years, to many years to count. I had put off reading each publication as “life” got in the way over the last year, but today I picked up the new Organic Life mag and was truly dis-appointed. What the hell have they done to the best gardening magazine every published? This is all fluff! Nothing substantial! I’m done, going to cancel my subscription.

  15. 25th November 2016 at 7:54 am —

    My heart is broken. I have been a subscriber to OG for 30 years-started in my college years. I usually would read them cover to cover as soon as I received them. Still have them all stacked in my office to go back and refer to. I just received the 3rd (I think) installment of the so called “new and improved” Organic Life and just can’t connect with it. I understand it’s purpose, but there is so little information on gardening that I am now going to part ways. I’m still in shock that this is the path they have chosen. It seems so drastic and just can’t get my head wrapped around why?, besides the all mighty dollar. Good bye old friend. I’m glad I saved all my magazines so we can visit once in a while.

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The End of Organic Gardening