Human Flower Project
How Does Your Garden Reblog Grow?
With book clubs, meet-ups, and contests, the field of garden weblogging is now a thicket of online writers and photographers. Reblogging sites that collect posts from other blogs have helped bring the field into focus, partly by raising questions of copyright and profitability. Caren White, editor of one of the first garden reblogs—Garden Voices—talks about what’s happened and where it all may be heading.
Back in late 2005, we were contacted by a fellow named Joshua Mack about whether we’d like Human Flower Project to be included in a compendium of weblogs, a new venture called Garden Voices that was branching off of gardenweb.com. This popular spot where gardeners shared advice and photos had recently been purchased by iVillage, an online media group targeting women.
We were flattered and—as the flattered should always be—leery. Human Flower Project, many days, has little to do with gardening. And there was a more craven concern: Did it make sense to turn our unpaid labor and thought over to a for-profit enterprise, one featuring makeup tips and stories titled “Do You Cook Better Than His Mom?” —especially when we wouldn’t share in any of those profits?
Eventually we settled on what seemed reasonable terms—Garden Voices would post our headlines and subheads but no photos or stories in full, provided they’d include a link back to Human Flower Project (other blogs apparently have other arrangements). There were a few bumps along the way, but eventually things smoothed out, thanks to Caren White of Middlesex, New Jersey. Caren, with her own A Gardening Year site, tends the Garden Voices reblog, and has been unfailingly accommodating.
Garden Voices, a compilation of hundreds of gardening weblogs, began in 2005
Image: Garden Voices
And so it went for over two years. Until late January 2008. For several weeks Garden Voices, which had grown into an international choir of weblogs, shriveled to a few squeaks and then went dumb.
When we wrote Caren to ask what was happening, even she was perplexed. Was Garden Voices malfunctioning, on hiatus or plain dead?
NBC/Universal had acquired iVillage for $600 million in 2006; by early this year there were lots of pieces moving on the corporate chessboard. The new management tried an iVillage TV show, which was cancelled in March. Thirteen iVillage employees lost their jobs earlier this year, and the remaining ones were shuffled from the New York offices to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The Healthology website (purchased for $17.2 million in 2005) was discontinued; would Garden Voices be next?
The site is back up and running now. But during the uncertain weeks of February we corresponded with Caren, taking the vagaries of the reblog as an opportunity to learn about Garden Voices. We asked Caren about the set-up of the site, its past (since in February its future was an open question) and her outlook on the gardening blogsphere. With many thanks to Caren, here you have it:
HFP: When did Garden Voices begin and how? What was the motivation behind the site?
Caren White: Garden Voices was begun late in 2005. I can’t speak to how or why it was launched. Joshua Mack who headed the team who developed and ran the site has left iVillage for personal reasons. I do know that he had originally intended that it be a “blog about blogs”. This wasn’t communicated clearly to me at first so I came up with my own concept of what it should be and ran with it.
When I began garden blogging in 2005, there were not a lot of garden blogs and the few that were out there were difficult to find. I wanted to create a site where anyone interested in reading garden blogs would be able to find blogs on any topic related to gardening from anywhere in the world. I deliberately reached out to bloggers outside of the US because I was interested in gardening outside of the US. It took about a year, but I reached my goal of having blogs from every continent except Antarctica. I’m still trying to reach my goal of blogs from every state.
Initially, there were a lot of articles from the Home & Garden sections of regional publications that were great as fillers, but as the number of blogs increased, I dropped them and the site is now purely garden blogs. I was also asked to blog on the page but I found it too difficult to maintain multiple blogs. I gradually stopped blogging and commenting. I really wanted the focus on the blogs themselves.
HFP: How did you come to be involved in it? And how do you maintain the site?
CW: Josh contacted me initially in November 2005 about adding my blog to the page. Then he asked me if I would be willing to be the editor. I did a post about my initial involvement.
His original estimate of 1 to 2 hours a day to update the page was right on the money. I was expected to update once a day, Monday through Friday. I’m an overachiever, so I try to update twice a day, seven days a week. Each update takes about an hour. I check the feed to see all the new posts, skim them for content, “snip” them, tag them and then publish them through Movable Type software. All of this was set up and is maintained by iVillage/GardenWeb. I have no control over anything except the blog contents.
What took up a lot of my time initially was hunting for blogs to add. I would spend 2 to 3 additional hours a day surfing the web, reading blogs and emailing bloggers asking if they would like to add their blogs. Two things I asked for to help bloggers find me, was an “Add Your Blog” link on Garden Voices and a button for bloggers to add to their blogs. They did add the link to the sidebar, but when the email addresses changed after NBC bought iVillage last year, the address on the link was never updated. Development of a button for bloggers to use on their blogs was started, but never finished.
I’ve stopped recruiting blogs for the page due to space limitations. The template is frozen at 40 entries. There are already too many blogs to be able to fit everyone’s posts every day. I requested an increase from 40 entries but was told that Garden Voices is not a blogroll. Instead, I should choose “the best” posts of the day and publish those. I’m not comfortable judging other people’s blogs so instead I publish the first 40 posts in my reader. Occasionally I get complaints from bloggers that their posts are not appearing. I always explain why and then make an effort to ensure that their posts get in more regularly.
Despite the fact that the “Add Your Blog” link no longer works, bloggers are still finding me. They either leave comments on my garden blog or email me. Here’s a hint to bloggers who want to get on sites like Garden Voices: have an email address on your blog. It’s so much easier for someone like me looking to add blogs to a site to be able to email a blogger directly rather than leaving a comment on a post. If you are concerned about privacy issues, do what I did and have a separate email address for your blog.
I’d also like to do a shout out to Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening who gives out my email address to bloggers who want to add their blogs to Garden Voices. Thanks to her, I’ve been able to add some really awesome blogs to the site.
HFP: Have any garden bloggers asked to be removed from the site?
Garden Voices now is part of NBC/Univision
Image: Garden Voices
CW: Before I came on board, blogs had been added to Garden Voices without the permission of the authors. I stopped that practice and posted both on Garden Voices and my own blog that anyone whose blog had been added without permission could contact me and I would remove it. There were, I think, two instances where bloggers misunderstood the intent of Garden Voices and were absolutely enraged that we were “stealing” their content. I tried to explain to them that proper credit was given along with links directly to their blogs, but they still demanded that their blogs be removed. I did remove them but let them know if they changed their minds, they would be welcome to add their blogs back to the site.
I have also had bloggers refuse my invitation to add their blogs to Garden Voices. Again, I respect their wishes even though legally, I don’t need their permission to add their blogs. And I always tell them that they are welcome to change their minds and add their blogs to the site at a later date.
HFP: What’s the advantage of checking Voices rather than getting an RSS feed of favorite garden sites?
CW: New blogs, of course! When you set up an RSS feed, it will give you the most recent updates of only the sites to which you subscribe. Garden Voices includes the most recent updates plus new blogs that have been added. I always list them first to make it easy to readers to identify new additions
HFP: Having seen many hundreds of gardening blogs (or blogs that have something to do with gardening) what does this field look like? Who’s involved?
Cactus Blog, one of many specialty plant and gardening sites included at Garden Voices
Image: Cactus Blog
CW: Garden blogs are as varied as gardeners. What has fascinated me the most is how specialized some of the blogs are. There are blogs solely about trees. Which sounded terribly boring until I started reading them. I never knew that trees were so interesting. Bromeliads, orchids, bulbs, native plants, carnivorous plants, cacti you name it, there’s a blog about it somewhere.
Then there are the creative solutions gardeners have come up with to deal with winter. Some people stop blogging altogether. Others write about their other passions. Cooking, knitting and quilting seem to be the most popular winter alternatives.
I’m seeing more variety in the types of bloggers. The largest contingent is home gardeners. Another large bloc is the “columnists”, amateurs and professionals, who offer advice to gardeners. They are now being joined by nurseries, photographers, public gardens, periodicals, retailers and everyone’s favorite, Garden Rant which defies description.
HFP: Having read gardening blogs from around the world, do you find that there are significant regional and cultural differences in approaches to gardening and/or blogging?
CW: Regional and cultural differences were exactly what I was looking for when I went searching for garden blogs around the world. I was surprised to find that gardens and gardeners are strikingly similar. Even the plants are the same. What varies most is the climate.
HFP: Having watched the gardening blogphere grow, what changes have you witnessed? Where do you think this field is headed?
The gardening blogosphere has just exploded! I like to think that Garden Voices had a role in it. It’s a place for gardeners to find blogs to read and to be inspired by them. A number of new bloggers say that they were motivated to start blogging after reading garden blogs. People who in the past would never have considered blogging or felt it was too challenging technically saw people just like themselves blogging easily.
The Garden Bloggers’ Book Club, begun by Carol of May Dreams Gardens, is one of the “extracurricular” activities within the gardening blogsphere
Image: May Dreams Gardens
The biggest change has been the virtual community that has sprung up. Green Thumb Sunday, Garden Bloggers’ Book Club, Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, Garden Bloggers’ Muse Day, Garden Bloggers’ Spring Fling, The Growing Challenge and the Mouse & Trowel Awards. All of these have played a big role in bringing gardeners from around the world together to celebrate our gardens and each other.
Like any other community, cliques are developing. I’m sad to see that but I guess it is just human nature.
While there will always be “regular” gardeners blogging, I see the gardening blogosphere becoming more commercial. As I mentioned previously, more institutions are jumping on the blogging bandwagon to promote their businesses and products. As long as people are aware that they are reading a commercial blog that is trying to sell them something, it’s not a bad thing.
There are bloggers who are trying to make money from their blogs. Most use ads, but some also blog for profit. Again, as long as their readers are aware that there are monetary considerations involved, I think it’s okay.
HFP: How can I tell if I’m reading such a for-profit blog if I don’t see ads?
CW: The blog that I had in mind was “As the Garden Grows”. She uses Kontera and has a link to the site on her sidebar. She also announced that she would be “blogging for profit” when she joined Kontera, inviting other bloggers to look into the opportunity to monetize their blogs. From my understanding, the concept is that you get paid to endorse products on your blog by posting favorable reviews. The complaint that many bloggers have is that many of the topics are not garden-related and so have no place on a garden blog. There was a really ugly thread on this topic on Garden Rant. Readers of garden blogs feel “cheated” if a blogger isn’t a “purist” and blogs for free solely about gardening. It’s a big controversy in the garden blog world.
HFP: What do you believe motivates most garden bloggers? Is there money to be made in it?
CW: Most garden bloggers blog to share their gardens, their triumphs and disasters, their techniques, their opinions. We’re gardeners. We like to talk about gardening.
I have never explored trying to make money from a blog but from what I’ve read about bloggers’ experiences, I would guess that you can make money from your blog, but not a lot. I would think that the real money is made when your blog becomes so popular that you can write articles and books and give (paid) talks.
HFP: What impact, if any, do you think gardening blogs have had or are having in gardens, gardening, consumerism, or any other feature of contemporary life?
CW: Maybe I am biased, but I see garden blogs as having an enormous impact. Gardeners are no longer restricted to the offerings found in their local nurseries and big box stores and the catalogs that happen to land in their mailboxes. Garden blogs spread information on plants and seeds and their sources. I’ve started growing things in my own gardens that I first saw on garden blogs. In other cases, I’ve purchased plants that I saw on blogs that I had initially passed up in catalogs. A lot of times you need to see a plant in a real garden and hear about real experiences which is exactly what garden blogs are about.
HFP: What’s a plant you learned about on someone’s blog that you then tried growing yourself?
CW: Two come to mind immediately. Peony flowered tulips look so attractive in the catalogs but I always wondered what they look like in real gardens and how well they grow. I saw Angelique tulips pictured on a blog and they were just lovely. The gardener mentioned that they come back year after year in her garden in Wisconsin which has much colder winters than New Jersey where I live. So when I was planning a new bed in my front yard, I included some Angelique tulips. The few that the squirrels didn’t eat were beautiful.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Photo: Rob’s Plants
Last year I saw Jack Frost brunnera on a lot of blogs. I fell in love. I couldn’t find any locally and they were horrendously expensive in the catalogs. I hate spending a lot of money on a plant only to have it die. But these were so attractive, that I bit the bullet and ordered one. I received a wonderfully large, healthy plant and I was pleased to see this week that it survived the winter. I’m hoping to have lovely pictures of it on my blog this year.
HFP: Some people are saying that the blogsphere is less like publishing and more like conversation. What’s your view?
CW: Most “commercial” bloggers view blogosphere as publishing, another way to get their message out and sell their products, but for the average gardener, it’s definitely all about conversation. So many bloggers remark that the most interesting part of any post is the comment section where readers express their opinions and the author frequently responds.
I also see a lot of posts that were inspired by posts on other blogs or are refuting posts on other blogs. There are even posts asking for feedback on a particular topic. Those are all conversations.
HFP: Do you think garden blogging is actually an escape from gardening?
CW: I don’t know a single “real” gardener who wants to escape from gardening. For me and a lot of other people, blogging is just another way of gardening.
Garden Voices, as most readers already know, is back in operation and going strong, with a new set of posts Monday through Friday. Mary Ellen Mooney, communications director of NBC/Universal’s Digital Media division, told us that the company is pleased with the Garden Voices site and plans to keep it in operation. We asked about the site’s traffic and revenues but the company had “no comment” on either topic.
Caren informed us that in the years she’s been editing the site, “Garden Voices has consistently ‘failed’ because the page views are so low in comparison to the forums on GardenWeb.” According to alexa.com, only about 1% of the larger gardenweb.com traffic is headed to Garden Voices. “Personally, I don’t think that that is a fair comparison,” Caren says. “ Bloggers and forum habitués are two very different audiences.”
Blotanical.com, Stuart Robinson’s garden reblog
bristles with friendly competition
Since the inception of Garden Voices, Stuart Robinson has developed blotanical.com. Robinson began with a handy world map of garden blogs – a feature that caught on fast. His for-profit Blotanical lists the last 200 garden blog entries from a large pool of international weblogs. It’s heavily geared toward competition – with continuous voting on “most favoured” blogs, “Picks” of entries, “most visited blogs this week” etc. (Colleen Vanderlinden’s Mouse & Trowel Awards, now in their second year, are another contest but run on an annual cycle). Many bloggers have found these online competitions enticing, educational, and gratifying. For others, they’re a distraction.
We find Garden Voices more informative and easier on the eye. Because Caren’s reblog offers, in most cases, excerpts and photographs, scanning down the page we pick up new gardening trends, weather patterns, anniversaries, and the unforeseen – today there’s a brassiere “planter” overflowing with pink petunias.
Waydago, Caren. Thanks for your industry on Garden Voices, and the great generosity of your reply to us.