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At 100, a magazine has blossomed into a national treasure

Publishing is a ferocious business and most magazines don't survive five years, never mind 100. Boston-based Horticulture magazine, the country's oldest gardening magazine, has reached that landmark, and there's a fat centennial issue with a new cover design and new features currently on newsstands. "There's a lot of competition. That it's lasted speaks for itself," said Leo Blanchette, an avid reader who runs the noted Carlisle perennial nursery Blanchette Gardens. He has collected old Horticulture copies going back to the 1950s.

Horticulture has gone through at least three lives. It was launched in 1904 as a weekly trade journal for florists and estate and greenhouse gardeners. Old issues include scores of florists' bowling league competitions. "That was a good idea. I think we should revive that!" quipped Roger Swain, who has been an editor and writer at Horticulture more than 25 years.

In 1923, the magazine was purchased by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and turned into a society publication for members. Swain remembers Ed Steffek, the editor from 1964 to 1975. "He was wonderful. Of course, it was a much smaller magazine then. Society members on the North Shore were writing articles about their front yards."

When Swain was hired in 1978, Horticulture had been transformed again by former Life magazine editor Paul Trachtman. His vision was to turn this parochial little monthly into a national publication featuring great writing, much of it by former Time

/Life colleagues. It was a time when a lot of small regional and institutional magazines were trying to go national. Most didn't succeed at making the transition, but Horticulture did. Swain remembers the Trachtman days as heady good fun, a period when the magazine ran a tab at a local gourmet restaurant and staff dined on oysters Rockefeller. "The subject matter was, shall we say, uneven. We ran one article about the Kung bushmen -- who didn't grow anything! It was called Life Before Horticulture. It had nothing to do with gardening! But it was a terrific article. Some of the issues were no longer than 64 pages, but I got to write whatever I wanted, and we published some wonderful stuff."

But soon Trachtman was history, along with the gourmet lunches. Esther Mackintosh and Denis G. Meacham succeeded as editors. Then young managing editor Thomas C. Cooper stepped up to the plate after their brief tenures. Some thought the magazine was about to die, but Cooper "kept the lights on, kept the vision for 20 years, and made Horticulture a great magazine," said Swain.

"It was pretty slim pickings during my early days," Cooper admitted. The magazine's office was in Horticultural Hall, a gorgeous but barely heated Beaux Arts landmark across the street from Symphony Hall. Swain recalled, "It was so cold, we could go home when the temperature reached 40 degrees -- inside! We had beautiful architecture, no money and no heat. You could see your breath, with the portraits of Massachusetts Horticultural Society eminences glowering down at you."

Cooper and his staff were not broken-hearted when the society sold the magazine in 1981 to The New Yorker and White Flower Farm nursery owner Eliot Wadsworth II. Suddenly, there was money to hire the best garden writers and Cooper was having meetings with revered New Yorker editor William Shawn. It was headier than oysters Rockefeller. "This was a key period because of their commitment to building a strong editorial product correctly -- though we did run a few terrifyingly long articles," said Cooper. "We were the first modern American garden publication to provide a forum for literary garden writing."

A few years later, Wadsworth bought Horticulture entirely, and then sold it to a New York investment group who skillfully built the circulation up to about 340,000. Under Cooper, the magazine stayed focused on plants and gained a reputation for coupling good writing with horticultural accuracy. Swain recalled that the magazine's offices bounced around town from 755 Boylston ("we could climb up to roof and watch the Boston Marathon with our feet dangling over the edge") to 20 Park Plaza ("near Chinatown and serious good eating") to its current quarters at 98 North Washington St., almost on top of the Big Dig.In the late '90s, the magazine was sold to Primemedia, which owns hundreds of other periodicals but didn't seem to have a clue who Horticulture's subscribers were. Some staffers blame Horticulture's steep drop in circulation (to around 200,000) to inept handling by Primemedia's subscriptions department.

When Cooper left to work with Wadsworth on a short-lived new magazine called The Gardener, published by White Flower Farm, many could not imagine Horticulture without him. But he was ably succeeded in 2001 by Patricia Wesley Umbrell, a former intern who had spent her teenage summers working at The Natick Community Organic Farm before getting an agricultural degree from Cornell.

Horticulture went from eight to six editions a year in 2002, but remained profitable and attracted more appreciative ownership when it was purchased a few months later by privately held F&W Publications Inc. of Cincinnati. The initials stand for "Farm" and "Writing" and the company started out with agricultural journals, so it is a good fit with Horticulture.

Since then, Joel Toner, who also departed during the PrimeMedia ownship, has returned to the post of publisher, and Umbrell has been promoted to editorial director in charge of many new endeavors. These include a new line of books, an expanded website (, and a new magazine called Home Turf, aimed at male gardeners. It features fewer flowers and more articles about grass, grills, and grubs. Umbrell calls it "gardening with an attitude." She is also editing a supplement for northeastern gardeners that begins with the current issue of Horticulture and will continue to feature local nurseries and gardeners, and gardening advice for our climate, all by well-known local garden writers.

Longtime staff member Thomas Fischer became Horticulture magazine's editor last year and is putting his own stamp on the periodical. "I have a pretty intense interest in plants and my goal for the magazine is to make sure that the plant information it contains is as good as the best of the gardening books," Fischer said. "I want to make sure it's a magazine with no fluff, that doesn't go into a soft lifestyle kind of direction."

Horticulture magazine renewed its former partnership with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society this year. It will produce the society's bimonthly newsletter and hold events at Mass Hort's new Elm Bank headquarters.

The magazine's big birthday bash will be held at the Winterthur estate in Delaware. Called GardenFair, the Sept. 17-19 event (modeled after Les Journees des Plantes, a famous plant sale held at the Courson chateau outside Paris each fall) will have speakers, tours of the great estate garden created by Henry F. du Pont, and, most of all, a rare plant and garden antique sale stocked by choice nurseries (admission $15). There will also be a moonlight garden party.

Closer to home will be a two-day event called The Great Plants/The Great Plantspeople June 8 and 9 at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn., featuring Irish plantswoman Helen Dillon and other speakers, garden tours, and luncheons ($239 registration, 877-436-7764 or

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