Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Indoor Gardening

Today, I interview Julie Bawden Davis about her book, "Indoor Gardening the Organic Way: How to Create a Natural & Sustaining Environment for Your Houseplants." Julie tells us about developing a specialty niche, building a platform and the publishing process.

Tell us about yourself.
I am a full-time garden writer and a University of California Cooperative Extension certified master gardener. I write books, magazine, newspaperand online articles, speak regularly on gardening, and I am founder of the website HealthyHouseplants.com. At times I think I'm actually certifiable,but overall I love what I do. How often do you get asked to repot a 30-year-old fern named Matilda, or ride through a nursery in a rickety golfcart for 2 miles so that you can see and smell thousands of plumeria in bloom? And then live to write about it. I also do a more limited amount of writing in the areas of parenting, relationships and small business, and I write profiles of people who have overcome challenging life circumstances for Toastmaster Magazine.

Tell us about your new book, "Indoor Gardening the Organic Way: How to Create a Natural & Sustaining Environment for Your Houseplants."
Indoor Gardening the Organic Way explains in a simple, easy-to-read format how and why to grow your houseplants organically. Many gardeners still unnecessarily use harsh synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides when growing plants indoors--despite the fact that they eat organic foods and buy natural personal care products. The book is chock full of up-to-date information on all-natural growing principles so that you can grow houseplants as nature intended. It is 206 pages and illustrated by my daughter (which makes it even more exciting for me). I include informationon acclimating plants and weaning them from chemical growth hormones andsynthetic fertilizers; creating healthy, nutrient-rich soil; feeding plantsan organic, sustaining diet, and how to fight pests and diseases with earth-friendly methods. There are even recipes for specialty soil mixesand a full-color encyclopedia which shares critical information about each plant, including lighting and humidity needs.

You say on your website that you have always wanted to be a writer. How did you know it was journalism/non-fiction you wanted to do and not creative writing?
I started out creative writing as a very young child. According to my grandmother, I used to write stories when I was just five or six, and I've seen old movie footage of me writing some sort of a little book when I was just three years old. I still am a closet fiction writer, but I'm alsovery pragmatic. When I got older--about 5th grade--I decided that journalism and non-fiction would probably be my main focus, with fiction on the side as a "someday" thing. I have written one novel, which I tried to sell for a short time and then put down, and have since picked back up again and am actively trying to sell. I have also written half of another novel, which contains a character from the first book. I really like both forms of writing, because they are so different and satisfying in their own ways.

With a degree in journalism, did you start off in newspapers, on staff or as a freelancer?
I started off as a free-lancer right out of college. While in college at California State University, Long Beach, I had the good fortune to take an Introduction to Free-lancing class with a teacher who also free-lanced. He is a member of ASJA (Mike Stein). I knew from the first class period that I had found what I wanted to do. He also encouraged me. I remember him writing on my final, which was a feature article: "You have the makings of a fine free-lancer." Stein was the only one who was encouraging, however, in terms of teachers. Other teachers were very pessimistic about free-lancing--I suspect because they didn't have luck with it themselves. One teacher asked the class what each of us were planning on doing once we graduated, and when I said free-lancing, he discouraged me in front of everyone and told me it was impossible to make a living at free-lancing. That just motivated me more, though.

How did you develop your niche in gardening?
During the last 2 years I was in college and once I got out, I free-lanced about anything I could get an assignment for. In that respect, I paid my dues for about 5 years. At the back of my mind, however, I yearned to write about gardening. An editor who I had written for at a metrolifestyle publication moved to the former Home Design section of the LATimes in 1990 and encouraged me to give her some ideas. I eventually wrote a story every week for the section, and I absolutely loved it. During that time period I also took a 6-month intensive Master Gardener course offered through the University of California Cooperative Extension and became aMaster Gardener in 1998. Master Gardeners volunteer in the community and spread the word about gardening. I also wrote my first gardening book in1994 and self-published it. It's a regional book on growing strawberries in Southern California. I've sold close to 5,000 copies and am still selling it 14 years later. In 1997 I began writing the houseplant column,The Gardener Within for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I published my second book through a publisher, which is on houseplants, in 2002.

How did you come up with the idea for your latest book? Do you think the current green movement had anything to do with helping it sell?
I came up with the idea for my latest book when I was writing The Gardener Within for the San Francisco Chronicle. When I initially began writing the column, I was required to interview area "experts" on houseplants. (I eventually became more of an expert than anyone I talked to, but at first the columns were interview-based). At the time, organic gardening outdoors was in full-swing, and it occured to me that gardening organically indoors would be a good idea as well. When I asked my "expert" sources about this,however, they all said, "Definitely not! You wouldn't want to do that sort of thing indoors." The way they said it, it sounded like they thought Iwanted to shovel horse manure in my living room, or squirt fish emulsion all over my furniture. Their answer didn't ring true to me, though. How is it, I thought, that we are eating organic produce, using natural beauty care products, and cleaning our indoor air, yet using toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the houseplants in our home? For health reasons I began to garden indoors organically, and I was astounded with the results. My houseplants began to grow bigger and more beautiful than I'dever seen them. Plants that previously hadn't flowered or fruited did so. I knew I was onto something important. I actually sold the book right before the green movement hit it big. It took about 3 years to sell, which was discouraging during the process, but turned out to be a better thing in the end, because it was released at thebeginning of this year when the green movement really hit it big.

How did you find your agent/publisher? Tell us about your relationship with them.
My agent actually found me through ASJA. She was looking for a garden writer for a potential garden book for a publisher and looked me up on theASJA site. We got to talking and really hit it off. The potential book didn't end up going through, but I told her about my idea for IndoorGardening the Organic Way, and she liked it, so I wrote up the proposal and she began to shop it around. It almost sold a couple of times, but fell through. She didn't give up on it, however, which I'm really grateful for, and she finally sold it. Once the book sold, she decided to go back to editing, which she'd done before she was an agent. She's still agenting me on the book, but I'm now in the market for a new agent for future works.

What do you find the most challenging about the book publishing process?
It is such a long, long process. With Indoor Gardening the Organic Way, there was a 5 or 6 year span between coming up with the idea and itactually becoming a reality as a book. You get an advance on your royalties, which also takes time to get, and then it takes time to earn out the advance so that you can eventually--hopefully--get some royalties out of all your hard work. Patience is key, but feeling impatient is so common when all you want to do is write, be read and get paid.

What do you think is the most important thing for a writer trying to develop a niche to do?
Write for any publication you can (as long as you get paid) about your particular niche. And get training in the area if possible--even if it's a few classes. If you can work in the area, or have worked in the area, even better.

What's next for you?
My goal is to be known as the houseplant expert. Besides writing about gardening in general, I will continue to write books and articles on houseplants, as well as speak on the topic, and I am working on writing a syndicated column on the subject. My next book will deal with houseplants.You can learn all about houseplants and buy autographed copies of my books at http://www.healthyhouseplants.com/.


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