Garden journal Hortus marks 25 years


Hortus cover (Hortus)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist January 25, 2012

A curious throwback to the analog age landed in my mailbox the other day. Hortus, a journal of garden writing, is the size of a slim paperback but printed on heavy, ivory colored stock and illustrated with line drawings and wood engravings.

Almost everything about the quarterly periodical is wonderfully old-fashioned: It produces tactile and aesthetic pleasures once taken for granted and now made acute by their rarity. Savoring it is akin to playing a vinyl record, its purpose now entwined with the ritual of handling it.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

Flop in a soft chair, thumb the pages and ponder that Hortus doesn’t exist in some electronic ether and that the only “cloud” this baby has gone through is a real one, in the mailbag of an airplane.

When David Wheeler started Hortus 25 years ago, he was an out-of-work newspaper guy in his 30s with a beginner’s blithe nerve to ask the lions of English garden writing to contribute to his first issue. They agreed, not for the modest fees but because they found an outlet to compose the sort of garden essays that wouldn’t fit other publications. This was at the threshold of the digital revolution, and even then the periodical was an anachronism.

The typeface (Wheeler abandoned hot metal type just six years ago) is from the 1930s and itself based on a font used for Dutch garden books in the 17th century. His model was the kind of quality travel journal found between the world wars.

“I went to see an accountant and he said, ‘Well, you’ll get a damn good year out of it.’ But I said it’s a subscription-only publication, and I can stop the moment the well dries up.”

Luckily the water still flows. Hortus has survived a generation not because it is quaint but because it delivers for its subscribers. On its face, it may seem odd to publish a periodical of words about a subject that is primarily visual. But there is a natural affinity between gardening and the written (or spoken) word, and it all comes down to storytelling. A garden is a narrative waiting to be told. If you sit around a table of gardeners, you see that there is nothing more animated than a gardener describing a newly discovered plant or garden.

Wheeler has a motto that Hortus “is for gardeners who read and readers who garden.” Twenty-five years on, the subscription list runs to a modest 2,000 readers in 30 countries, making it its own little worldwide web from its base in western England.

The current issue, No. 100, echoes No. 1 by including several of the original luminary scribes: Jane Brown, Stephen Lacey, John Brookes and Penelope Hobhouse. Hobhouse, now a retired garden designer, writes of working for — and with — a certain design-driven client in Palo Alto, Calif. Steve Jobs “believed that a simple solution was the best inside an overall unity of purpose. When I talked to him about his garden he could translate these hypotheses into landscape terms. . . . Above all, solutions should be logical.”

It is one of 20 articles, to be savored in separate sittings.

Wine expert and writer Hugh Johnson recounts a letter from an environmental agency complaining that the bars on his garden cave were vertical. “ ‘You may be unaware that bats prefer horizontal bars.’ I admit,” he writes, “I’d never asked.”

George Orwell was a keen if distracted gardener and, Martin Pilkington writes, saw urban farms as a way to occupy and feed the unemployed. The idea still resonates. Pilkington noted that four years before his death, Orwell recorded his regret at not planting a walnut tree. “Nobody does plant them nowadays — when you see a walnut it is invariably an old tree,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “Nor does anybody plant a quince, a mulberry or a medlar.”

Charles Elliott writes about the 3,200 Japanese cherry trees that came to Washington a century ago, a gift from Japan. Since then, he writes, “they have taken on an almost legendary role, attracting tourists from all over the country and indeed the world.” Can’t argue with that.

The thread, if there is one, is Wheeler’s broad interest in plants, gardens and gardeners — three distinct if not disparate subjects — as well as travel, history and architecture: You get the idea; he’s a curious fellow.

Most of his writers are pros, and some are new and unsolicited voices with something fresh to say, though his readers are spared most of the unbidden articles that cross his kitchen table, among them “awful poems from lonely ladies on the Scottish islands.”

And what of gardening over the past quarter-century? On this side of the pond we have luxuriated in a newfound bounty of plants and ideas, a move away from woody landscapes and toward grasses, perennials and tropicals. There is an awareness, not enough, that gardening is a process, not something that is delivered on a truck. And there is a palpable back-to-the-land movement embraced by gardeners young and old.

In Britain, that youthful interest extends to the decorative as well as the vegetable garden, and Wheeler has seen that phenomenon reflected in his subscription lists. “If I had a subscriber under 40 in 1987, I would have been surprised,” he said. “Now, many are in their 20s and some in their 30s.”

So Hortus soldiers on, reflecting seismic shifts in the world of gardening within its own endearingly fusty form. From the Arts and Crafts house he shares with Simon Dorrell — his partner, landscape artist and also Hortus art director — he has eight acres of gardens to tend while he is putting out No. 101.

Wheeler is not a complete Luddite. He has established a basic Web site where folks can subscribe and get morsels of content: www.hortus.co.uk . The journal is not available online, but he is considering how to meet a growing demand for downloading single articles. “Students may want to have access to them without buying subscriptions,” he said.

Subscriptions are about $75 a year, which includes airmail postage.

Wheeler also writes for newspapers and other periodicals to supplement his income.

He tells his friends that Hortus “pays for the tonic, but not the gin.”

Tip of the week

Mild winter days are the best time to prune deciduous trees while they are dormant and before sap rises. Use loppers or a hand saw to remove branches that are diseased, dead or rubbing. Cut to leave a collar where the removed branch joins the trunk.

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