Content story: Indoor gardening in Washington D.C
by Richard Mooney, Storyteller and Content Analyst at StoriesinContent.
Gardening has long been a favoured past time of people all across the world. The fresh air, exercise, care and nurturing plants (young and old) speaks to the nature of people. But what about those of us who live in a city? Can these individuals have the same experience?
One freelance science writer says YES they can.
Kenneth Moore, founder of blog The Indoor Garden(er), writes about gardening indoors in Washington D.C. He’s quirky, scientifically minded and a hell of a writer. He’s lived all over the states and even worked in Saudi Arabia (where we met last year). He’s written for Nature, the American Chemical Society and was a Science editor at my former employer King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
His mission? To make a difference one seed at a time.
Enter The Indoor Garden(er), Kenneth Moore
Gardening has always been a passion of mine. I harvested my first cucumber at the ripe age of 4-years-old, grown in a small planter box on our adjoining townhouse’s patio, and had a penchant for bringing home new plants from the woods or leaves to press into my tree sample book.
Throughout high school and university, I got my fix taking plant physiology courses and doing lab research on hydrocarbon phytoremediation and transgenic tomato crops. After graduating from university and situating myself in Washington DC, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I didn’t need to be doing research or have a yard to start gardening. I read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” on an airplane in 2009, right after New Year’s—nights later, I started my first indoor vegetable garden on my windowsill, and The Indoor Garden(er) was created to record my adventures.
I’ve always been a writer—random story leads in a notebook, handwritten letters to friends, even something of a blog for friends and family while I lived abroad going to school. I worked as an editor for a newsmagazine before starting The Indoor Garden(er)—but as an editor, in order to write for the magazine, I had to sacrifice my nights and weekends outside of work hours. I found writing about gardening to be a more enjoyable and rewarding outlet because of my inherent interest in the topic. But as I continued writing for the blog, the content expanded well beyond my towering 9-foot-tall tomato beasts in the living room.
Through reading other garden blogs and related websites, my background in agriculture, botany, and gardening increased and occasionally intersected with my professional career—I have written articles about chemical control ofPhytophthora infestans (late blight), nanofertilizers, archaeogenomic analysis of cotton, and natural dyes for various print and web publications. So The Indoor Garden(er) has developed into something more than a personal log of a gardening experiment, it’s become a vehicle for self-education and professional development.
Five things learned from blogging
- Don’t trust plant tags. No matter how reputable the nursery you bought the plant from or the friend who gave it to you, do a quick Google search to make certain you have the correct plant name. There’s nothing more embarrassing to a science-trained journalist than to post a plant ID that’s just plain wrong and could have easily been correctly identified. There’s transferable wisdom there for anyone who writes, or talks, or communicates in any fashion!
- Expect nothing. Because I fashioned The Indoor Garden(er) into a personal, experience-based blog, I don’t have an agenda, a marketing goal, or anything of the sort. It’s just a place where I can share gardening goings-on with the world and where others might learn a few things. I don’t expect comments, I don’t expect tons of traffic, and I don’t expect to become a well-known blogger. With that mindset, it’s thrilling whenever someone chooses to engage me in a comment about a photo I post, to share with me their experience with a gardening technique I’ve tried, or even to e-mail me just to say that they’re a quiet reader who enjoys reading my blog.
- Vacations are important. Just like employment, relationships, and everything else in life, you might start feeling like your blog writing is in a rut or you’re tired with the formulaic posts. It’s important to post on a regular basis—some people are more rigid than others in their post schedules and themed days, but I try to post at least a few times each week, and no more than once per day. But after a while, you need to step back, take a break, and reassess. During your vacation, what do you think about wanting to post? What topics or personal adventures are still worth posting after your break? Those are the types of posts that appear after my breaks (which are frequent and unannounced), because that’s what I’m really passionate about at that moment. A personal blog without passion is often not well-written and infrequently updated—it’s hard to write about things that you don’t care much about. My passion shifts every once in a while, so breaks are a great way to reassess what I’d like to be writing.
- Folks love how-tos. A lot of bloggers feature finished products that they knit, can, grow, cook, paint, what-have-you. But readers greatly appreciate an overall picture of how something’s done. Emphasis on the word “picture.”
- It’s okay to be a real person. Even though I write a personal, experience-based blog focused on gardening, I initially attempted to keep all reference of who I was and what I did (beyond gardening) out of the equation. I wanted the blog to be strictly about the plants. But blogs aren’t personal diaries—they’re public. Sometimes, it’s okay to share a bit about yourself beyond random photos or musings about plants. I went through a period of posting a bunch of recipes—I had to force myself to intersperse the recipes and food photos with posts about plants, so I could justify to myself the blog’s name. After a year or so of that, I shared my progress on Weight Watchers and how eating so many fresh-prepared meals with local produce helped me lose as much as I had. The content may not be completely related, but readers usually have diverse interests, and it’s not verboten to slip in a little hint of personality here and there.
Dealing with difficult situations
My biggest challenge with The Indoor Garden(er), besides attempting for weeks but failing to design my own Blogger template, actually arose not from my posts but from the social network of garden and food bloggers in DC. I met a few of them a couple of times back in 2009 and 2010—and out of those meetings arose DC State Fair. Helping run that organization has been a real challenge for various reasons, not least of which was the summer I spent working in Saudi Arabia while I was the Fair’s President. Being half a world away really hampers coordinating a community-based organization.
Now that I’m back in DC, the Fair is eating yet more of my time, which I should be using to find a full-time position somewhere. Somehow, however, I manage to continue blogging on The Indoor Garden(er). But as I mention above, I spent some time to reassess the blog and its content earlier this year and quickly realized that I wouldn’t have much time to blog on a continual basis. So the majority of my posts in 2012 are snapshots of interesting plant events and photo adventures of gardens, parks, nurseries, and my community garden plots. Being adaptable to remain consistent is key to address such potential setbacks—and finding enough time to blog is usually the most frequent challenge I face.
Most controversial subject
I was about to type “I don’t have much controversy on my blog,” but then I remembered two posts: One was a post where I shared photos of critters that had tagged along with plants I had just purchased. That post was titled “Unplanned Parenthood.” Over the years, that’s a pretty consistent search term that lands people on my blog. Another controversial topic was a book review I signed up to write on a virtual “book tour.”
It was my first-ever for-real book review, and I should have known better than to actually write what I thought about it. There wasn’t any real fallout from the scathing, rambling, perhaps even angry words I wrote about the book—but I don’t like that it’s something I chose to post. It’s one of the only negative-toned posts in the 500+ I’ve written. And I’ve learned my lesson: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
No content strategy, just write!!
I started The Indoor Garden(er) in February of 2009, so I’m going on 3.5 years and 500 posts, each written by yours truly despite many and frequent advances by marketing and product advertising firms.
I have no content strategy whatsoever—I really just write for the hell of it!
I discovered Twitter during an annual staff meeting training session in 2010, and my following has grown slightly since then—but I have many more Twitter followers than I do blog followers. That is, perhaps, in part because I feel as though the blog requires some effort, some research, whereas I can just rapid-fire Tweet a bunch of comments or pretty pictures from a trip on Twitter.
The only maintenance challenge I have is organizing all the photographs I take. Without the blog and associated Twitter account, I would probably take zero photos throughout my daily life. But because I’m always on the search for interesting sights to photograph and share on my blog, I might take dozens or hundreds of photos in a single day, and usually on my iPhone for its convenience.
And I certainly don’t get paid for The Indoor Garden(er)—there are no ads, no paid content, no intentional marketing. Anytime I mention an organization, nursery, company, or other group, it’s because of personal interest or connection. I feel it’s important for a blog that builds itself around personal experience to maintain a distance from marketing messages. I want any reader who comes by my blog to know that every word s/he reads on The Indoor Garden(er) is as honest and personal as I can make it.
More than a hobby
I think The Indoor Garden(er) became a full-blown hobby about the time I got business cards printed up to give to people I met who were interested in gardening or blogging. There’s a subtle difference between telling people you’re a blogger and feeling like you need to have cards to hand out declaring yourself as a blogger. It’s more than a hobby—it’s an identity.
Blogging has opened up so many opportunities for me, personally and professionally—I’ve pitched potential blog posts to publications, and they turned into full-fledged (paid!) news stories. I’ve “met” folks who later helped develop an annual showcase of the homegrown talents of the residents of the United States capitol city. I’ve been contacted by folks who wanted to trade plants. And I’ve learned more by reading others’ blogs and comments than I could have by just trial and error (and Google) on my own.
If you want to blog, or even write in general, find your passion, and keep developing it. Having that excitement about your subject helps develop your personal voice and style in writing—and for a blog, in particular, it helps focus the purpose and content for yourself and the readers.
And if you want to garden, well—get your hands dirty. The best way to learn how to grow plants is first to kill them, and try again.