Western Canada’s only gardening annual turns 75

The Prairie Garden remains the go-to resource for learning to be better gardeners in a short-season climate

It may be -25 C outside but gardens are already growing — at least in gardeners’ minds.

Early January is time to plan, if not plant, and gardeners on the Prairies spend this time thumbing through The Prairie Garden, learning how to become a better gardener for the short growing season ahead.

The 2014 release of the digest-sized, softcover book, billed as Western Canada’s only gardening annual, marks its 75th year in print.

It’s a major milestone, given this is a non-profit publication, written by unpaid contributors and assembled by volunteers. Those volunteers make up a committee of about a dozen people with a wide range of horticultural expertise — and they’ve been at it literally decades too.

What keeps it all going is that gardeners’ habit of sharing what they know.

“Gardeners always seem to be willing to share information,” says Roger Brown, now retired from his job as superintendent of government grounds for the Province of Manitoba. “They’ll really go out of their way to share information. I really think that’s what’s kept it going.”

Name change

The Prairie Garden’s origin dates to 1937 when volunteers with what was then the Winnipeg Horticultural Society created The Winnipeg Flower Garden, which carried articles written by prominent horticulturalists and was included in the society’s annual report. It was so widely read, they dropped the “Winnipeg” part of the name in 1955, and gave it its present-day name two years later.

Some things have changed in 75 years — others stay the same.

Present-day editor Richard Denesiuk works with The Prairie Garden committee and its contributing writers. He designs the 180-page document on computer, but he’s heard about the days when handwritten submissions were mailed, and the book put together on living room floors using the old “cut and paste” method.

“And they used something called a typewriter,” he joked during the launch in Winnipeg of the 2014 edition.

Colour pictures began to appear in the 1960s. In the 1970s the committee began building content around an annual chosen theme. The practice of hiring a guest editor began in 1987.

What’s unchanged is the passion for putting out a great book. It still takes many volunteer hours, invested by those devoted to the original purpose of The Prairie Garden — to advance horticulture in Western Canada.

“The book,” as committee members often call it, caught on because there wasn’t anything like it. It’s remained popular because, despite the proliferation of glossy gardening magazines, few are focused singularly on the unique challenges of a western Canadian climate.

Retired provincial Department of Agriculture home economist Fran Wershler served as editor for a dozen years beginning in 1989 and has put in a long stint on the committee as well.

A few years ago they did ask if they should continue, she said. “It was at a point where we realized all these new gardening magazines were coming in, and lots of books being written too.”

But they haven’t focused to the extent The Prairie Garden has on the unique conditions of Western Canada.

“The reason it started was because it’s a specific kind of gardening here on the Prairies, and magazines coming out from other places don’t necessarily touch on it, or they aren’t geared to our gardeners here,” says Wershler.

“The object of those early articles was to look at what we do best on the Prairies, and how to make things work here.”

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Diverse readers and writers

That remains the purpose of the book. What’s found among its 180 pages is a wide range of topics, written by a diverse group of writers and always with a Prairie perspective.

This year botanists, beekeepers, home gardeners, research scientists and others have once again contributed to a wide number of subjects, from gardening with children to dealing with downy mildew in impatiens. There are articles on rooftop gardens, bird farms, backyard bees, and growing micro-greens. There’s even one on gardening in winter — with houseplants.

They work hard to make the content easy to read and accessible to a wide audience, says Brown, who says the quality of the information also contributes to the book’s longevity.

“Over the years we’ve always tried to write the articles so that they’d be easy to understand by everybody and interesting to read,” he says. They try to balance that with providing technical information too. Plus, they try to keep new readers’ needs in mind.

“We’ve come back to basics a few times,” he says. “It’s come at meetings where we’ve said, ‘Maybe we need the article here and there on basic gardening, because there’s new readers and younger people who are buying it.’”

The book doesn’t rely on advertising, The Prairie Garden’s loyal subscribers pay the printing bill. Many have been with the publication for decades.

Around 7,000 copies were printed at the height of its popularity. Today around 4,000 are printed each year, and usually a few back issues remain for sale. A collection is now a timeless resource with content generally as solid and informative today as it was decades ago.

Trends look good for The Prairie Garden remaining a long keeper, with interest in gardening showing no signs of waning, and many young people just starting to get their fingernails dirty.

Already planning the 2015 edition, The Prairie Garden’s volunteers remain committed as ever to producing a good book, and along those lines they think like farmers; the best one yet is next year’s.

For more information, to purchase a 2014 edition or order back copies of previous editions please contact:

The Prairie Garden
Box 517 Winnipeg, Man. R3C 2J3
Phone: (204) 489-3466 Fax: (204) 489-1644
Email: [email protected]

You can read more about The Prairie Garden on their website.

The Prairie Garden is also made available at special quantity prices to horticultural societies and garden clubs. Contact your local horticultural group for more details.

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