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Summer 2000

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Cultivator: Gardening editor goes beyond weeding and writing

by Sue Rosenburg

Tom Cooper ’76 does a little editing to the vegetable plot of his large garden.

     Multimedia and collage artists do it, and so do the management experts who reorganize troubled businesses. Imagining the meaning and value in a jumble of ingredients, they invest in a long process to manufacture order and elegance. Magazine editor and gardener Thomas Cooper ’76 does it too. Season by season, he patiently arranges countless details into a handsome composite—both his Horticulture magazine and his backyard garden are orderly yet casual, energetic and even inspiring, but easy to be around. (Come to think of it, so is he.)

     An English major at Skidmore, Cooper got his feet wet in journalism with the Bennington Banner and with Country Journal and Fly Fisherman magazines. He joined the venerable Boston-based Horticulture as associate editor in 1977 and in three years worked his way to the top. First published in 1904, Horticulture was the organ of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society until 1981. But a hotly competitive publishing climate in a media-saturated society was driving small independent magazines to extinction. Horticulture was sold to a consortium including the New Yorker, then bought by investors in a risky leveraged buyout (“that was a time of great stress around here,” recalls Cooper), and finally picked up in 1996 by Primedia, publisher of some 200 special-interest magazines.

     As editor, Cooper also oversees the budgeting and business ends of the enterprise, and he’s watched the competition intensify. “Perhaps five years ago, there were three or four major gardening magazines,” he says, “and nowadays there are probably 12 to 20. The few old stalwarts —Horticulture, Organic Gardening, Flower and Garden—have been swamped.” At the same time, “readers have so many other opportunities, through x-gazillion Web sites, video disks, television shows . . . .” But Horticulture seems to be holding its own. Long acclaimed for its excellent writing, fine photography, and down-to-earth practicality, “it remains at the high end of serious gardening magazines,” Cooper says. Market research tells him that “Horticulture readers want to read, want to garden, are educated, have high incomes, and own land.” They’re also diverse and far-flung, as the popularity of gardening has skyrocketed across America. To keep them all hooked, Cooper has instituted a major redesign, new sections focusing on various regions of the country, special annual supplements on such topics as garden design and water gardening, and a comprehensive Web site (

     “As the Web becomes more a part of life,” Cooper reflects, “our thinking is that Horticulture is not a magazine; it’s a gardening information source, with the magazine as its core product. I believe people still prefer a printed piece they can read in bed or tear a page from to take to the nursery, but the Web may help keep readers coming back with plant ordering, new promotions, and updates.” One thing he’s sure of: “Horticulture’s personality and commitment to intelligent, in-depth writing will have staying power.”

     Outside the office, Cooper and several of his staff and freelancers —from TV’s Victory Garden host Roger Swain to British gardening guru Christopher Lloyd—give talks to horticultural societies and garden clubs and lead tours in the U.S. and abroad. In June, just returned from guiding a tour of gardens in England and France, Cooper was headed for Oregon to lecture about choosing plants for midsummer bloom. Between trips, he’s an active member of the board of the historic Mt. Auburn Cemetery, a distinguished national landmark-cum-arboretum. The author of Odd Lots, a collection of his editor’s columns from Horticulture, he has also been working on a new book about his gardening experiences.

In early spring, “a lumpy, stubble-strewn expanse, the unshaven cheek of a disheveled season,” [soon reveals] “lime-green spears of lilies . . . the ruby-colored snouts of peonies, and the tight knuckles of ferns.”

—Thomas C. Cooper, Odd Lots, 1995


     No wonder he’s busy checking e-mail, filling his briefcase with printouts and messages to handle from home, scheduling meetings by carphone, and stopping colleagues for a quick confab in the hallway. Those multitasking skills must also be his secret to handling all the digging, mowing, weeding, pruning, watering, staking, and mulching in his large garden in Watertown, Mass.

     As a child, the only gardening Cooper remembers was “pretty much forced labor—mowing lawns, shelling peas.” But when he began work at Horticulture, he says, “I was surrounded with the finest resources, so I’ve been learning by osmosis at a great rate.” And it shows. Long, wide borders, nearly weedless and neatly edged, bulge with old English and rugosa roses; masses of perennial geraniums, ajuga, and lady’s mantle; canna lilies and smaller annuals; buddleias, hydrangeas, and other flowering shrubs; a Chinese dogwood holding a bustling birdfeeder and a witch hazel with a clematis twining up its branches; a big bold Scotch thistle and some gigantic hostas; and a rich, textured tapestry of other bedding and specimen plants. Elsewhere, a pear tree is espaliered on a wall, a mighty pergola of black locust poles supports several kinds of grapes, a deck is surrounded by tall sunflowers, stairs are flanked by big clay pots of flowering and foliage plants, a vegetable patch is set off by a hedge of yews, and other areas are demarcated by boxwood hedges. In the middle, a concession to the Cooper children’s love of soccer, is an expanse of plush lawn, although dad slyly confesses he’s plotting to encroach on it by widening his flower beds imperceptibly each year.

     The whole garden was started from scratch 10 years ago, when Cooper dug all the beds and installed new lawn, often battling the roots of huge Norway and silver maples. And his energy hasn’t flagged since. Each year he plants a variety of spring bulbs, but as soon as they finish blooming he digs them up, discards them, and replaces them with annuals. Of a fence hedged simply with arborvitae and daylilies, he apologizes, “I just got tired,” but then adds brightly, “I’m gradually adding bulbs and other things in between.” And in his front yard—dominated by several impressive shrubs and looking just fine as is—he talks of “ripping out the lawn and making a winter garden, with a stone path and different kinds of crocus and other early bulbs . . . .”

     Gardening, he’s quick to acknowledge, “is addictive.” Lucky for him it’s also “fortifying,” as he has written in Odd Lots, where he reflects on the “simple and satisfying rhythm” of mowing, and the “satisfying symmetry” of composting dead plants and mulching live ones, and the “pleasures, sometimes small but still rewarding, to be gained in the process” of slow, detailed chores.

     With his passion for process and his taste for an attractive, well-thought-out product whether in plants or in print, Cooper seems a prize specimen—amazingly hardy, ever-blooming, and positively wilt-proof.

Scope editor Sue Rosenberg is an avid backyard gardener in Saratoga Springs.


© 2000 Skidmore College