“The Hosta Journal”: The Crown Jewel

 

 The AHS has changed dramatically over the past twenty years in response to what is little less than a national craze for hostas. What had once been a yearly family gathering of a niche-group plant society of about a hundred aficionados, evolved into a highly organized cross-section of gardeners with a nation wide network.

 The initial periodic publications (called bulletins) were bits of hosta lore, a couple of serious current hosta "discoveries", and gossip about individual members. Even before the explosion of membership, the Bulletin had changed. Warren Pollock, an indefatigable new comer with an evangelist's zeal had been named permanent editor. He personally upgraded its appearance and regularity--and eventually its content as well. He even changed the name of the publication to THE JOURNAL. But it was his addition of high quality color photos that brought the most dramatic change. This probably did more to create respect for the AHS, and interest in its activities, than any other single act. Prior to this, the Bulletin was a rather pedestrian flier with a few articles of limited interest, and poorly reproduced B&W pictures. Color pictures changed everything. However, these photos did represent a considerable expense for the society, as well as a bold step for a group with only a few hundred members. It was a not an easy task for Warren to sell the AHS Board on the idea. But he did. Overnight THE JOURNAL (as it was now called) became one of the most impressive specialty gardening publications--it belied the small size of the membership.

  The initial photos weren't always first rate. Warren had to rely on a band of eccentric gardeners (who thankfully remain just as lovable and  eccentric today) to take the pictures--people who posed no great threat to Ansel Adams and weren't accustomed to publication deadlines. Consequently Warren and his wife, Ali, were forced to take the majority of them.

    There were other photo problems too. In the rush to show examples of the various cultivars, especially the newer ones, photos were often taken of immature plants under adverse conditions. Back in 1986 I was a relatively new AHS member (and lovably eccentric). With these credentials in hand, I called Warren complaining that I had better pictures of the plants in my back yard than he was putting in this premier publication. And I, of course, would be happy to send him some. Crafty Warren told me of the new "POLICY" wherein THE JOURNAL would only use pictures submitted by authors to illustrate their own articles. I told Warren that this would virtually guarantee that he would get lousy pictures--he wasn't likely to find many good writers who were also good photographers. Of course he retorted that he would welcome an article from me together with my photos. To this day I am not at all certain there ever was any such policy. I rather suspect that it was a sly ploy to get people to write things for THE JOURNAL.

   Well, he had me buffaloed. Not knowing anything about hostas I deemed worthy of sharing, and having an impending due date, I wrote about my own yard. I had noticed lately that it looked more like a "stamp collection" of perfectly labeled and organized hostas, and less and less like a real garden. Ultimately I prevailed upon an interior designer friend to help save it from my Teutonic tendencies. Warren published the article--along with the pictures.

  Using wily ploys like this, the canny Warren Pollock got articles not only from pedestrian writers like me, but from truly learned gardeners and hybridizers. The quality and content of the writing improved as the mix became richer. Fortunately he never did limit the color photos to those submitted by authors.

   Warren constantly battled with the Board of Directors over the cost of THE JOURNAL, but time and again Warren (with his color photos) won the day. And to this very day, everyone looks at the pictures first ...and the minutes from the business meeting last.

  After Warren's tenure, there was a short-lived period of chaos where one issue was turned out by John Mason Allgood, who was basically a daylily man but one who knew how to create a magazine. He lent his expertise while a permanent editor was sought.

  Soon after the 1988 AHS convention in Jackson, Michigan co-editors were named: Bob Solberg and Carolyn Rushton. They contributed their considerable skills to what was becoming the centerpiece of the American Hosta Society. And I firmly believe to this day that the average member is far more affected by what The Journal editor may do, than by any action the AHS President or Board may take. Among other things Bob and Carolyn moved the publishing operation to Iowa where it could be closely overseen. Bob, from North Carolina, is of course one of the pillars of the hosta world now, but he was just a rising star then. He was personable, persuasive, and cajoled newfound writers to send articles and pictures from all over the country. Carolyn Rushton was a home gardener from Iowa City, with an interest in journalism and had actually taken advanced courses in the publication of periodicals. She brought professionalism to the layout and design of THE JOURNAL. Carolyn worked with Linn Litho, a small printing company in a tiny town outside Cedar Rapids, which specialized in calendars. They were very good at doing color pictures. It was also one of the only printing companies that would deal with a "housewife" who wanted to publish a gardening journal. She enlisted the help of Frank Riehl, an Iowa artist and gardener who has a keen eye for color. Frank practically lived at the printing company overseeing the color pictures. He carried on this practice for several years under the stewardship of Clyde Crockett. Frank’s presence was certainly one of the reasons the color photos achieved such a high level of quality. You have only to glance at a Journal from each year during this time of flux to appreciate the evolution of the publication. *

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 *(However, in 1992 when we were trying to find methods of raising additional money to support THE JOURNAL and its wonderful color photos, we investigated producing a calendar using the pictures from past Journals. The society had already paid the preparation for printing, which was the largest single expense. To our surprise, the vast majority of the photographs were still of immature plants. The Journal had continued in its zeal to show the newest hostas. Although they were superb photos, they were not photos of mature four or five year old plants. By now these once-"newest" hostas were no longer new at all. They were in the mainstream, and our pictures of these plants as tiny specimens would do little to sell calendars. It remained for Kevin Walek and his remarkable photo editor Sandie Markland to end this oversight almost ten years later.)

 


When Vic Santa Lucia named Clyde Crockett (a professor of law who had one of the standout gardens at the 1989 AHS Indianapolis Convention) to succeed Bob and Carolyn, Clyde inherited a system that was working well. Linn Litho employed a person who would do the layout as Carolyn had, and Frank oversaw the pictures. Clyde concentrated on enlarging the scope of THE JOURNAL, bringing articles from members in Europe and Asia as well as establishing a small group of writers who regularly wrote on a variety of subjects. Still, Clyde faced the problem that had plagued all the previous editors: getting members to submit high quality photographs to THE JOURNAL. He, too, ended up taking many of the pictures himself. Fortunately Clyde proved a good photographer and with the help of Frank Riehl, the wonderful color pictures continued. However, there were some problems with getting THE JOURNAL published on schedule.

 Linn Litho's prime business was calendars with color photographs, and calendars must be out by late fall. As a result the fall issue of THE JOURNAL was pushed to the back of the line and seldom came out until January. This was the source of a number of complaints from our addicted  membership. In addition, the company was not "computerized." That meant all the articles (most of which were now being generated on computers and mailed on disks) were being retyped and proofed again at Linn Litho --at our expense. The costs were variable and unpredictable. The publication was being done virtually on a cost-plus-a-small-margin basis. Nonetheless, Linn Litho worked so well with Clyde that the business was kept there until he retired as editor. The amazing and dynamic Kevin Walek succeeded him.

   Kevin Walek was an eager and aggressive young hosta buff from Washington, DC, whose star was rapidly rising--but like most young and successful people he championed changes--lots of them. As a result he was controversial. And anytime there is change.....there is also resistance.        

  It was going to be difficult to follow Clyde.

  I was more than a little worried about this when I asked Kevin to be the next editor. I told him I would be a co-editor for the first edition to share (hopefully take the brunt of) the "heat" when it came. To keep costs and production under control, production of THE JOURNAL was moved from Iowa to Minneapolis. There we found (the also amazing) Janet Mills. She is a stay-at-home mom who had experience in small edition desktop publications and was looking for some additional business to conduct from her home. Like Kevin, she is high-energy and very "computerized". They hit it off immediately. Kevin and Janet decided to go digital immediately with everything--color pictures and all. This seemed like an awful lot of radical changes to be making at one time, and I kept telling a very confident (and competent) Janet that this could potentially break us. The first issue under a new editor would be examined very critically--more so if multiple changes were made. If there was the slightest decrease in the quality of the color pictures, or a production snafu were to come about, we would be in deep weeds..... to say the least.  I didn't know if I had enough political capital to persuade the AHS Board to let us try another issue. My lovable eccentric self was seriously worried. 

   All my worry was for naught. Kevin and Janet were a magnificent team from the very first. Kevin is a dynamic guy who can't stand any sort of delays, so they would e-mail articles and edits back and forth a couple times a day, in stark contrast to the snail mail and hard copy system we had been using (Clyde, who is not alone, had never learned to type, and sent handwritten comments and articles to be typed by others).

   Although Janet grows no hostas at all (and wisely has avoided joining the AHS), she has proved nothing short of a genius at layouts and color pictures. A highly skilled amateur photographer, she works for Kevin (rather than the printing company), and personally scans and adjusts the color of each photograph. She puts THE JOURNAL out for competitive bids from several carefully selected (for quality) printing companies. The result is a Journal mailed on schedule, on higher quality paper, and with a better photographic caliber than ever. And, at a lower cost for the whole. Beyond this Janet, an English major who attended Oxford for post graduate studies, does yeoman duty proofing THE JOURNAL articles and ads. Kevin and Janet clearly didn't need me, and after one issue I was bumped from he masthead.

  One might think that this is the culmination of THE JOURNAL, and it may be. There will be a few more refinements, but it is pretty much at the apex of gardening magazines....and will stay there.  Each new editor has made unique contributions and brought change.  And the change has always been for the better. There is a deep and rich pool of talent in the Society and we just begun to tap it.

   There will be changes and possibly dramatic ones; and probably many of us old timers won't care much for the idea of altering something that is working so well. But it is true in life (and in gardening) that you can't "stand pat”. Try as you will, Mother Nature won’t let you. A thing must continue to grow and change or it will wither and die. Already we are seeing the herald of the next communication advance. The internet has allowed the creation of hosta robins......a short cut to the new communities of hosta enthusiasts. A new hosta robin was formed by Clyde where members exchange digitized photos of hostas. Photos that may have been taken just minutes before in the gardens, are being sent to hundreds of other people instantly. Computer wizards like Bob Axmear have emerged and established incredible web pages, even an on-line hosta library with thousands of pictures.  Janet Mills’ husband Jeremy, another computer guru, recently gave me some issues of The Journal on a CD. I can foresee a day when we can send it over the internet with dozens of photographs and without the huge printing costs. (I would favor always maintaining a hardcopy version, but then I didn't want to go "digital" with THE JOURNAL either). One thing is certain, things are going to change and we need to continue to find the people with the talents to keep us at the cutting edge.

  

Bob Olson

St. Louis Park, Minnesota

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