Garden writers convene in the desert for Tucson GWA Symposium


A few short years ago I didn’t think of myself as a garden writer. I was a garden blogger, plain and simple. But then I started getting offered, and learned to pursue, paid writing assignments, and now I have a book coming out, a fact that still amazes me. And yet I still most strongly self-identify as a blogger—a realization brought home to me last week at my first Garden Writers Association (GWA) conference, where I was asked again and again by fellow attendees what it is I do. Invariably, I gave a meandering version of this reply: “Well, I write a garden blog called Digging. And I’ve written for print here and there. I’m a garden designer. I publish photos from time to time too. Oh! And I’m about to have my first book published.” Um, yeah. I need to work on my elevator introduction.

Saguaro-shaped cookie in my Tucson hotel room

I feel a fierce loyalty to my blog. Maybe it’s because everything that I’m privileged to do now, and get paid for—writing, design, photography—has sprung from this well. Or maybe it’s because Digging is my home place, where I can kick off my shoes and be as comfortable as I want, without the demands of editor or client, as much as I enjoy those creative challenges.

Nevertheless, I decided to explore the larger garden-writing world this year by attending the annual GWA symposium, which was held at a beautiful resort hotel in Tucson, Arizona. I experienced several firsts: networking with hundreds of garden writers, editors, publishers, publicists, and vendors; listening and learning in talks about everything from making videos to becoming a better speaker to successfully pitching a story idea to the love of place felt by a skinny, singing, storytelling desert rat named Petey Mesquitey; and visiting the Sonoran Desert for the first time.


Did you know it takes 75 years before a saguaro cactus starts to grow an “arm”? These big guys are old-timers, and they are so easy to anthropomorphize. This is the view from my hotel room. You may be wondering about all that green grass. My room overlooked the golf course.


The rosy Catalina Mountains greeted me every morning at breakfast and every cool, desert evening on the hotel terrace.


The hotel, the Westin La Paloma, was lovely, but I didn’t find much time to lounge around the pool.


Instead we were constantly on the go, meeting people, attending presentations, and visiting gardens. Here’s my traveling companion and good friend Diana Kirby at the Tucson Botanical Garden, camera at the ready, trying to stay warm in the chill of morning. (I loved those cool mornings.)


Oh, don’t worry, we had plenty of fun too. Here’s Diana working her magic with the aid of a crystal ball. You have to use your imagination.


Garden Designers Roundtable members Andrew Keys, Laura Schaub, David Cristiani, Rebecca Sweet, Jenny Peterson, Susan Morrison, and me

Like most things, GWA is really all about the people you meet. I tried to meet as many new people as I could but know there were many I missed. I was thrilled, however, to finally meet Tucson author and designer Scott Calhoun, whose books I’ve long enjoyed, and Facebook friends and GDRT colleagues Susan Morrison, Rebecca Sweet, Andrew Keys, and Laura Schaub. Once I realized how many Garden Designers Roundtable members were at the conference, I knew we needed a group photo. After garden tours one afternoon, I herded our group together for a quick photo op. A passing GWA attendee graciously took our picture, getting a great shot in just one take. Whoever you are, thanks! And thanks also to the organizers of the Tucson symposium. I learned a lot and am still awed by the majesty and forbidding beauty of the desert.

More posts about garden tours at GWA Tucson coming soon, starting with the art-filled garden of Alan Richards.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

13 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I bet this was a lively group. It is good for the writers soul to be around people of the same mind. I am happy for you. I am also happy that you continue your blog. I would sure miss you.

    Lisa, I would miss you too! Thanks for your sweet comment. I’m glad to know you, and I have this blog to thank for that too. —Pam

  2. What a lovely recap, Pam! One of the highlights of the trip was finally getting to meet you in person, and now I even have that fantastic photo above to prove it! You are a writer, indeed, and a talented one at that. Three cheers for your new book, too!

    Rebecca, thank you for all your help in making that book a reality—for your advice and the beautiful photos you shared. I’m so glad to have finally met you! —Pam

  3. Laura says:

    Sound like that was A LOT of fun. You can’t go wrong when you’re around other people who enjoy the same kinds of things you do–gardening & writing. I look forward to seeing additional posts about the garden tours there.

    I’ll have ‘em up in a few days, Laura. Stay tuned! —Pam

  4. Alison says:

    Oh, looking forward to reading more about your attendance at the GWA meeting, especially the garden tours. You totally deserve all the good things that have come to you from your blog writing. I’m glad to hear you still have such an affection for your blog, and probably won’t be abandoning it any time soon. Tucson and the area around it look beautiful.

    Thanks so much, Alison. Tucson was ruggedly beautiful all right. I can’t wait to get a few garden posts up later this week. —Pam

  5. jenny says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed your desert visit. It looks like she put on a pretty good show for you with those wonderful desert mornings. Perfect time of year to visit. You are all those things that you write about and more Pam. I will never forget meeting you on that garden visit several years ago. You brought a new hobby into my life, that of garden blogging and all the wonderful things it brings with it. I know you will enjoy more wonderful successes in the years to come. You will deserve them all.

    Jenny, you are so kind. Thanks, my friend. I’m so very glad to have met you on that garden tour as well. You are a continuing source of inspiration to me. —Pam

  6. Looks like you had a great time, in a beautiful place.

    We just came through there a few weeks ago, on our way back from California. There’s something that really grabs you about those desert mornings and sunsets.

    Looking forward to the garden reports, too.

    The early morning and twilight are my favorite times of day in the desert. Maybe that’s true for everyone, as the midday can be so harsh. That’s what I felt in Big Bend too. —Pam

  7. Wonderful post! I know what you mean about having a hard time explaining what you do. I most strongly self-identify as a landscape designer, and find myself verbally stumbling around when I try to explain the rest of the hats I wear.

    And I know who the photographer is! Virgina Hand, on Facebook as Virginia Hand Design.

    I need to get so much better at the short introduction, Susan. I could see people’s eyes glazing over as I gave my fumbling reply! I’m so glad to have met you in person on this trip. And thanks for the photographer’s name! I’ll have to shoot her a thank-you. —Pam

  8. I loved reading this post Pam, and completely understand your fumbling for a quick and easy answer for the “what you do” question. Sometimes I find myself still saying that I’m “unemployed” even when I’m busier than ever and involved in a few different enterprises. None of them the usual 9-5.

    I look forward to the rest of your posts about the Tucson GWA conference. I would have loved to have been there.

    You would have loved it, Loree—dangerous plants as far as the eye could see! I look forward to your guest post on the topic of Dangerous Gardens with Garden Designers Roundtable on Tuesday. —Pam

  9. peter schaar says:

    Great photos, Pam, and great account in a short summary. Isn’t the Tucson Botanical Garden wonderful?

    Yes, it really was. I’d signed up for 6 a.m. photo shoot there, and we got to enjoy its beauty as the sun rose. There’s nothing like early morning light filtered through fuzzy cactus spines. —Pam

  10. Regretfully I had to miss this symposium, but I am enjoying reading about it. That is a really terrific photo–I wonder if you could use it for the header of the Designer’s Roundtable website or even as a Facebook cover photo.

    If only all of the Roundtablers were in it, it would be perfect for a header photo. I do need to share it with the FB group—good suggestion. —Pam

  11. Very cool – not sure how I missed this post. That was a fun and certainly interesting trip, running into you all in various events or activities…too bad it was only 1/4 of my trip!

    It was so nice to spend time with you again, David, this time a little closer to your home turf, or so I imagine. —Pam

  12. Katie E-P says:

    Love the photos! So sad I missed it! Thank you for sharing, Pam!

    It’s my pleasure, Katie. Thanks for stopping by. —Pam

  13. i too empathize with the “so, what do you do” question… i’ve found that many of the gwa attendees wear many hats – partly out of necessity, but primarily because they’re passionate about so many things. as a blogger/writer/photographer/designer you’ve communicated many of your passions to the gardening world and folks are taking note! yay for you pam, keep up the good work!

    Thanks, Andrea. :-) —Pam