In the Garden of P. Allen Smith, a Media Empire Blooms

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Apr. 12, 2010 12:00 am  

Born in Jacksonville, he grew up on a middle Tennessee farm entranced with the natural world - growing plants, tending livestock, finding fossils and bird skulls. He returned to central Arkansas to be closer to his mother's family when his father, at 37, suffered a fatal embolism following back surgery. Smith credits his mother's side with instilling in him a love of painting, writing and expression.

He graduated from Hendrix College with a degree in botany (and a historiography course shy of a double-major in history, he says) and then embarked to England, where he studied garden design at the University of Manchester. He was knowledgeable and charming enough to impress himself on the local plantelligencia while reaching his certification with as a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society.

"If you can speak plants, you can speak to a pensioner on the train or the Duke of Devonshire," he says. "It's a common passion and a common language." The Lady Elizabeth Ashbook contributed the foreword to Smith's first book, writing of a friendship she forged with this young American student over talk of painting and plants.

When Smith returned to Arkansas in 1986, he began offering informal lectures at his family's nursery. Someone from KARN, 102.9-FM, radio invited him to contribute short educational spots. Those led to 90-second televised spots on KATV, Channel 7, in which he'd explain to the 5 o'clock news audience how to plant tomatoes or fend off hornworms.

In 1993, he incorporated Hortus LTD, his catch-all media shop that soon was syndicating the short how-tos nationwide. "We encourage people to put their own personal touch on it," he said. "It's not holy writ. Here are the basic rules: Get out there and knock yourself out." Many of those spots that launched a thousand trowels were shot at a house in Little Rock's historic Quapaw Quarter, in a garden 100 feet by 150 feet. They led to a longstanding gig on the Weather Channel (discontinued for now, he says, since NBC bought it).

As programming directors asked him where his 30-minute show was, he began stacking the short spots into "P. Allen Smith's Garden," now in its 10th season. Soon after, "as a defense against an eroding syndicated market," he says, he launched "P. Allen Smith Garden Home," which in its distribution with American Public Television reaches 97 percent of U.S. televisions each week. Also, twice a month, he appears on NBC's "The Today Show."

Cynthia Fenneman, the president and CEO of American Public Television, attributes Smith's success in part to his ability to appeal both to a neophyte gardener and an expert in the same segment. "He's dominant in the horticultural world," she said, adding that his education and experience don't make him appear "cast" for the role of host.

The gardener, painter and reader is surprised to find himself a TV celebrity. "The television from the beginning remains a vehicle to getting a message out," he says. "I'm an introvert. I have no interest in being on television."

Parlaying the reputation and fame from the boob tube, he began cranking out a "Garden Home" series of books that have sold a quarter-million copies. Out next will be his first cookbook. In the future, he says, the company will branch into more coverage of and about pets. (His cat, Marge, pens a column about pets now, and his terriers, Angel and Lucky, have their own Facebook pages.)

When he built his house in 2005, using sustainable building materials and techniques, he chronicled it for TV. When he builds another, smaller house at the property soon, he'll do the same. Missed the show? If you have a group of at least 40, you can arrange a tour of the farm and a meal for $90 a head at lunchtime and $150 per at dinner, with a chance to meet Smith, if he's in town.

From that farm and house, the apotheosis of a bygone lifestyle, P. Allen Smith is taking over the world, one back yard at a time.

'Sing for Our Supper'

 

 

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