Former Shows & Episodes

The Manic Gardener

Kate Gardner

The Manic Gardener – Energy and Landscaping: Surprising Connections

We’ve all heard this one: to shade your house in summer (and save the energy used to run fans or air-conditioners), plant a tree on the south side of the house. According to my guest this week, that’s not so much a no-brainer as it is brainless. (Though she’d never put it so rudely.)

In the course of the show, Sue Reed not only explains why that won’t work, she also tells us how to plant trees in order to shade a house and funnel breezes towards it in summer–but also capture sunlight and deflect winds in winter. These and dozens of other tips take the familiar gardening maxim, “the right plant in the right place,” to a whole new level.

A registered landscape architect with 25 years of experience in energy-conscious design, Sue is eminently qualified to address this issue. She has taught at the Conway School of Landscape Design, and her amazing, and amazingly thorough, book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for Your Home and Garden (New Society Publishers), came out a couple of years ago.

In the book, Sue actually explains how to take into account your latitude (and the season) in deciding exactly how far from a house to plant a tree that will eventually reach 40’ (or 60’, or 35’), either to maximize or minimize the shade it casts on the house.

We don’t get into the math on the show, but Sue does explain how plant transpiration cools air, how to cool house foundations and walls, and where to place hard surfaces such as driveways and patios—and what to surface them with—in order to capture or avoid heat, both in the house and outside of it.

But that’s only one part of the show, because Sue talks first about how to save energy while landscaping and building, how to build and landscape in order to save energy during the life of the house or garden, and finally, how to actually generate energy from one’s land.

In all of these areas, she goes well beyond conventional wisdom or obvious answers. Her take on generating energy, for instance covers photoelectric cells, of course, but also home use of wind, water, and the ground. So if you were wondering how to use the soil to heat a house in winter and cool it in summer, listen up; Sue Reed will explain it.

But even if you’re not looking to replace your furnace with buried pipes, Sue offers an astonishing array of simple steps that can be taken in an established garden that will help lower energy costs both in it and in the house nearby.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more information and links.

The Manic Gardener – The Weed-Free Garden

A weed-free garden sounds too good to be true, and near the end of our interview, Lee Reich, author of Weedless Gardening, admits that it is: He does indeed weed—for about five or ten minutes a week.

Five minutes, though, is close enough to nothing as makes no difference. How does he manage this? (Without planting through a plastic mulch, that is.)

During this week’s show, Lee explains his four-part system and its many benefits, which range from healthier soil to way less work for the gardener. The system itself is pretty simple: don’t till or disturb the earth; lay out permanent areas to walk and plant; keep the soil covered at all times; and use drip irrigation where irrigation is needed.

But how to implement the system is not quite so clear. How do you fertilize, or add organic matter, without digging? And don’t plants need access to these things deep in the earth? As for keeping the soil covered, mulches are indeed great for conserving moisture, but how do living mulches(or cover crops) work in a garden? Aren’t they supposed to be dug in, come spring? (Which sort of negates the no-till part of the plan.)

All of these questions, and many more, get answered on this week’s show. It’s a fascinating hour with a funny, intrepid, knowledgeable guest who’s not afraid to buck the established wisdom of the day.

Lee Reich has a PhD in Horticulture from the University of Maryland and actually started his career as a researcher with the USDA and Cornell University, but he has been for years an independent writer, lecturer, and “farmdener.” He blogs at In Lee’s Garden.

The Manic Gardener – The Seven-Fold Way of Xeriscape Gardening

If you think “stones and cactus” when you hear the term “xeriscape,” then Andrea Cummins would like to talk to you. She’s too polite to just say “No,” and too eloquent for “Er, not so much,” but those do convey the general idea.

A Horticultural Extension Agent from Douglas County, Colorado, Andrea spends much of her time dealing with such misperceptions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, she and her fellow agents try to educate the many newcomers to her area who think they can recreate a New England or South Carolina garden in the west if they just water it enough.

Before Andrea and I launch into the seven principles of xeriscape, we spend a while talking about where she lives, a high county in the east Rocky foothills with no major lakes or rivers, where the biggest draw on residential water supplies is the irrigating of lawns and gardens.

We talk about this because xeriscape is all about place, and Douglas County is a particularly good place for the conversation, since the term was coined in nearby Denver. The exact conditions that exist in Andrea’s county probably don’t apply in New Mexico or South Dakota, but this exploration of one particular place serves to illustrate the complexity of water planning—and water education—across the drier parts of the country, even the continent.

It’s easy to list the seven principles of xeriscaping, but when you hear Andrea explain them, you realize how much such a list leaves out. Take site assessment, the first of the seven. We all know that we should take stock of the plants and trees on our land, but did you know that you should also plot all areas covered by cement or gravel? (These waste water during rain, while on sunny days they both collect and reflect heat onto surrounding plants or buildings.) And did you realize that when planning “plant zones” (garden rooms) in the yard, it helps to group thirsty plants together? That way, only one “room” in the yard needs to be watered at this higher level. (This is principle #4, in case you were wondering.)

Andrea has similar tips and insights for each of the other principles. These are practices that actually make it possible to significantly reduce one’s garden water use—practices that make it possible to keep a garden beautiful and healthy even in dry areas, even in drought.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more links and information.

The Manic Gardener – Hidden Waters

My guest this week is Duncan Patten, an ecologist with whom I discuss agricultural pollution, the importance of riparian strips along streams, fracking, and yes, rain barrels, all under the umbrella topic of groundwater.

Duncan spent thirty years at Arizona State University before “retiring” to Montana, where he is now a research professor in the department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, the director of the Montana Water Center, and member of an EPA panel charged with studying how hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) might affect public health and the environment.

But before all that, Duncan got a doctorate in ecology at Duke University in 1962, and he starts this show by defining ecology as the study of how organisms affect their environment and it affects them. In other words, ecology is about relationships.

That theme ran through our conversation, stitching together its seemingly disparate topics. I set out to learn about groundwater, but one of the first things Duncan taught me was that you can’t really isolate groundwater from surface water, nor from the plants that depend on it, nor the animals that depend on those plants. Wells tap groundwater, but put enough of them (or too many) near a river or stream, and the levels in that waterway may drop. Rain barrels seem like a no-brainer, but their use benefits groundwater (maybe) at the expense of surface water.

The cottonwoods and willows that line so many western waterways transpire vast amounts of water (up to 350 gallons per tree per day), but cutting them down to increase river flow may backfire, as one Arizona town discovered to its dismay. The loss of those trees affected all the other plants along the stream, as well as the fish in it and the humans who like to catch those fish. The repercussions are felt in seemingly distant spheres because, as Duncan points out, all of these things are interrelated.

The Arizona town that cut down ten miles of streamside cottonwoods got a harsh object lesson in ecology. They learned that the trees, the water, and the fish are all related; they depend on each other, and we depend on them.

Check the post on the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more information and resources on this topic.

The Manic Gardener – Thrifty Gardening with Marjorie Harris

If you’re a Canadian Gardener, chances are that you’ve heard of Marjorie Harris, but we below the 49th parallel may not be so fortunate. The author of seventeen books, fifteen of them on gardening, Marjorie keeps in shape with her weekly column in the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading newspapers. She’s also a speaker, videocaster, garden designer, and this week’s guest on the Manic Gardener.

Her topic, of course, is Thrifty Gardening, which is the title of her most recent book, or half of it: Thrifty Gardening: from the ground up. That book, by the way, is not only useful, but hilarious. (She refers to gardening catalogues as “garden porn.”)

In both book and podcast, Marjorie tackles the topic from every angle. Prospective house buyers are encouraged to skip the usual glance at the garden, which usually serves merely to ascertain if it’s beautiful. That, Marjorie says, matters not a whit: you can make it beautiful. But your hands, she tell us, should indeed feel of the soil, and your eyes should wander over the neighbor’s fence; a weeping willow or Norway maple next door could sound the death knell for your own garden.

Then there’s one of those “cruel to be kind” moments: Marjorie says that hiring a landscaper will often save you money, if you don’t have the time and energy to educate yourself about what plants will work best with your soil, weather, latitude, and light conditions. Now, when most garden advisers say or write “or hire a professional,” they figure their work is done. Not Marjorie. She tells us how to choose one. My favorite test is to ask the ostensible professional if peat moss is a fertilizer.

Near the end of the show, Marjorie mentions in passing—trust me, it’s not a confession—that she goes through garbage (okay, recycling bins) for the fire irons she uses to support plants and for other metal that she hides throughout her garden. Within the same minute, she says that gardening is “an intellectual pursuit,” and that the cog half-hidden beneath the cherry tree comments both on this bit of machine in the garden and on the possible relationship between the shapes of cherry tree and of cog.

This is a woman to reckon with.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more stories, information, and links.

The Manic Gardener – Greener than Grass

“Greener” here doesn’t refer to color, but to being environmentally friendly. Yup, it’s a metaphor. Last week’s show presented some information about the damage that conventionally maintained lawns can do. This week, we dive into the whole ocean of lawn alternatives.

Some people keep their lawn because they like them—which may be the only good reason to do so. Some of us believe that we need a lawn, perhaps because we don’t have the money to get rid of it, or because “natural” gardens are more work, or—and this is a big one—because we have kids.

For most of us homeowners, though, the lawn is a given, an unthought, default planting.

During our conversation this week, Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 amazing lawn alternatives, lays all of these fears to rest. She recommends walkable ground-covers or sedges for those who just love the look of a lawn, and for those who don’t, she explains how to kill turf for the price of some old cardboard or newspaper (and no digging whatsoever), leaving a surface that’s ready to plant. She describes plantings that need far less care than grass, which requires mowing, watering, and weeding. As for children—well, Evelyn is full of ideas for them. And she knows the research that backs those ideas.

She is full of wonderful ideas for all of us, not just children, and so is her book. Part One, called “Design Inspiration: the many possibilities,” consists of eleven chapters, and at one point I simply ask her to read through them—living carpets, shade gardens, meadows, ponds, patios, edible gardens and the rest—and to say few words about each, because this cornucopia of possibilities lies far beyond the imaginative reach of most of us.

Unless we have a guide, that is. And Evelyn Hadden is a wonderful guide to the possibilities of the lawn-free yard.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more links and information.

The Manic Gardener – So—What’s wrong with lawns?

Lawns are practically an American institution, but they’re increasingly under attack. The amounts of pesticides, fertilizer, and water used on them are all matters of contention. If you’re wondering whether lawns deserve the abuse heaped on them, this show might help you make up your mind.

My first guest, Paul Tukey, is a writer, filmmaker, activist, and founder of Safe He tells the story of Hudson, Quebec, where a persistent local doctor got the town to ban lawn pesticides, and of a school in Ohio where pesticide drift sent 47 students to the doctor. He has the facts on 2,4-D, an herbicide widely used in northern Canada, where so many farmers die of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that it is referred to as “old farmer’s disease.”

But first he tells the story of his conversion from lawn-care professional to a passionate advocate of organic lawn-care. That conversion came only after his own health had deteriorated to the point where doctors told him that the chemicals he was using would kill him if he didn’t quit. But what he didn’t know even then was the effect those chemicals might have on his son.

My second guest is Cristina Milesi, a senior research scientist at California State University, who is affiliated with NASA’s Ames Research Center. Cristina has used satellite images and complex modeling techniques to produce increasingly accurate estimates of the number of acres devoted to lawn in the U.S.—it is only when we have some idea of how big this number is that we can have any sense of the scope of the problem. Cristina’s work extends to the ecological impact of that acreage; in this interview she talks about water use and carbon sinks.

When you think about the the kind of problems faced by Paul Tukey, multiplied by the acreage of lawn we have in the U.S., it looks like we need to make some changes.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more links and information.

The Manic Gardener – A Farmer’s story

When they try to make a movie of Atina Diffley’s story, some producer is going to reject it as unbelievable. Losing one organic farm to development, okay; but nearly losing a big chunk of the second to an oil pipeline? A pipeline owned by one of the two largest companies in the United States?

Start with this setup, and it’s a given that Atina takes them on and beats them. To top it off, she not only protects her own land from the pipeline, but she gets Koch to accept an agreement (at least in Minnesota) that will protect all organic farms threatened by pipelines. Then add that Atina had survived five years in an early, abusive marriage.

Isn’t that just a bit much, as plots go? Maybe. But it’s true.

Author of the beautiful memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, Atina Diffley joins me this week to talk about the double assault on organic farms that she and her husband Martin have endured. She describes the “total ecological collapse” they saw as their first farm was gradually sold off to developers, and the shock when she discovered that their second farm might be subject to a claim of eminent domain by the Koch Brothers, who were planning to lay a pipeline across it carrying oil from Alberta’s oil sands. (No, the Keystone XL pipeline would not be the first.)

In part, this is the story of Atina’s transformation, from a battered woman almost devoid of self-esteem, to the woman who took on the Koch brothers and won. But it is also the story of the community she and Martin had built, for Atina stresses, both in the interview and in the book, that she did not win this victory alone. Her intrepid attorney was essential, as was Martin’s support on the home front. But the thousands of letters written by satisfied customers may have tipped the balance, for they made clear to the judge that this farm could not simply be replaced by another. Establishing that fact—that the farm was not fungible—was essential in arguing that Koch should not be allowed to damage it.

This saga is rife with smaller anecdotes, often funny ones, for Atina has retained her sense of humor even about some of the most devastating moments in these crises. There’s not much to laugh at when she tells how she and Martin lose an entire potato crop in a single night of rain after the adjoining hill has been stripped bare. But when she adds that the developer—of Irish extraction, no less—doesn’t know that potatoes grow in the ground, a touch of the ludicrous leavens the scene. And when she tells how her gentle husband terrifies the developer into buying the ruined field from the old woman who owns it—well, I, for one, laughed out loud. I hope you do too.

Go to the blog, The Manic Gardener to see more on this topic.

The Manic Gardener – How to Buy a Plant

On one level it can’t really get much simpler: you give them the money, they give you the plant, and you’re done. But then there’s the question of whether you and the plant stay happy with this arrangement: is the plant content in its new home, and do you remain pleased with the plant?

Toby Day, Extension Horticulture Specialist at Montana State University, returns to The Manic Gardener, this time to guide gardeners through the intricacies of the plant purchasing process. We look first at how to choose your basic herbaceous plants (vegetable starts, bedding plant, young perennials); then at selecting healthy bare-root asparagus, strawberries, and small fruits; and finally at choosing trees and shrubs. We also talk about getting these into the ground with the least effort and the greatest chance of success.

There are numerous surprises along the way: choose a stocky plant, not a tall one; look for a plant with no flowers—even if it’s a flowering plant; holes for trees and shrubs should be wider than they are deep; male asparagus live longer than female; a pampered fruit tree may bear less fruit than one under some stress; circling tree roots can strangle the tree; foliage on bare-root plants lowers their chance of survival.

Toby also shares numerous tips: he goes to nurseries armed with a sheet of white paper, which he holds under candidates while giving them a gentle shake so that pests will drop onto the paper, becoming suddenly visible. This is a plant to avoid. He also chooses plants from the middle of a table or bed, as they tend to be better watered than those at the edges. (How many people think about that?)

Many of us have brought home a plant only to watch it die, and it’s an experience most of us would prefer not to repeat. Toby can help with that.

Check the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more information and links.

The Manic Gardener – Composting 101: Bite the Silver Bullet

Spring has sprung just about everywhere in North America, and certainly across the pond, and in spring the avid gardener’s thoughts turn to—composting. All that pruning and mowing and clipping and raking of last fall’s debris and this spring’s growth produces plenty of garden waste.

But just how does one start with this composting business, anyhow?

The number of books out on the subject—or the fact that even one person, much less several, thought the topic deserved an entire book—can make the task seem daunting. Then there’s the question of hot or cold processes, and the problem of balancing brown and green ingredients, not to mention what it means (something bad, clearly) if a pile “goes anaerobic.”

And if you’ve ever happened upon a commercial composter costing several hundred dollars, you may well have concluded that the whole thing is way more expensive than it’s worth.

But despite all those books and dollars, backyard composting can actually be pretty straightforward, and its price can be zero.

My guest this week, Graham Golbuff, makes that quite clear, by clarifying the many mysteries of composting.
Graham directs the Master Gardener program at Seattle Tilth, a non-profit that’s been teaching and promoting organic gardening in Seattle for 35 years. (Check out their compost resources.) He guides us through the composting process, starting with an overview of its benefits to your wallet, your garden, and the environment. Then we turn to the how-tos, from the simplest, passive method, right through the intricacies of hot composting.

Join us for an introduction or refresher course on pile composting. It may answer a few questions, and it’s definitely good for a few laughs.

(Visit the blog, The Manic Gardener, for more on this topic.)