Former Shows & Episodes

The Manic Gardener

Kate Gardner

The Manic Gardener – More Space Than You Thought: gardening on balconies, porches, and terraces with Fern Richardson

Fern Richardson’s balcony measures four feet by ten. On it she grows a fig tree, an apricot, a kumquat, two apple trees, and an abutilon, an ornamental tree with bi-colored leaves and red, hibiscus-like flowers. Of course, she also herbs, succulents, and vegetables, including peppers and tomatoes. In other words, she grows more in her forty square feet than many people manage in a full-fledged, ground-level garden.

If this sounds so unlikely as to be impossible, trust me, it isn’t; all you have to do to believe this is to take a look at the lush photographs in her book, Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage & Herbs. As my guest this week, Fern describes the special problems that people gardening on roofs and balconies face (those falling pots, you know), but she then goes on to talk about the many (many) tools and techniques that these folks can use to make the most of their extremely confined spaces.

Once one puts one’s mind to it, hanging pots seem fairly obvious, but even trellises anchored in large pots are a stretch for most of us, simply because we don’t think of trellises as belonging on porches or balconies. As for the three or four ways that Fern has for anchoring pots to fences, or for straddling railings with various soft planters or molded pots—my bet is that most of these will be new. Beyond this, there are myriad green walls, including the one she describes in some depth during the interview: the pallet planter, in which an ordinary pallet is transformed into a lovely, vertical display of spring and summer flowers.

It seems there’s no end to Fern’s imagination, and her great gift is to liberate our own. She has ideas about how to deal with noisy neighbors (or nosy ones), how to cope with wind, with blazing sun, with incessant shade. The space that was far too small for a “real” garden may have possibilities you never realized.

Fern Richardson blogs at Life on the

The Manic Gardener – Turning the Tables, Again

When this show first ran under the title Turning the Tables: Organic Farmers Sue Monsanto, in December of 2011, 83 organic farmers, seed farmers, and organizations that had sued Monsanto were waiting to hear whether the judge would rule for the seed giant’s motion to dismiss the case, or would allow it to advance to oral arguments.

At stake in the suit is the question of whether Monsanto would be able to continue to sue individual farmers, both conventional and organic, whose crops were contaminated by pollen or seeds from fields growing Monsanto’s genetically modified crops. This group of organic farmers and organizations is suing to prevent Monsanto from suing them.

It’s now three and a half months later, and much has happened. The suit did advance to oral arguments, but at that point the judge ruled for Monsanto. The consortium of plaintiffs, under the leadership of OSGATO, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, has appealed the decision. So once again, everyone is awaiting the decision of the courts.

My guests here, as in the original show, are Jim Gerritsen, President of OSGATA, the lead plaintiff, and Daniel Ravicher, the lead lawyer in the case. Dan serves as both the Executive Director of the Public Patent Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to representing the public’s interests against undeserved patents and unsound patent policy. PubPat is associated with Cardozo Law School, where Dan is also a professor.

This is a rerun of the original show, with some revisions. The interview themselves have not been touched, but both the introduction and the conclusion have been revised and updated.

Go to The Manic Gardener blog for more links and information.

The Manic Gardener – Mixing It Up in the Veggie Garden

Here’s a riddle: how do you grow vegetables without a vegetable garden? Answer: polyculture. Which means that you either tuck the tomatoes and lettuce into with your existing flowerbeds, or you bring herbs and flowers into the vegetable patch.

Yes: not only does this method do away with rows, which segregate one vegetable from another; it does away with separate beds, which segregate flowers from herbs from vegetables.

My guests this week are David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, who put polyculture at the heart of their latest book, What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? 100% Organic Solutions for All Your Vegetables, from Artichoke to Zucchini.

On the show, David and Kathryn explain the principle of polyculture and its benefits, which range from thwarting both pests and disease, to creating lovely, creative plantings. They describe several uses of polyculture gardens: easy combinations such as the “salad bowls” Kathryn keeps just outside her door, plots focused around carrots, or tomatoes, or melons, and how to integrate various vegetables into an existing garden.

Then (we’re not done yet) we move on to organic solutions to pests and problems, a conversation that includes rather more about slugs than you might expect. It’s a fun, lively hour, full of practical tips nested in an easily grasped theory that can be applied to gardens everywhere.

The Manic Gardener – Minding Your Manure

Some organic gardeners swear by manure. Others swear they’ll never touch it. To the first group, it’s the ultimate one-stop soil conditioner, complete with built-in fertilizers. To the second, conventional manure is contaminated with hormones and antibiotics, and even organic manures can contain human pathogens.

Both groups are right, and the only way to make an informed decision about whether or not to use manure is to become better informed about it. So just how wonderful a conditioner is manure? What problems can it cause? And how can they be managed or avoided?

My guest this week is uniquely qualified to answer these questions. He’s Frank Larney, a soil scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), where he specializes in soil conservation, including feedlot manure composting and soil restoration with manure.

With Frank’s help, we’ll take a quick tour of the various problems that manures can cause, from air and water pollution to soil degradation, before turning to some of Frank’s research. He has done studies on how many pathogens disappear during composting (99.9%) and how long this takes (one week), and on how composting affects pharmaceuticals (they drop to undetectable levels) and again, how long this takes (six to eight weeks).

He’s also been involved in long-term studies that measure for how long a single application of manure to degraded soil can improve crop yields. Want to know the answer? Twenty-two years. And counting.

In the end, each gardener will have to decide for herself (or himself) whether or not to use manures. This program doesn’t try to direct that decision. But it does provide some information that might help.

This week’s Gardening Tip draws on the interview to suggest how back-yard gardeners should and shouldn’t use manures.

The parallel post on the blog, The Manic Gardener, will include links to some of Frank Larney’s papers for the intelligent layperson.

The Manic Gardener – Landscaping for Wildlife

Doug Tallamy is not an idiot, so when he talks about a new national park that extends across the entire continent, he’s not proposing to bulldoze cities or tear up freeways. No; he’s talking about converting half the space that now goes to lawns to more productive plantings—plantings that attract insects, especially native ones. And what plants attract native insects? Native ones, of course.

As the chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, Doug knows whereof he speaks. And he’s got the relevant statistics at the tip of his tongue. How many spicebush leaves does the larvae of a spicebush swallowtail need to become a butterfly? Three. What percent of a black bear’s diet is insects? Twenty-three percent. How many caterpillars do a pair of bluebirds feed their young each day? Three hundred.

Doug may be most widely known as the author of the tremendously popular book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants. As my guest this week, he explains both why we need more native plants and more varied ones in our gardens, and also how we can go about the initial steps of landscaping for this change.

The Manic Gardener – From Seed to Seedling

People in northern climes, with their short growing seasons, often try to get a jump on the season by starting their plants, especially their vegetables, indoors—on a windowsill, or in a greenhouse, a cold frame, or a basement. But though many of us start our own plants, a lot of us don’t do it particularly well. Many seeds refuse to sprout, while others get off to a terrific start, then keel over, victims of the dreaded damping off disease.

Judy Owsowitz sells both seedlings and vegetables, and she starts thousands of them herself and the rest with the help of her six interns. She does all this starting in early February, in the relatively inhospitable climate of northern Montana. So she seemed the ideal person to tap for advice about starting, tending, and transplanting seedlings.

Owner of Terrapin Farm, Judy has been farming in northern Montana since the seventies, using draft horses for years, but more recently and reluctantly, tractors. She sells vegetables, herbs, flowers, and edible flowers, as well as seedlings and seeds for many of those plants. She has also developed a number of cold-hardy vegetable varieties, and at the end of the show she tells us about a few of those.

Though she has a full-fledged business including a greenhouse, Judy can provide plenty of useful tips for backyard gardeners. Amongst other things, she explains how to get artichokes, usually considered a biennial, to produce in their first season. In cold climates. From seed.

And her methods will suit the thrift-minded as well: for several weeks before she opens the greenhouse, her seedlings are housed in her basement under florescent lights. Not fancy grow lights; not even full-spectrum florescent bulbs; but the cheapest of the cheap, common florescent bulbs.

So if you’re wondering about the perfect consistency for potting soil; or about which flowers, herbs, and vegetables to seed first; or about how to water seeds or seedlings, tune in.

Check The Manic Gardener for further background and links.

The Manic Gardener – Potless Plants: Starting seeds with Soil Blocks

When you first see them, soil blocks are both unremarkable and fantastic. They’re just cubes of dirt, after all—big deal—but they function like a pot of earth twice their size or more. In fact, the headline could read: Pots Obsolete—Soil Blocks Replace Plastic. Implausible? Perhaps. Impossible? No.

Unlikely as it sounds, a cube of free-standing soil can sprout a seed, support a seedling, even grow a full head of lettuce.

How is this possible? And why don’t the darn things just fall apart, without any container to hold them together?

Jason Beam, of Potting Blocks, sells soil blockers, the presses used to make soil blocks. He joins me this week to answer these questions and many more. Here’s a sample of some of the topics that arise in the course of the conversation: Why is transplanting a seedling several times a good thing? Which holds heat more effectively, air or water? Is peat moss a renewable resource? Just how many grades of coconut coir are there?

I won’t claim that we answer all these questions definitively, but it’s a lot of fun. And the central questions about soil blocks—what they are, how to use them, and why they’ll give you increased germination rates and sturdier seedlings—these do get answered.

Check The Manic Gardener for further background and links.

The Manic Gardener – Where it All Comes Together—Or Falls Apart

Most of us are familiar with the term “food security,” meaning simply that people should have enough to eat. But Charles Levkoe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, explains why this term doesn’t go nearly far enough in defining people’s rights in the realm of food.

“Food security” does not ask us to consider the wages or welfare of the people who work in the fields and factories that produce the food; it does not address the quality or cultural appropriateness of the food for the people to whom it is “given;” nor does it deal with their dignity, nor their right to make choices or exercise some control over the food they eat. Food security goes no further than a full belly.

Enter food justice, a term that encompasses all these issues. People who work for food justice are looking at the entire food production system, and the lives and welfare of all involved in it.

Charles helps run a local community garden (organic, of course), and he has served on the Board of the American Community Gardening Association; he has worked with The Stop, Toronto’s all-in-one food bank, community garden, and all-round center for food-related activism. He has written numerous articles on food movements, including several on The Stop.

My second guest, Lena Miller, founded and is now Executive Director of Development of Hunters Point Family, a non-profit that works with at-risk youths and families in one of the poorest areas of one of America’s richest cities. Lena was born in Hunters Point, and she is raising her daughters there, but in between she earned a B.A. at Berkeley and an M.A. at San Francisco University.

While Hunters Point Family runs numerous programs, one closest to Lena’s heart may be its organic gardens, for she believes profoundly in the healing power of digging in the dirt. She also believes that to heal themselves, people must return to basics, including to that most fundamental relationship between ourselves and food.

These two guests come to Food Justice from very different backgrounds, but they are equally passionate about its centrality to human dignity. This is where organic gardening meets social activism.

The Manic Gardener – Seeds for the Season

It’s not yet spring, but with days growing perceptibly longer, the season of the seed catalogue has arrived. Many backyard gardeners still rely on packets from the grocery store or from the gardening center at a big box store, where all the carrots are orange and all the beans green. But there’s an extraordinary array of gorgeous, enticing flowers, herbs, and vegetables out there, specially bred or else researched and saved by heirloom and organic seed growers.
On today’s show, I’m joined by representatives of four seed companies that offer largely or exclusively organic seeds: Jim Weinburg, who owns Organica Seeds (Massachussetts), Tom Stearns, founder and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds (Vermont), Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Virginia), and John Pederson from Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa). Each one tells us a bit about their own company or organization, and then shares with us a few of the most interesting, undervalued, or popular seeds they carry. Finally, they talk about some of their own personal favorites.
From Jim, you’ll hear about cotton that grows in different colors, and from Tom about melons that are “eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head” sweet; Ira mentions in passing that Southern Exposure carries twenty different kinds of okra, while John touts a potato that tastes as if it’s already buttered.
Before any of these folks even get started, however, I grab the chance to hold forth on some of the terms and categories that sometimes confuse beginning gardeners: Heirloom, hybrid, GMO, and “treated,” in reference to seeds. If this dash through the pollination and politics of seeds doesn’t leave you so breathless your mind quits on you entirely, it might help you make sense of the occasional jargon that creeps into the interviews.

All of the links, along with pictures of many of the vegetables mentioned and links to others, can be found on the blog, The Manic Gardener.

The Manic Gardener – Water-wise gardening

We all know that Texas is in the midst of a terrible drought with no end in sight, so it makes sense that irrigating lawns and gardens is restricted there. But in fact water is running short in areas far wetter than Texas. Aquifers are depleted and water tables have dropped in states as damp (and as far apart) as Florida and Oregon.
Are we going to lose our gardens—and our lawns? Thomas Christopher, an expert on sustainable gardening, says no—not if we plant wisely and water as if it mattered. In his introduction to The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening, which he edited, Christopher reels out some pretty frightening statistics. But overall his is a hopeful vision, because he believes in our ability to change, and he knows how we can do it. Join me as he talks about the water shortage we face and the ways that gardeners can contribute to a solution.

At the end of the program, Edwin Beck, a consultant with EarthMinded Rain Station, explains how Rain Station water barrels avoid the flooding caused by others, why they cost less to ship, and how you can link two together. These barrels really are different. They contain 30-85% recycled material, their lids lead double lives, and hey—they look pretty classy, too.

Bring your water-saving tips and your water-wasting horror stories to the blog, The Manic Gardener.