Air Date: Week of May 20, 1994
Steve Curwood talks to PBS’ Victory Garden star Roger Swain about why he recycles everything in his compost heap.
CURWOOD: Hi, Roger.
SWAIN: Good morning. How are you?
CURWOOD: Oh, on a day like today when spring planting's already well underway and the birds are singing, how can I be anything but great?
SWAIN: Kind of makes you wish you could photosynthesize, doesn't it?
CURWOOD: But since he can't, master gardener Roger Swain tends to the photosynthesis of others. He's science editor of Horticulture Magazine, as well as host of the PBS television show Victory Garden. And Swain has a new book entitled Groundwork, in which he lays out some practical and philosophical rules for gardeners.
CURWOOD: We join Roger Swain on a sunny morning on the set of the Victory Garden. It's tucked away behind a private home in the suburbs of Boston, and it does resemble something that you might find in Hollywood: something picture perfect. There is a lush, green, perfectly manicured lawn. The grass is broken up by bright-colored tulips and flowering bushes. In the garden itself, the dominant color is not green, at least not yet, but Swain has big plans for the coming summer months.
SWAIN: We've got rhubarb, we've got asparagus, we've pulled up the parsnips. But it just gets better and better and I, I came to gardening as a big, happy eater. So a far as I'm concerned, you know it's crop after crop and we finish up coming into the fruits in midsummer and the apples and plums and blueberries and that's my idea of hog heaven.
CURWOOD: Through the pearly, or rather wooden gates of hog heaven, you can see the plants are just beginning their climb skyward. Bright green shoots poke from above mounds of chocolate brown soil.
I'm looking around here, Roger. I see that most of your beds are raised. They're up a bit from the ground. Now why is that?
SWAIN: Well you know, the raised bed, Steve, has been around for quite a while. And because it's higher up, it's ready to work earlier. It warms up faster. The water drains out in the spring. but I, I don't think that's the real reason that we use the term raised beds, or rather I think when we use the word raised we should refer to it in the context of a sort of raised in importance, rather than raised in topography. The one thing you're forbidden to do in this garden, Steve, is to ever step on this bed. Because when you step on soil, you compact it. You press it down. And what that does it is it prevents moisture and air and nutrients from getting into it. It really, you know, as we like to say, ecologists like to say that the earth can barely bear the weight of the human foot. Well that's certainly true with these beds.
SWAIN: We never ever step on them.
CURWOOD: This is really rich, dark soil. What -
SWAIN: People tease us on the television show and they say, we've seen you jam your hand down in a foot into the soil without a trowel, and you can see I'm doing it right here, just excavating a hole very easily. There's nothing down there but loose, soft soil. And the secret, as I say, the secret, in addition to never stepping on the soil and never compacting it, is lots and lots of organic matter.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: Fifty percent of the material here is air space, and the other fifty percent is a mixture of minerals and organic matter. Now the organic matter doesn't make up very many percent, maybe four or five percent. But it's that four or five percent that is extremely important.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: It is about four or five percent of organic matter, humus, that is feeding a wonderful community of microorganisms. You've got about 5 billion bacteria in a teaspoon.
CURWOOD: Mm hm.
SWAIN: You've got about 20 million fungi. And another million or so protozoa in a single teaspoon.
CURWOOD: Okay. That's quite a crowd.
SWAIN: That's more than we have people on earth by a long, long way. And what those organisms are doing is some very fancy stuff. They're moving nutrients around. They are feeding plants, they're breaking down organic matter. We understand pitifully little about how this works. But it's fancy stuff.
CURWOOD: What can I do at home as a gardener to have this kind of complexity, this richness, in where I grow my tomatoes?
SWAIN: Well you know, every fall, people are cheerfully raking up leaves in their yard, putting them in big plastic bags and putting those big plastic bags out on the curb. And those same people, come spring they go down to the garden center, what do you they buy? Great big plastic bags full of peat moss. You've got great big plastic bags full of organic matter going in opposite directions on the road, passing it. If they'd save all their leaves, if they'd save all their organic matter, there's not such thing as yard waste, Steve.
SWAIN: Let me show you the compost heap over here, and I can show you what's in it.
CURWOOD: What have you got here?
SWAIN: Well we've got a pile of organic matter here that's about 4 foot square, and by the time we're done it will be 4 feet deep. And you can see the cutoff rhubarb leaves and some lily foliage, and some of the cleaning up off the perennial bed. And there's a little bit of everything mixed in there.
CURWOOD: I was reading your book Groundwork, and you said there was a scavenger or a pest who wound up dead in your garden?
SWAIN: Well that was, the question is, the question is, what does one do with dead woodchucks? And I add them to my compost heap. Now I got a letter from a woman who said, "You have so little respect for life that you would put a woodchuck in your compost heap." I said, "Madam, I have so much respect for life that I would put a woodchuck in my compost heap." (Laughter) I want the ingredients of the woodchuck to get back into the ecosystem as soon as possible. So I laid it out with full military honors.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, now for anyone who's listening to us chat, who's thinking about what they can do, here it is the end of May, go out to their garden and get the soil ready. What are some tips that you give them?
SWAIN: Well you know, the beginning of the year is sort of the beginning of the organic production season. So you may be hard-pressed to find organic matter in the short run, and I give you a special dispensation to go out and buy peat moss this spring, because that's certainly a fine organic amendment. Any deposit, any deposit of decayed leaves, you just ask around the neighborhood. People say to you, what's the best source of organic matter? I say the one that's cheapest and the one that's closest to your garden.
CURWOOD: Now you do use chemicals sometimes, you said.
SWAIN: We do. We do. We use chemical fertilizers, highly soluble fertilizers, sometimes. When we transplant in the spring in cold soils, we use transplant solution, which is high in phosphorous. We use Rote-Known [word?] occasionally for aphids that get on fava beans. We first try to rub them off, and spray them off with water. If that doesn't work we throw a little Rote-Known on. But generally, you only turn to a chemical solution when all of your other techniques have failed.
CURWOOD: Now what is it that got you to this point of view? You know, in writing your book Groundwork you talk about the fact that you were farming in New Hampshire on the land using plenty of chemicals. what changed your mind?
SWAIN: When I started gardening, I was using a 1944 Victory Garden manual put out by a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and he was using, you know, slash slash synthetic, pour it on everything!
CURWOOD: Okay. What happened to your land when you did that?
SWAIN: Things grew like mad. Things were bright green, very very green.
CURWOOD: So why not do it?
SWAIN: The problem was, as everybody discovers, is that for the first few years things are tremendous. And then things go on growing. But as you work the soil, you had your hands in the soil over here, I can assure you that if you had stuck your hands in the soil that I was gardening in 10 years out where I'd applied nothing to that soil but additional soluble nutrients, I'd had a very different feeling. And what was happening was the organic matter was disappearing, and if you lose your organic matter the soil gets cloddier and cloddier. Now that's not a very technical term, cloddy, but you know what I mean. It wads up in great big brick-like lumps. And as it began to get gooier and gooier and gummier and gummier and harder and harder to work, you know a little light bulb went off in my head. And I said, you know, you bozo, you know what you've been doing? You have been neglecting the organic matter. So. I think gardeners grow as surely and as certainly as the plants they tend.
CURWOOD: Thank you very much.
SWAIN: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Roger Swain hosts PBS Victory Garden and his new book is called Groundwork.
(Footfalls and birdsong)
SWAIN: Take a look at this spinach, Steve. This is a neat story, because this spinach wasn't planted this spring. This spinach was planted last fall. Now they've come on strong. And you just take a taste of that and you'll find that's the nicest spinach salad you've ever had.
CURWOOD: Mmm. Mmmm.
SWAIN: Pretty good. Doesn't need any dressing.
CURWOOD: Not at all. You can eat it right off the plant. No spray.
SWAIN: No spray, no nothin'. That is clean spinach.
CURWOOD: That's the best spinach I've had. Thank you.
SWAIN: You're welcome.
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