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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Throwing Away the Spray: Organic Gardening Tips for Listeners

Air Date: Week of

Millions of Americans enjoy their most direct contact with the natural world through the increasingly popular activity of gardening. With this in mind, the "Green Garden Spot" will become a semi-regular feature of Living on Earth with tips from Evelyn Tully Costa. Tully-Costa is a public radio producer, and a professional garden designer. Steve Curwood talks with Evelyn about why she got involved in organic gardening, and gets practical suggestions on how others can get started.


CURWOOD: According to most surveys, gardening is America's number one leisure activity. Last year we spent over $26 billion on flowers, lawns, equipment, and garden services. And most of this handiwork is done with what we now call conventional methods. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and plants that originated in far off places. But in scattered plots around the country, gardeners are giving synthetic chemicals the green thumbs down and turning to organic methods. So we here at Living on Earth decided to get some dirt under our fingernails. We went looking for some advice about organic gardening. Evelyn Tully Costa is known to most of the world as a features producer for public radio. But to a lucky few, she's known as a professional garden designer. She's one of the owners of Garden Services, an organic landscaping outfit in Brooklyn. Welcome, Evelyn.

COSTA: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Hey, listen, we called you because at last it is finally spring here in Boston. And we're really feeling the urge to get outside and do some planting.

COSTA: Well, you know, it's interesting, Steve. Maybe gardeners found what native peoples, animals, plants, poets, and even songwriters have known for thousands of years: there is no getting around the seasons, the sunlight, or the weather. Now lately, there's been a lot of attention given to this Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. That's when some of us during the dark winter months, we slow down, we get depressed, we want to sleep and eat more. Just like some plants and animals. Now, in the springtime, everything comes out of hibernation including humans. Now, if that's a disorder, then perhaps we should quickly get the bears, the trees, and the shrubs into therapy. (Curwood laughs) Now, that urge that you talked about is a biochemical response to more sunlight. We share increased energy and excitement in the spring time with the living world around us because we're part of it. So it doesn't surprise me that gardening is America's number one leisure activity. It outpaces golf and even watching football.

CURWOOD: Okay, well in New York I suppose you have lots of therapists. But you're not in that business, you're a gardener. And you have a very successful gardening business, organic gardening business in Brooklyn. Have you always gone organic?

COSTA: No, I didn't. I mean, like a lot of people I started about 15 years ago, and like a lot of beginners I believed everything I read in the landscaping books. And of course everything you read is take this dangerous chemical and spray that and head for the hills. Now at that time I was using some pretty common but dangerous pesticides. And one day I thought to myself hey, wait a minute. If this stuff is deadly for fish, for pets, for children, what about me? So slowly I learned about organics and it just made a lot of sense to me. So I figured for thousands of years, humans have managed to grow delicious, beautiful plants on this planet without the benefit of petrochemicals. So the good news is that millions of people are still using these old methods and millions more are heading backwards. Or as I like to say, they're heading forwards into sensible gardening and organic farming practices.

CURWOOD: I've got to ask you, Evelyn, about the timing of all this. I mean, is it too late to start a garden this spring?

COSTA: Not at all. I think people should just relax and think of gardening as a big circle. Anywhere in the year they want to jump in, they can. Gardens go on for years; in fact, they never stop moving through the seasons. Now for every month, for every situation, there's something to do. There's no real beginning or end. Now for instance, if it's for the fall I'd be asking you to plant some shrubs and trees, build up your soil. In the winter time it would be time to start planning your gardening, ordering your seed packets. So there's always something going on. But the most basic rule is to know where you are going to do your planting. You have to figure out how much sun or shade your garden is going to have. Now this changes across the year, of course, so that' s something to consider. Get out a piece of paper, a pencil, a compass, figure out what direction your house faces -- that's north, south, east, or west -- and follow the shadows and the light across the day.

CURWOOD: Okay, so get paper, pencil, compass, check out the sun, check out temperature. I've got to figure out what my weather zone is here, right? And then when I get all this done, I can get some seeds, right? Or get a catalogue or something, and go down to the nursery and buy some things, right?

COSTA: Well, you could do all that. But I think there's something else that you really need to consider, that are more important than just flipping through the pages of a catalogue and ordering anything you want.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

COSTA: And that's trying to learn what native plant province you live in. It's not just a matter of plopping in any old plant from anywhere in the world. Why not try to grow mostly plants, trees, and shrub varieties that grow naturally in a region? They're a lot easier to take care of, they attract native butterflies and bird species that otherwise have to look to exotics for their food supplies. Now, some of the regions that you might think about are eastern deciduous forests, coastal plains, central prairies and western deserts, just to name a few. So, the point here is really get to know your bio region, and you're doing this for a very practical reason in a very practical way.

CURWOOD: All right, I'll do that. But what's next?

COSTA: Well, I think the most important thing to do is get started. You can get a lot of good information at your local library, at your book store, botanical garden, plant society, garden clubs, get information from magazines. You can even get stuff on the Internet. Now, I think a wonderful book for first-time gardeners is The First Time Gardener. It's authored by Patty Barren and it's published by Crown. It's very simply and clearly illustrated, and it makes a lot of good sense for people making their first big foray into the wide world of gardens.

CURWOOD: All right, let's see, that's quite a list. Is there anything I can do quickly to get something going in the backyard?

COSTA: Why don't you start some seeds? There are so many new and innovative seed companies out there these days. They offer enormous variety of seeds that you can't get at your local nursery. Now, 2 seed types that you couldn't possibly mess up--

CURWOOD: I don't know about that --

COSTA: Are nasturtiums (laughs) we'll find out, we're going to do a test on these -- are nasturtiums and sunflowers. Try calling the American Horticultural Society's national information line at 1-800-777-7931. That's 1-800-777-7931. Not only do they give out general gardening information, but ask for their horticultural resource list. So for now just get out there, get some information, and start planning and planting. The next thing we're going to look at is soil. So the next time we talk, we're going to learn about how to size it up and how to improve it.

CURWOOD: Okay, I'll get some books and find out where the sun shines in my yard, and see what's growing there already. Maybe that will give me some clues about how rich or lousy the dirt is.

COSTA: That's right, you got it. Now, I would love to hear from your listeners about their gardens and perhaps with some of their questions.

CURWOOD: Okay, so we'll hear from you in a few weeks.

COSTA: Great. See you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Evelyn Tully Costa runs Garden Services in Brooklyn, New York.



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