The Manic Gardener Edit

Kate Gardner is a Bozeman gardener whose interest in organic gardening leads her to investigate wildly diverse subjects from soil science to sustainability to food justice. When not wrestling with bindweed and creeping bellflower in her garden plots, or wrestling with the botany and chemistry she wishes she’d learned decades back, she interviews scientists and practitioners, garden writers and professors–including a number of Gallatin Valley folks. She shares her findings, musings, and gardening tips on her blog, The Manic Gardener, and on her likewise named podcast at Web Talk Radio, now syndicated here.

Recent shows
  • Turning the Tables, Again Edit

    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. (more…)

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    June 3, 2012

  • Turning the Tables: Organic Farmers Sue Monsanto Edit

    Imagine this: Your neighbor invents fire and patents it so that you can’t have any unless you obtain a license–for a fee. Furthermore, your license requires that you put your fire out each morning and buy new coals from your neighbor each evening. Or you get sued.

    Bad enough? It gets worse. One day, his fire escapes and burns your house down. Then he sues you for patent infringement. After all, you now have fire not covered by your license. (more…)

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    June 3, 2012

  • Composting 101: Bite the Silver Bullet Edit

    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.)

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    June 2, 2012

  • Greener than Grass Edit

    “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.

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    June 2, 2012

  • So—What’s wrong with lawns? Edit

    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 Lawns.org. 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.

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    June 2, 2012

  • Permaculture: Everything Counts Edit

    This is an arm of organic gardening that might be accused of taking itself over-seriously—until you realize how serious are the issues it confronts: not just the poisoning of air, earth, and water that organic gardening opposes, but the economic forces that push industries to adopt dangerous practices; forces that transform manure, one of the best and most obvious organic fertilizers around, into a waste; forces that keep most North Americans yoked to fossil fuels even when alternatives would allow us to live well, without poisoning ourselves or our earth.

    Jerome Osentowski, founder and director of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, grows figs and filberts at 7,200 feet, and actually sells energy to the “grid,” though he has four green houses, a house, a teaching institute, and several cabins. And no, they don’t use candles to read by. His descriptions of how he can make a pond, a patio, or even the walkway in a garden serve multiple purposes, make you want to rethink the whole idea of waste.

    Kareen Erbe teaches composting, permaculture, and sustainable living in Bozeman Montana, and this podcast covers that city’s first permablitz: a four hour intensive transformation of a bare, recently weedy, backyard plot, into the start of a permaculture garden.

    Permaculture redefines vegetable gardening—it’s not about annuals any more—and waste—who needs it?—and energy—it’s all around us; we just need to learn to capture and use it. This is mindboggling stuff.

    Check The Manic Gardener: an Organic Gardening Blog with Twisted Roots for a parallel post with more info and links.

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    June 2, 2012

  • Thrifty Gardening with Marjorie Harris Edit

    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.

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    June 2, 2012

  • Steps towards Sustainability Edit

    An interview with Jason Kimm takes place in a truck, a field, and a piece of harvesting equipment I’d never heard of. (It’s called a potato windrower, and it digs potatoes.) Along the way, he describes how he has worked to reduce his farm’s dependence on pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, not to mention electricity, often through what sound like ludicrously simple means. Using pipes instead of open ditches for irrigation all but eliminates the need for electric pumps. Using a water softener with an herbicide cuts the amount needed in half. And so forth.

    Like most North Americans these days, the amount I know about farming might fill a small teacup. But last week I visited the Kimm seed potato farm, where Jason and Yvonne Kimm operate a small organic plot and help their extended family run a much larger conventional farm. You might say I got educated in a hurry.

    On a previous show, “No Small Potatoes,” Yvonne introduced me to the organic operation and to the farm machinery and buildings. This week, we take to the fields.

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    April 24, 2012

  • Community Composting with Big Bokashi Edit

    How can a food bank cut its garbage output from 85,000 pounds in one year to 40,000 the next—and produce tons of “good dirt” at the same time? By composting, of course. But large-scale composting without turning, and without machinery?

    Michael Daltons and MJ Arendes of Gardens from Garbage explain how they are establishing school gardens, keeping tons of garbage out of landfills, and creating compost through a process most North Americans have never heard of, all at the same time. (And all despite the fact that according to MJ, they’ve “made every mistake in the book.”)

    Gayle Gifford, Executive Director of the food bank in Great Falls, Montana, talks about how Bokashi has cut her organization’s garbage bills, intrigued Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, and provided her with something to give back to the gardeners who contribute their produce.

    Bokashi appears to do everything from clean up nuclear waste (see last week’s show, Kitchen Composting: Bokashi 101) to keep your cat box from smelling. Yes, you can put it in your cat box, but also your smoothies, your fish pond, or your septic tank, and it will help every time. Don’t believe it? Listen and decide.

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    April 2, 2012

  • No small potatoes Edit

    Not many people can claim that a dancing accident turned them towards organic farming, but Yvonne and Jason Kimm aren’t like most people. Jason’s multi-generational potato seed farm isn’t unusual here in Montana, but the small plot on which he and Yvonne grow organic potatoes — that’s rare. Even more unusual, they grow organic seed potatoes, which must be guaranteed to be free of pests and disease. Listen in as Yvonne explains the organic part and shows me the conventional farm’s operation, ending at the storage cellars, where the cavernous echo of her voice gives some idea of their size. Stay tuned for this week’s Gardening Tip at the end of the show, and come back later in October to hear how Jason has established more sustainable practices even in the conventional farm.

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    March 20, 2012

  • From the Ground Up Edit

    Autumn may seem like an odd time to start a garden, but it actually makes sense, as this week’s guest, Tyson Stillman, explains. He’s funny, pithy, and an amazing source of gardening experience and information—a remarkable combination, considering that he’s still an undergraduate. He’ll walk you through the garden he’s putting in at his new house (two blocks from mine, I was thrilled to learn), explaining soil types, how crop rotation affects soil fertility, and more. And trust me—you don’t want to miss hearing Tyson tell how he tilled his garden “a million times.”

    You’ll also hear this week’s Garden Tip, and a moment of reflection about the show’s theme, which might be called “Against Purity.”

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    March 20, 2012