Howard Garrett has sown seeds of organic gardening nationwide
Austin has earned a reputation for its eco-friendly trends but fact is, North Texas is home to its share of green pioneers. Take Howard Garrett, aka, The Dirt Doctor. Thanks in part to Garrett, organic gardening has edged into the mainstream in the Lone Star State and across the U.S. over the last 30 years.
Many who garden know the Dallas resident as that mellow East Texas voice on the radio on Sunday mornings reassuring people across the country that they don’t need chemicals to grow vegetables, flowers, trees or even win “lawn of the month.” He also turns up, commonly in a Panama Hat and khakis at garden shows. There he urges folks to eschew synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and instead fend off weeds and bugs with an armory of relatively harmless ingredients likely found in their pantry – dish soap, baking soda, cider vinegar, orange oil, coffee grounds – along with a few earthy things that come from nurseries and feed stores like nematodes, earthworm castings, Neem oil, fishmeal, corn gluten and such.
Howard Garrett, aka the Dirt DoctorHis program is pretty simple, but effective, he says. We’ll let him tell it:
“The organic program is basically this. We get people to do two things. We get people to stop using synthetic fertilizers, which are basically salts. They’re high nitrogen salt-based fertilizers. And we get them to stop using the toxic pesticides. And then we get them to start doing any kind of inputs that improve the biology of the soil, improve the health of the soil,” he explains.
Surprise! The Dirt Doctor wants you to improve the soil.
“We use compost, organic fertilizers, sugars like molasses and corn meal as a way of building the soil. And we use rock minerals, things like green sand and lava sand. We mix those into the soil. That’s the basic program. It’s really that simple.”
Simple: Make great soil, grow sturdy plants. But over the years, the blowback against the organic program has been at times as potent as a blast of Diazinon.
As you can imagine, if you’ve ever pondered the packed aisles of weed-and-feed at your local big box store or whiffed the frequent ammonia stench coming off your neighbor’s just-treated yard, Garrett’s decades-long campaign to show the world that pretty landscapes don’t need RoundUp or 2,4-D, Miracle Gro or even Thrive to thrive, has been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back, sort of story.
This is not because the organic program he advocates doesn’t work. He’s proven with installations large and small, and his listeners and acolytes have found, that done right, it works extremely well.
Research accumulates every day that fortifies Garrett’s position that natural methods are effective, as well as kinder to the environment. Agricultural studies such as Rodale Institute’s 30-year comparison of organic vs. chemical growing have found that organic methods are less polluting and also produce comparable yields. That’s because the soil is key. Rodale’s study found that organic methods nurtured soil health and reduced run-off. Soil samples of organic fields even looked darker and more enriched.
“The world is coming our way. More and more people are interested in health, and eating well, and exercise and clean food and water, and all that. More and more and more."
A handful of organic golf courses have found similarly that even carefully manicured putting greens can flourish without manmade chemical inputs.
And these same mechanics work in residential or small commercial gardens, lawns and landscapes.
“The world is coming our way. More and more people are interested in health, and eating well, and exercise and clean food and water, and all that. More and more and more. A lot of them don’t put two and two together that what we talk about (how plants should be grown) is the real answer to all that,” says Garrett during our interview.
We caught him between radio shows and travel events in advance of this year’s Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership Awards where Garrett will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov. 3. (The event, at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, is open to the public. Tickets can be purchased here.)
Roll back three decades, when Garrett went organic, and no part of the world seemed to be coming his way. Not the entrenched chemical industry. Not the landscape professionals. Not the horticulturalists. Not even the big universities, though Texas A&M would soon come out with a program promoting “EarthKind” plants, a guide to native and adapted flowers, shrubs and trees that require less water.
In the mid-1980s, Garrett was a successful Dallas landscape architect with previous experience as the assistant manager of the Brookhaven Golf Course in Farmers Branch. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and had a degree (1969) from Texas Tech University in Park Administration and Landscape Architecture.
He had learned to bend the landscape to his will using toxic chemicals, just like everyone else who went to college in the second half of the 20th Century. It was the modern way and, Garrett says, continues to dominate the curriculum at most universities even today.
One afternoon he found himself at home in Carrollton, laying out a flat of flowers to plant. A new dad, he glanced up at his toddler daughter Logan. She was playing on the front porch in her adorable OshKosh B’Gosh outfit, doing what toddlers everywhere do so well, terrifying their parents by sticking things in their mouths.
“At that moment it dawned on me it wasn’t very smart to have toxic chemicals around the house,” he says.
Garrett JuiceGarrett did not waste any time after that epiphany. He spent the next few years researching organic methods. Finding textbooks on the topic to be scarce or nonexistent, he tapped organic vegetable gardeners and agricultural experts (like Rodale). He dug deep for information and experimented with “home brews” – which would lead to his trademark magic potion, the multi-purpose compost tea he calls “Garrett Juice” and dozens more recipes for keeping soil and plants healthy.
Residents looking for a non-toxic program embraced the program he preached and soon, Garrett was a fixture at garden shows and had written or co-written several books for the gardening public.
By 1989, Garrett was fully organic and poised to become the natural gardening pied piper to the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a new radio show, then on WBAP 820 AM in Dallas.
Longtime friend Andrea Ridout, founder of the eco-friendly Gecko Hardware in Dallas and a fellow radio talk show host in the home improvement arena (Ask Andrea), says Garrett just kept getting more successful because he’d become a walking library of information.
“He is incredibly knowledgeable. He’s had a wide variety of different experiences and he knows so many people. When someone calls him (on the radio), he does an amazing job with it,” Ridout says. “He’s a wonderful host.”
His straight-shooting but reserved Texas manner also contributed to his success, according to journalist Jim Schutze.
“Garrett probably is the only person in the world who could have coaxed North Texas toward organic methods. Why? Because he's the least hippie-dippy organic gardening guy anybody ever met,” Schutze wrote in a 2008 profile of Garrett in the Dallas Observer.
Garrett later moved to KSKY AM Radio in Dallas, expanding and syndicating in 2006 to more than 200 radio markets with an estimated audience of 845,000. His syndicated three-hour Sunday morning Healthy Living and Growing radio show reaches coast to coast and is livestreamed at Garrett’s website, DirtDoctor.com. The website gets more than 130,000 visitors per month. Meanwhile, Garrett also writes a Q&A column for the Dallas Morning News and has developed a 15-chapter online course that offers a certificate aimed at nursery and landscape professionals but accessible for homeowners.
JUST PLAIN ORGANIC
As an organic advocate, Garrett has left no stone unturned in his crusade to counter what he sees as a shortage of organic gardening education for students, professionals and hobbyists.
Texas Organic Gardening Book CoverBut while Garrett’s brand and offerings have exploded over the past decade, his easygoing style remains, making his Sunday morning show (8–11 am in Dallas/Fort Worth) a soothing listen, a respite from the usual 30-second TV and radio sound bites.
One of Garrett's gardening bibles, originally published in 1995.
With its homespun format and health-oriented advertisers, the show can sound a bit like a “Prairie Home Companion” with a Southern drawl and multiple other dialects as people in from the far reaches of the U.S. When someone veers off-topic, Garrett gamely tries to help. Thus, he suggests a cornmeal bath for an itchy dog in rural Illinois but demurs that said hound also should see a vet. He advices a listener with a beloved tree spewing sticky aphid residue onto a car not to fret, fall weather will zap those messy bugs.
On gardening topics, things move briskly as Garrett ticks off ideas for mildewy bushes, withering roses, stressed white eggplants and warty trees. The Dirt Doctor diagnoses the problem - depleted soil, aphids, floral diseases, lack of beneficial bugs or pollinators – and issues a prescription. Grab the compost tea, molasses and orange oil, we’re going to get rid of those darned fire ants!
Garrett has answers to garden questions you didn’t even know you had. In his website library, you can learn the likely cause of “earthworm suicide” (spoiler alert: thunder vibrations) and find eco-friendly alternatives to foam packing “peanuts.”
Some solutions will leave casual gardeners mystified. Did you know tiny beneficial nematodes can be purchased in three different forms, including embedded in a blue sponge that can be re-hydrated in a bucket before you pour them onto the soil? Me neither.
But this is not to say that the Dirt Doctor program is complicated, and Garrett stresses that many times as we talk. If anything, the organic solutions he promotes have gotten simpler over the years, he says. It’s just that there is an endless catalog of calamities that can bewitch a landscape (though an organic one will be less disease-prone) and countless variant concoctions that might be needed. You might need guidance procuring arcane items at feed stores or nurseries to find, say, kelp meal, dry molasses, rock phosphate and other natural garden balms on Garrett’s list of ”acceptable” ingredients.
BIG ORGANIC GARDENS
Garrett spends a lot of time advocating for organics, but he has continued his landscape work, designing and overseeing major installations for clients such as Frito Lay in Plano and the former Johnson & Johnson facility in Arlington, TX.
Bayou Bend, HoustonOne of his first big projects to demonstrate that an organic program works and - listen up Texas! - saves water, was at Bayou Bend, the lush, formal gardens at the historic Houston estate of the late philanthropist Ima Hogg.
To make a long story short, the curator at the storied estate kept diligent records before and after Garrett converted the seven-acres of gardens and park land around the museum to an all-organic program. This was in the 1990s. As the years rolled by, these records confirmed what Garrett had suspected: Going organic greatly reduces water demand.
“The reason it saves water is that everything that we do is targeted at building the life in the soil. The beneficial microbes, the bacteria, the fungi, the protozoa, the good nematodes – the various good microbes that should be in the soil. They’re not there, especially in the proper percentages and quantities, when you’re using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides like RoundUp, “ Garrett explains.
“He (the curator) did a great favor for us. He kept records in the past and he continued to keep records of all the pesticides and fertilizer and water inputs, and he was the first one to document that by going organic he reduced the water bill by 50 percent.”
From Garrett’s perspective, the best reason to go organic is that organic methods work. But a really important side effect is that the organic approach reduces the chemical pollution running off treated landscapes into sewers and waterways and also volatizing into the air.
Take RoundUp. While some natural gardeners still keep a little of the world’s most ubiquitous pesticide on hand for intransigent problems, Garrett is unafraid to declare this chemical (glyphosate) completely unnecessary. It ruins the soil, and thereby weakens plants, by killing microscopic life in the earth.
Studies also have confirmed that RoundUp contaminates the water in regions where it’s used commercially.
“It’s one of the main things we try to get people to stop using, and it’s tough, because it works. You put it out there and it kills things,” he says. “We teach people to use other techniques. Physical removal, flame throwers, vinegar, fatty acid products, various things.”
Additionally, Garrett notes, RoundUp also has been implicated in certain cancers and degenerative diseases and may even affect the human gut. So RoundUp has no place in the program, not even as a fallback.
Perhaps it is this clarity, this certitude, that also accounts for Garrett’s success.
“The people who are into it (organics) are like me, they’re just kind of individualistic and not afraid of striking out and doing something that the industry says won’t work. We don’t have any fear of failure,” he says, but quickly adds that he empathizes with nursery people and groundskeepers who risk reprisals if they go against the chemical norm.
GARDENING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Garrett has faced that backlash his entire career.
While beautiful Bayou Bend continues to be an organic success, another major organic landscape did not fare so well, largely because it flouted the mainstream thinking that an organic program is inadequate.
With Garrett’s reputation as a landscaper growing back in the 1980s, Frito Lay executives hired him and a firm out of Massachusetts to transform their 300-acre corporate campus in Plano. This was a landscaper’s dream and Garrett went for a soft, natural look, a newer approach.
“They wanted it to be much more formal and I wanted it to be much more natural. I won that battle for it to be softer and natural with gardens and opening and closing outdoor ‘rooms,’ and we used mostly native trees and mostly native plants.”
Later, after Garrett had gone organic, he put the entire project on an organic program, for about a decade, creating what he says was then the largest commercial organic project in the United States.
“But there was a certain group of people there with connections to certain universities that didn’t like it being done that way,” Garrett says.
When his liaison at Frito Lay retired, that group stepped in.
“They not only ended the organic program, they cut down all the understory and cut down hundreds and hundreds of trees and just destroyed the place,” Garrett says, calling this the biggest disappointment of his career. “When I first saw it, I just cried, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t even like to go out there and look at it anymore.”
It’s no secret that the university Garrett is referencing is Texas A&M, which houses the state’s largest horticulture and agriculture programs. A&M, like other big ag universities, has tolerated and taught chemical horticulture. It’s been their focus for decades, says Garrett.
It would be unfair to say the universities are completely ignoring organic methods today. They are offering composting instruction and other organic tips, as A&M does on its Organic Lifestyles website.
But it would equally inaccurate to conclude that organics is swooping in to dominate at these institutions. A&M’s advice for dealing with pests and disease on its organic page sounds about as mealy as an open bin of oatmeal: “A variety of methods” will be needed for satisfactory control, and that will depend upon the amount of damage and weather conditions, the site intones, leaving the door open for chemical solutions.
Howard Garrett yardThe universities’ non-embrace of organics bothers Garrett. Just a few years ago, a Texas Tech executive, recognizing Garrett’s prominence in the world of horticulture, invited him to discuss ways such a well-known alum might work with the university.
Seizing the opportunity, Garrett proposed that the university add organic courses and make its new golf course and master plan all-organic projects.
Garrett knew this was a long shot, but he told his connection that organics might help Tech distinguish itself from Texas A&M. The man was receptive, enthused even. Garrett cautioned him: “I said, ‘Let me warn you. When you go back to Tech they’re going to warn you about two things. They’re going to say Howard Garrett is the devil and you need to stay away from him, and two, that’s the dumbest idea I ever heard of’,” Garrett says.
“And I never heard from him again.”
“Organophobia,” as Garrett calls it, has been a constant thorn. He grows passionate explaining why there’s been, and remains, so much resistance to organics. You’d think it was money, he says. And yes, that’s a factor. The few giant chemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta that churn out pesticides and synthetics fertilizers have huge marketing budgets to promote and protect their juggernaut.
“The people in the industry that are used to recommending the things I don’t recommend, the pesticides and fertilizers; it is extremely difficult for them to admit that they’ve been wrong. That’s the most important thing holding it back. More so than the money.”
But the core of the problem, Garrett believes, is that the educators, marketers and experts simply don’t want to reverse themselves.
Oddly, conservative Texas, which one might expect to go a conventional chemical route, has become a stronghold of organic voices, says Garrett, thanks to the coincidence of having several advocates on the radio in Texas and in businesses and non-profits.
These voices include Garrett; John Dromgoole, the Natural Gardener nursery owner and radio host on KLBJ AM in Austin; Bob Webster, a naturalist and SMU alum who broadcasts on KTSA AM in San Antonio and C. Malcolm Beck, the San Antonio organic gardening pioneer who mentored Garrett and others. Beck and Garrett co-authored four books, including Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening.
That’s at least two more organic voices on the radio than in other states, says Garrett, though Pennsylvania is home to Rodale veteran and radio host of “You Bet Your Garden,” Mike McGrath.
Add to all that Lone Star expertise, the esteemed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, a national crossroads for organic and native plant research, and businesses like Native American Seed, a national seller of wildflower seeds and native prairie turfs based in Junction, west of Austin, and it appears that Texas’ influence on organics is outsized.
“You know who’s into organics more than anybody?”asks Garrett with a big smile. “The state of Texas.”
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