The Dirt Doctor

How radio show host Howard Garrett pushed Dallas to the center of the organic gardening movement through passion, principle and molasses

The announcer is a little girl. In the clear airspace of Sunday morning radio, her voice is sweet, but the message is heavy. As if introducing story time for the kiddies, she tells listeners, "This is the show that exposes the chemical pushers, the environmental thugs and the certified organophobes."

Quite a mouthful for a first-grader. The introduction to The Natural Way, Howard Garrett's organic gardening show on News Talk KSKY-660 AM radio in Dallas, was recorded almost two decades ago by his daughter, Logan, but it's still aired every Sunday morning in 94 markets around the nation.

In 1989 when Garrett launched his first garden show on WBAP-820 AM, the "chemical-pusher" language barely matched the level of invective hurled at him by detractors. This was one tough town for an organic gardener.

Howard Garrett used chemicals with the best of them. Then in 1985 his daughter, Logan, was born. All of a sudden he didn't want anything toxic on his property.
Howard Garrett used chemicals with the best of them. Then in 1985 his daughter, Logan, was born. All of a sudden he didn't want anything toxic on his property.
Howard Garrett used chemicals with the best of them. Then in 1985 his daughter, Logan, was born. All of a sudden he didn’t want anything toxic on his property.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Howard Garrett used chemicals with the best of them. Then in 1985 his daughter, Logan, was born. All of a sudden he didn’t want anything toxic on his property.

Texas A&M plant expert Dr. Steven W. George, an associate professor and horticulturist in A&M's revered Texas AgriLife extension service in Dallas, and famous Dallas radio garden show host Neil Sperry—mega-stars in the regional gardening firmament—believed devoutly in chemical-based horticulture and took Garrett's message of organic gardening as plant quackery.

But now some of Garrett's toughest critics—even Professor George—concede the latest science is confirming many of the core doctrines Garrett has preached over the years, especially his faith that dirt must be a living organism, not some inanimate grit soaked in a toxic chemical brew.

That change itself—science endorsing organic methods—is amazing enough. But from a strictly local point of view, an even more striking transformation appears to be taking place. Many people in local and regional garden and landscape businesses say the Dallas/Fort Worth market has moved significantly toward Garrett. They say we're a big center of organic gardening.

Think about it. Dallas, Texas, and organic gardening? What next? Huge new mega-churches on freeway service drives devoted to French existentialism?

Surely there must be something missing in this picture, something not told, some kind of information withheld. And there is. It's the story of Howard Garrett.

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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.

His radio talk show, The Natural Way, airs on Saturdays 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sundays 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Slung back a bit from the console, fielding listeners' calls in a state-of-the-art studio near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Garrett is tanned and easy-going in a gray golf cap, red polo shirt and shorts.

When he first went on the air 19 years ago, the callers had accents ranging from Easternmost Mesquite to Northernmost Plano. Now because the show is nationally syndicated, the accents reach from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Most of the questions are about gardening. Some are decidedly not. Doesn't matter. Garrett's answer is always organic.

Tom in Colorado Springs wants to know how to keep weeds from sprouting in his newly built gravel parking area. Should he use "Roundup," a popular weed and grass killer made by Scott's Miracle Gro?

According to the manufacturer's Web site, Roundup contains "2 percent glyphosate, 2 percent pelargonic and other related fatty acids."

Don't know what that means? Easy. Glyphosate is an herbicide derived from an aminophosphonic analog of the natural amino acid glycine; pelargonic is an herbicide containing a common nonanoic acid.

Still don't know what it means? Yeah, well, maybe that's the problem. In an easy-flowing, urbanized East Texas drawl, Garrett recommends his home remedy, which is easy to understand. "Just go to the grocery store," Garrett tells Tom in Colorado Springs, "or to the feed store and get some 8 to 10 percent pickling vinegar. You spray that full-strength. You don't dilute it with water.

"But you add to it a little orange oil, about an ounce per gallon of the vinegar, and you add a tablespoon of liquid molasses per gallon of vinegar, and you add a teaspoon of soap. OK? And you keep it shaken up, because it will settle out.

"You spray those weeds as they're coming up, and man, it works as well as Roundup, and it's not a toxic product like Roundup is."

No matter what they ask him, Garrett's on-the-air persona is always matter-of-fact and common as dirt. Off-the-air he's a little more than that. He tells a visitor that at 61 years of age, "I'm probably in better shape than any time since the Marine Corps."

He also says: "I think I have been involved in the creation of a new mainstream."

Modesty did not make Howard Garrett. And maybe at this point he has a right to be sure of himself: He is an author with 15 books in print and two in progress, his own syndicated radio show claiming 655,000 weekly listeners in 16 states from Massachusetts to California, a weekly newspaper column, a Web site that claims almost 10 million hits a month and more than 5,000 unique visitors per day, a newsletter with more than 30,000 subscribers and a small empire of organic products sold in more than 3,400 stores.

Lurking beneath Garrett's friendly old-shoe exterior is a folksy doctrine of horticulture—a philosophy of life, really—explosively at odds with American culture since World War II. The post-war years saw the enormous bloom of science and technology as tools of agriculture and horticulture.

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