The Dirt Doctor

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

Men and women in white lab coats invented chemical potions to be poured on soil by giant corporate farmers and homeowners alike, culminating more recently in the development of genetically engineered crops.

Since first going on the air in Dallas in 1989, Garrett has preached that it's all upside-down. Nature is smarter and infinitely more complex than the scientists have guessed. The more efficient and effective—and cheaper—way to grow good plants is to encourage Mother Nature in her sometimes mysterious work and keep the chemicals away.

In all of this, no element is more important to Garrett than rich, natural, chemical-free soil—hence the self-anointed title, "Dirt Doctor."

Leslie Finical Hallek, general manager, and Jon Pincus, president of North Haven Gardens, believe that the Dallas market is moving strongly toward organic gardening.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Leslie Finical Hallek, general manager, and Jon Pincus, president of North Haven Gardens, believe that the Dallas market is moving strongly toward organic gardening.
Mark Claburn, director of Tierra Verde, an award-winning golf course in Arlington, says organic methods recommended by Howard Garrett are saving his golf course a lot of money.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Mark Claburn, director of Tierra Verde, an award-winning golf course in Arlington, says organic methods recommended by Howard Garrett are saving his golf course a lot of money.
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He has insisted for almost two decades that dirt must be a living organism, a complicated webwork of natural ingredients—naturally occurring chemical elements, bugs, worms, fungus, rotten stuff, growing stuff, all working together.

"The chemical approach is that you push the plant with synthetic chemicals primarily, and then you control the events that pop up with these chemical pest control products. The soil doesn't even come into it.

"The organic approach is that you help nature by creating healthy soil that's biologically alive and active. That condition naturally feeds the plants and naturally sets up a pest resistance.

"That's the basis of it. The heart and soul of the whole thing is soil."

Two decades ago in conservative Dallas, it all sounded screwy. Shrubs and flower beds were architectural burnishes in a sun-scorched, crack-soiled geography assumed to be hostile to fancy plants. The only way to make a rose bush bloom in Dallas was by beating the soil into submission with a chemical baseball bat.

How the worm has turned.

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People in the local nursery biz say the Dallas area now is at least evenly split between home gardeners and businesses using entirely organic methods and those who still depend on chemicals, making this one of the nation's organic hotbeds.

And almost everyone in the field gives Garrett a lot of the credit. Neil Sperry, who has built a personal gardening empire around his own very popular show, "Neil Sperry's Gardens" on KRLD-1080 AM (Sundays 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.) says: "Howard is a very compelling person. He has an easy voice to listen to."

Sound a little like Hillary praising Obama? Give Sperry credit. It's way nicer than what he used to say about Garrett's advice. "It is in no way steeped in research or documentation," Sperry told The Dallas Morning News in 1996. "Much of it appears to the average listener to be shoot-from-the-hip answers, and I'm not the only one who has said that."

In the dozen years since Sperry spoke those words, the changes in science have been remarkable—the wave buoying Garrett up and bringing organic gardening into the mainstream. Mike Amaranthus, a soil scientist at Oregon State University, says: "You know why the mountain has come to Howard, don't you? It's because he was right."

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Garrett did not come to organic gardening by way of ideology. If anything, he seems to have wandered in through the back door. The son of store owners in Pittsburg, Texas, his first collision with chemicals happened when he was a parks administration student at Texas Tech.

"It took me one class in chemistry to realize I wasn't smart enough for chemistry," he says.

His landscape design and horticulture classes, on the other hand, were huge fun. "In landscape design I enjoyed it so much I did the drawings for two of my friends who were in the class."

Garrett's first jobs out of school were in the golf course business. Later he walked door-to-door in new subdivisions in Dallas, selling his services as a landscape designer.

In those days Garrett poured chemicals on yards and gardens with the best of them. All of that changed, he says, in 1985, the year Logan, his only child, was born.

"That was the main turning point," he says. "I still have some classic pictures of her, 9 months old and bald-headed, picking stuff up off the floor and sticking it in her mouth. That's when it just hit me like a ton of bricks that it didn't make sense to have toxic stuff around the house.

"I literally at that point didn't have a clue what organic was. I had never been exposed to it."

Garrett thinks the fact that he sort of wandered into horticulture may have saved him from the rigid thinking of more formal practitioners. "I probably didn't get quite as brainwashed as some people. Especially when you go to A&M, there is such a huge pride about being there.

"I had an ability for some reason to say that doesn't make sense. I'm going to look into this on my own."

When little Logan's eating habits spurred his change of heart about garden chemicals, Garrett went to the Texas Department of Agriculture for names of organic growers. It was the meager beginning of what became a long and intense program of self-education.

In the meantime Garrett's success in the landscape business was growing. In 1980 he merged businesses with the legendary Joe Lambert, a flamboyant figure given to capes and an eye-patch, whose Lambert Landscape Company introduced Dallas to azaleas and dramatic landscape color in the 1940s. With Garrett as a partner, Lambert's went totally organic.

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