The Dirt Doctor

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

Even before he took to the airwaves, Garrett was already espousing strange notions—pouring molasses on soil instead of fertilizer, defeating pests with orange oil, treating sick plants with something called "Garrett Juice."

Bobby Spence, marketing director for Nature's Guide, a national line of organic gardening products manufactured in Fort Worth, which advertises on both Garrett's and Sperry's radio programs, describes an incident early in Garrett's career as an organic advocate: "He and I did a presentation once in 1989, after we first met, for the Arlington Men's Garden Club. They were just nothing but chemical people."

Garrett went into the lion's den in Arlington and preached organic methods. "They razzed him a little bit," Spence says, "but Howard went right on. And he was very well received."

Bobby Spence, whose company produces and distributes organic products nationally, believes the Dallas-Fort Worth area has become the nation’s biggest and most receptive market for organic lawn and garden products.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Bobby Spence, whose company produces and distributes organic products nationally, believes the Dallas-Fort Worth area has become the nation’s biggest and most receptive market for organic lawn and garden products.
Elliott’s Hardware in Dallas now devotes an entire section of the store to products carrying Garrett’s “Dirt Doctor” logo or approved by Garrett—a complete organic system from start to finish.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Elliott’s Hardware in Dallas now devotes an entire section of the store to products carrying Garrett’s “Dirt Doctor” logo or approved by Garrett—a complete organic system from start to finish.

This was at a time when Dallasites were still cheerfully dousing their lawns and gardens with Diazinon and Dursban, both banned in 2000. Diazinon, a chemical cousin of the nerve gas, sarin, was associated with cancer, birth defects and nervous system damage. National studies since the bans have shown improved birth weight and length of newborns.

Back when Diazinon and Dursban were still on the shelves—their manufacturers buying plenty of advertising on shows like Sperry's—the opposition to Garrett was fierce.

But that was then. This is now. A whole lot has happened.

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Now when Sperry and George of A&M speak about gardening and landscape methods, they sound at times as if they are trying to out-organic Howard Garrett. George says, "Since World War II the American public has butted heads with Mother Nature. 'We're going to spread pesticide or fertilize the bejeebers out of it,' without knowing whether it's the right thing."

George, weary by now of his long personal warfare with Garrett, spoke to the Dallas Observer only on the condition that he not be asked to talk about Garrett personally. His main project in life now is the development of a line of 90 percent organic rose bushes, trademarked "Earthkind" by A&M and grown almost but not quite entirely without chemicals.

When he talks about what he has learned in the development of these roses, George sounds uncannily like...forgive us, Professor George, and please sit down for this...he sounds a whole lot like Howard Garrett:

"We are using the strongest plant genetics," he says, "best adapted for that area, with the highest levels of genetic tolerance to insects and diseases.

"We're coupling that with great environmental soil enhancement."

He's talking about good dirt—living dirt. That would be, ahem, may we say it? Dirt-doctor dirt.

"When you do that, you instantly bypass 99 percent of the problems with ornamentals [garden plants]," George concludes. "It's nothing magical. It's just great plant genetics and really good soil management."

George is candid and good-natured about saying all of this represents an enormous turnabout from what he was taught and what he for years taught his students: "If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said you're out of your mind. This goes against so much of what I was taught. Certainly there are significant things that we have learned here that are wrong in horticulture books and wrong in my education."

But George's change of heart, dramatic though it may be, is no more stunning than what seems to be going on in backyard gardens and on commercial properties all around Dallas.

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Many people in the garden and landscape business agree that the Dallas-Fort Worth area has come around by some significant degree to Garrett's point of view. Definitive numbers are tough to come by, but the anecdotal testimony paints a picture.

Bobby Spence of Nature's Guide is convinced that Dallas and Fort Worth make up one of the country's biggest organic gardening markets.

"The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is by far—by far!—the largest area in the United States to sell organics," Spence says. "I just got back in May from the national hardware show out in Las Vegas, and it's amazing to talk to people [from other regions] about organics.

"They still just don't have a clue. They say, 'Well, our market is just not ready for that. Our consumer's not looking for that."

Spence says Dallas is way ready. He estimates home gardeners in the Dallas region are now split approximately 50/50 between organic methods and the use of chemical-based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Two of the region's oldest retailers of garden products, Elliott's Hardware and North Haven Gardens, straddle the fence in the organic versus synthetic debate, offering both kinds of products but leaving the choice to their customers. Both companies see organics moving up quickly, making the region a national leader.

Kyle Walters, president of Elliott's Hardware, calls organic gardening in Dallas "the direction that it's all headed." He doesn't see it at quite 50/50 yet. "Our sales of organic products have dramatically increased but still haven't overtaken the synthetic side of the market."

Jon Pincus, president of North Haven Gardens, isn't quite ready to put Dallas at the head of the class for organic gardening nationally but agrees that it's high on the list. "I tend to think that California has the most interest in organic gardening and organic produce. They kind of lead us there.

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