The Dirt Doctor

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

"Colorado is very strong in that regard. As are we here. The nursery industry in other parts of the country is definitely lagging behind."

The National Gardening Association, headquartered in Burlington, Vermont, is closely associated with the traditional garden supply industry and tends to be conservative in its approach to organics. Bruce Butterfield, the association's research director, says he knows of no definitive numbers comparing organic product sales in local or regional markets around the country, but he agrees that the organic trend is strongly upward nationally.

"Five years ago, 5 percent of households nationally were using only all-natural, organic gardening methods," Butterfield says. "Last year it was probably at 10 or 12 percent. Five years out, I'll put it at 20 percent."

Iscar Metals facilities manager David Wooten, left, and executive vice president Reggie Louder manage a four-acre industrial site on Interstate 20 in Arlington according to the Dirt Doctor regimen. Louder says, “There’s no reason not to.”
Brandon Thibodeaux
Iscar Metals facilities manager David Wooten, left, and executive vice president Reggie Louder manage a four-acre industrial site on Interstate 20 in Arlington according to the Dirt Doctor regimen. Louder says, “There’s no reason not to.”

If Dallas is already much more organic than Butterfield's national projection, how and why did that happen? Leslie Finical Halleck, the general manager of North Haven Gardens, says the change is the result of relentless pressure from garden and landscape customers in Dallas, especially younger ones.

"In my age-group, pretty much hard-core gen-Xers," she says, "they've got their first homes now, they're starting to venture into that territory, and I think as a group they are just more receptive from the start to choosing that kind of lifestyle."

Based on questionnaires and comment forms filled out by North Haven customers, Halleck says, "They want composting. They want rainwater collecting. They want organic gardening. They want to know how to do things."

What things?

"Last weekend we had a class on canning."

The gen-Xers want to compost and can?

Yes, she says, but it's not just gen-Xers. "There are a lot of just kind of normal folks out there who are being pushed into receptiveness by the economy, by the increased cost of fuel and cost of food.

"Vegetable gardening is really going to be the push that pushes a lot of people over the edge, because once you start growing your own food you start to be a little more selective about what you want it to absorb."

Many people in the local garden supply business credit Garrett with helping create this demand for organic products. Spence says, "Howard has changed this market. He has changed it tremendously, and he has changed it for the better."

Pincus says, "Howard deserves a lot of the credit, absolutely."

But let's imagine—just for the sake of argument and not because it's true at all, of course—that gardeners tend to be a bit on the odd side anyway, maybe one or two organic carrots short of a peck. The real proof, then, of Garrett's persuasive power would be the success he enjoys in harder-nosed venues.

The Tierra Verde Golf Club, an award-winning city-owned course in Arlington, is now run on an almost 100 percent organic basis under Garrett's tutelage.

Tierra Verde superintendent Mark Claburn says Garrett's organic techniques have enabled him to operate at significant financial savings over golf courses still employing traditional chemical methods of turf maintenance. Part of it is that Garrett's methods solve many pest problems without expensive pesticide.

"There are guys in the metroplex on golf turf with the same exact grasses as me," Claburn says, "that are spraying fungicides every 21 to 28 days, at about $1,000 per application, and I haven't had to in four years."

The natural soil Claburn has developed beneath his turf holds water much more efficiently than soil gutted by chemicals. That difference alone delivers major savings in water usage. Claburn cites a recent industry report that put average water usage for golf courses in the Southwest at 150 million gallons per year.

"We use 67 million gallons a year," he says.

The cost advantages of the organic approach have become even more dramatic recently because the chemicals, all derived from oil, are beginning to soar with rising fuel prices. "In fact this year we have actually had trouble finding organic product," Claburn says, "because so many golf courses are turning to natural fertilizers."

Garrett has persuaded some major corporate clients with North Texas headquarters to convert their campuses to organic management, including the international junk-food giant, Frito-Lay. In response to an inquiry, Frito-Lay didn't deny its Plano campus is organic but didn't want to talk about it.

Garrett says his corporate clients' motivation for going organic is simple. "It looks better. It's cheaper."

But it's more than that. Iscar Metals, a maker of precision carbide metalworking tools with headquarters in Arlington, has managed its four-acre campus on the Garrett plan for 13 years. Iscar came to Garrett because its executive vice president, Reggie Louder, heard him on the radio. Something about Garrett's philosophy, tinged by little Logan's intro, reached Louder in his car full of his own kids.

"We were driving to the lake a lot in the mornings," Louder says, "and I would always listen to Howard on the radio. My kids in the car would get so sick of hearing it. They could recite Howard's sick tree treatment. Before Howard could answer a question, my kids would say, 'Sick tree treatment,' and they knew what it was."

Louder was intrigued. "Our lawn at home never was doing too good, unless you put fertilizer on it, and then it would only look good for a while. I remember trying to pull weeds. I couldn't even stick a screwdriver in the ground hardly."

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