The Dirt Doctor

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

He calls the work of people such as George "great research done by scientists, not by backyard zealots."

On a hot summer day George stands over a vast field of test plots in Farmers Branch, where rose varieties are grown without fertilizer or pesticide under rigidly controlled conditions. His point in bringing a reporter here is to demonstrate the effort and expense required to really prove anything about horticulture.

"I've had well-meaning people come to me," he says, "homeowners, honest as they can be, but they're not scientists, and they'll say, 'Steve, I spread molasses all over my flower beds, and the flowers grew better.'

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.
Closed Location

"Well, you probably did, but unless you have a non-treated control, you can't draw the conclusion that the plants grew better because of the molasses. In my opinion, that's the leap that you can't make."

None of the rose bushes George is testing here gets help from chemicals. Some are brilliant green and red beneath a battering sun. Some are puny. At the end of a 10-year process, the roses that still shine will be deemed "Earthkind" by A&M. The puny ones will be history.

"I want to give credit where credit is due," he says. "I think there is no doubt that well-meaning people in the organic movement have helped to pave the way for Earthkind, where the public is much more willing to listen that there is a better way and you don't have to have perfection."

But George pointedly does not want to share that credit with unnamed persons whom he deems "fervent."

"A lot of people in the organic movement that I've met, they're so fervent, it's almost like a religion to them. I'm not talking religion, I'm talking science."

————

Bobby Spence argues that Howard Garrett had to be a zealot, given what he was up against. Only a zealous personality could have overcome the enormous business and cultural inertia in favor of chemical-based agriculture and horticulture. Spence remembers asking Garrett years ago why he—such a normal-seeming guy—was so bent on a strange mission like organic gardening.

"He asked me, 'How old is your daughter now?' I said, 'Well she's 6 months old.' He said, 'Think about it. In about six more months she's going to be crawling around that backyard, and what do you really want to put on that yard?'

"Let me tell you," Spence says. "There hasn't been a chemical put on my yard since then."

It doesn't mean that Howard Garrett is going to take over the world, make us all wear Dirt Doctor uniforms and eat diatomaceous earth. Even little Logan who started all of this—grown up now and a recent U.C.-Santa Barbara graduate—confesses to small reservations about his doctrine.

"I'm very aware of it, and I'm all for his message," she says from a post-graduation road trip recently. "But I've been camping in Northern California, and last night I sprayed DEET all over my legs because I was getting eaten alive."

If only Logan had accessed the Internet on her way to her campsite, she could have gone to dirtdoctor.com where she would have found an article about Duke University studies linking DEET, an abbreviation of N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, to "diffuse brain cell death and behavioral changes in rats after frequent and prolonged use."

If only she could have stopped by a grocery store, she could have picked up the makings of her father's recommended repellent: 8 ounces of water, two teaspoons of vanilla extract and one teaspoon orange oil.

Hopefully she'll come back to Dallas one day, become thoroughly steeped again in the local culture and put away all those crazy California notions like DEET.

Organic gardening. It's the new conservatism.

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