The weekend that the Chicago Flower & Garden Show opened Mike Nowak had Michele Owens, of Garden Rant, on his radio show to promote her book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. Mike started the segment by giving the book and author high praise. Then irony reared its ugly head. Mike asked, "Why did you do the book...you must have found that garden writers weren't saying the right things." What followed was hilarious on multiple levels as the author flubbed the only two questions posed to her about gardening. The first was about the safety of soil in a spot where dogs have been pooping and about mulch robbing soil of nitrogen.
The dog poop question came from Santo the bus driver who wanted to start a "garden on a patch of ground that a lot of dogs have been using over the years. And he wanted to know if he needed to prepare the soil, if there were any precautions, he wanted to plant vegetables."
"Well, you know soil is really self cleaning. If you add organic matter they're probably going to break down whatever is there. I would try and get anything fresh off of the site and I would also probably try to fence it a little bit to keep them out in future, but I wouldn't sweat it. We just had a winter, the ground has been frozen. I mean, if it were my garden I would just go ahead and do it."
Moments later Mike read a Tweet by a gardener who said they had been researching the issue for their community garden and disagreed with the advice. At this point you can tell she was thrown for a loop because she let out a long sigh and over pronounced her Ps in the beginning of the follow-up "...I'm just saying what I would do...I'm not trying to tell anybody else how to do this, you know. Consult the literature, talk to a scientist, talk to a master gardener, talk to an extension agent!"
Days later she returned to her blog and mentions the first incident and gives a better explanation. She talks about the Twitter controversy and attributes the reaction to Americans who are "scared" of dirt and digging in it.
As a garden blogger, I wasn't surprised that gardeners on Twitter listening to Mike's show were questioning the bad advice she was giving. American garden bloggers
are known for their ability to question and confront authority figures.
When I facilitate seed swaps and do garden talks around Chicago the number one subject new gardeners bring up is soil. They want to know if their soil is safe to plant in, if it isn't safe they want to know about soil remediation methods, they ask about ways of amending soil. Soil, soil, soil. It is all new gardeners want to talk about in Chicago. I can't believe the dog poop in garden soil question was answered so poorly by someone who has 20 years of gardening experience and who is a garden writer. If you ask gardeners around Chicago if you should plant a vegetable garden where a dog has pooped the answer will be, yes, provided you build a raised bed
over the area. Raised beds are the gardening version of Chris Rock's Robitussin bit
; they're the answer to all
the gardening ailments in Chicago.
The problem here isn't ignorance on behalf of Americans or the gardener bloggers who were listening and tweeting. You had someone who didn't know what they were talking about. Isn't accustomed to having her authority question and was easily flustered. Someone who isn't a good listener and is a poor on-air communicator.
Communication starts with listening. Had she listened to the question to begin with maybe the point of the question would've been clear. The caller wanted to know if it was safe to plant a vegetable where "a lot" of dogs had been crapping "over the years." To be able to answer the question requires some critical thinking, but it can be done. How many are "a lot" of dogs. How many years of dog crap accumulation are we talking about? Is there a chance the dogs ever had diseases and were medicated? What about their diets? Anyone who has ever owned a dog and yard knows that little will grow in a yard where a dog has had free reign. What are the chances that after years of being a dog run that there was anything growing above ground that would feed the soil microbes?
Without knowing the answer to all of these questions the best answer would be to recommend growing in raised beds or containers
. After being called out for giving bad advice she said that she wasn't trying to tell people what to do and that she wasn't an expert. Um, wasn't the point of the radio interview to talk about a vegetable gardening book where you tell people what to do? And if you're not an expert, should you be writing books? Don't writers find expertise in a subject to be helpful in the writing process?
Her retelling of the "controversy" on her blog is patronizing and elitist, but that's to be expected from Garden Rant. Attributing the backlash to Americans being afraid of soil she sounds like a grad student stubbornly defending a shoddy thesis. The people who called her out for giving bad advice just have an "outsized fear" of soil and soil microbes. Ha! It sounded to me like people were afraid of dog crap and what lurks in it. The Twitter members who I saw voice their objection over her bad advice not only grow their own food in their backyards-- they're members of community gardens where they grow more food! Growing your own food and sitting around listening to a gardening radio show for two hours on a Sunday morning doesn't sound like the habits of people who are afraid of soil.
Chicagoans don't have an "outsized fear" of soil. They're afraid of crappy gardening advice that could potentially get someone sick.They have good reason too. In 2008, three out of five members of Michele Owens' family contracted Lyme disease after working in her garden. She replies to a comment on Garden Rant about using wood chip mulch:
"I'm interested in this idea for weed control in mine. I am deliriously happy with the results I've gotten from my current mulch scheme: a layer of alpaca bedding (manure plus straw) close to the soil for the nutrients and then another layer of shredded fall leaves for weed control. However, I have apparently tragically created the perfect environment for ticks in the leaf mold.
Since three out of five members of my family got Lyme after working in the garden this spring, I need to try something else. My lawn guy, an old sage, says, "Put the wood chips you use on the paths on your vegetable beds."
Shocking advice, but maybe he's right."
The subject of wood chip mulch came up on the radio show moments after the dog poop correction. Wally Schmidtke, Pesche garden center'
s "answer man," called in to expand on her advice about woodchips from earlier in the segment and warned that woodchips, in addition to carrying pests and diseases, can rob soil of nitrogen during decomposition. Michele's response to Wally was again off the mark, she wasn't listening because of the reasons listed above. She mentions talking to Linda Chalker-Scott
, a scientist, and her research on the subject that proves wood chip mulch doesn't rob nitrogen in the soil and says,
"If you're planting vegetables into a wood chip mulch, you're not going to plant the vegetables into the woodchips. You're going to scrape the wood chips away and, um, scrape the wood chips away and, uh, plant the vegetables into the soil. I know vegetable gardeners who have huge success with wood chips."
Wally Schmidtke responds, "Oh sure Michele, I understand. I often find that when people are beginner gardeners the wood chips get mixed into the soil. Where they'll decompose and rob the soil of nitrogen. If they do use a woodchip mulch."
Turning to the same post from 2008 we get confirmation of what Wally is warning about from-wait for it-Linda Chalker-Scott. The comment reads in part,
"...I can say definitively that if wood chips are used as a topdressing and not worked into the soil they will not tie up nitrogen..."
Again, had Michele Owens been listening (or at least read her own blog) she would've understood that Wally Schmidtke wasn't taking issue with the use of mulch in the garden and that he was correct. There's a reason why Wally called in. Her earlier comments on wood chips made it sound like you were suppose to either grow your plants in wood chips or work the wood chips into the soil. Mulching is a good gardening practice and when used as a top dressing doesn't use up nitrogen beyond the soil surface. It is when it is mixed with soil through tilling that it uses up nitrogen and results in yellow (chlorotic) leaves.
According to Michele Owens, after her disastrous radio appearance Mike Nowak jokingly said to her,
"I like your book, but you don't know shit about dog poop."
You can talk to and be able to name drop as many researchers, scientist and experts as possible. None of that will make up for not having simple gardening experience to back up your advice.
TL; DR Go ahead and grow the good life, just make sure the person trying to teach you how to live happy, healthy, wealthy and wise doesn't give you bad gardening advice that could lead to you getting worms, Lyme disease or kill your plants.
Note: This past winter I contributed to 'Good Growing' segment on The Mike Nowak Show
. You can listen to his gardening/green living show Sunday Morning on WCPT. It's a good show when the guests are knowledgeable about what they're talking about, I recommend it.
UPDATE: A commenter below who was fixated on the subject of wood chips and Wally's call to the show made me go back and listen to the podcast again. While talking about adding organic matter and what's available Mike Nowak is ribbing her about having a source for organic matter that most of us don't have access to she says "People make fantastic vegetable gardens using nothing but wood chips from utility companies. They come in and trim the trees and they may give you a pile of wood chips." It should be noted that people do NOT create gardens using nothing but wood chips and that making it seem like you could just start a vegetable garden using a pile of wood chips is wrong, hence why Wally called in to correct Michele Owens.
J-Dog spoke to a University of Illinois Extension soil expert about the dog poo situation and got an answer from an educated source. The Dog Poo Answer