This summer, the crew and I wrapped up filming for the tenth season of our Emmy Award-winning show, Growing a Greener World®. It has been humbling to look back and really let it sink in that we’ve been creating these episodes for an entire decade. Not many shows last so long these days. Along the way, we’ve met some remarkable people and featured some important issues. So today, I thought I would share with you my top takeaways for gardeners from over the years.
When I created that series, I wanted to tell the stories of people, places and organizations doing good things through organic gardening or environmental stewardship. It was important to our whole team that these features were as educational as they were entertaining. At the end of the day, each one of these episodes highlights why gardening is so important and how every gardener really can make a difference in this world.
We all have an influence on the people around us. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every gardener I’ve met through Growing a Greener World has had an influence on me. It leads me to wonder which of our episodes has had the greatest influence on you. I’d love for you to share a note about that in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.
If you haven’t seen the show (or would like to catch them again), you can stream recent episodes from our YouTube channel and all of the shows we’ve ever done from our website. In the meantime, here’s my list of top takeaways from this past decade of Growing a Greener World experiences.
Although she is a renowned author and had a brilliant career in media for many years, I didn’t have an opportunity to meet Margaret until we filmed the first of two feature episodes at her property in upstate New York. Today, I’m fortunate to call her a friend, and she is one of my top heroes for her thoughtful approach to gardening.
Margaret says that birds taught her how to garden. She curated her 2.3 acre property using plants and techniques designed to attract more birds. In the process, she became more aware of the importance of habitat and working in concert with nature.
Like me, she follows organic practices and is an ever-curious gardener. With a notable library of field guides at the ready, Margaret is always attentive to what is going on in her environment. She won’t rest until she has identified and gleaned an understanding of every plant, bug, mushroom, bird, or any other living thing that she comes across.
A seeker and sharer of information, Margaret has written half a dozen books, and she publishes a weekly podcast to encourage other gardeners to be thoughtful in their choices too. She’s been a frequent guest of my podcast. In short, Margaret epitomizes what I originally wanted Growing a Greener World to be all about.
The takeaway for gardeners: Let your observations guide your garden choices too. Pay attention to the life in your landscape and let it lead you. Then, share your experiences with your friends and neighbors. You just might spark a new approach in the way they care for their property too.
Have you ever read the book Bringing Nature Home? As soon as I read it, I knew we needed to feature the book’s author, Doug Tallamy, on the show. In it, Doug shares the important role home gardeners play in counteracting habitat loss from urban sprawl.
Urban development is necessary for our society, but it comes at a cost – destruction of our wild spaces. The good news is that we, as gardeners, can create pockets of habitat to replace what has been lost. That’s important because all wildlife is dependent on plant diversity for food and shelter.
The plants we choose to add to our landscapes can make a significant difference. Beneficial creatures native to your area co-evolved with the plants which are also natives. That’s why natives play key roles in the survival of those wildlife species in a way that non-natives can’t as effectively support.
In the show, Doug described an experiment that illustrates the relationship between native species and plants. He counted the number of caterpillars he found at eye level on an oak tree in his yard. On the same day, he also counted the number he found at eye level on a neighborhood Bradford pear and burning bush. There were 450 caterpillars of various species on the native oak, but on the non-native pear and burning bush, he found only a few.
When Doug stood back to look at the oak, he couldn’t see any obvious signs of damage from the feeding insects, but it was providing a food source for the native caterpillars which the pear and burning bush hadn’t co-evolved to fulfill. The native oak is a critical link in the ecological food chain, because all of those caterpillars are a vital food source for native birds.
You don’t need to plant exclusively natives in your landscape, but when adding something new, consider whether or not a plant brings more than just beauty. Does it offer any ecological benefit? There are more spectacular native plant options than most gardeners realize, because most varieties aren’t available at the local big box store.
You don’t need a large landscape to have an impact either. Even if the only area you have available is a small balcony, add a native plant or two in containers. Invite your neighbors to do the same. Whether it’s collectively in an apartment complex or a neighborhood in suburbia, we can all contribute to creating important pockets of native habitat to support wildlife.
The takeaway for gardeners: We are all in this together, and our planting choices can resonate from our tiny little corner of the world out into the environment at large.
If you think the climate where you live is too hot or too cold to have a successful garden, think again. Eliot Coleman is a renowned example of someone who got creative and made a way. His small farm is located in Maine. Yet under some of the coldest conditions of the continent, Eliot’s market garden produces food all year long.
We visited his property for an episode of the show. He gave us a tour of some of the innovative ways he cheats his hardiness zone. He also joined me for a podcast episode and explained, in depth, some of his tricks and techniques.
It really does come down to the old saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Our episode on gardening in the desert southwest highlighted the importance of adjusting to your current climate – whether that’s turning the typical growing timeline on its head or getting a jump start indoors to make the most out of a short season.
Gardeners Meg Cowden and Niki Jabbour were each featured guests for our tenth season. These two have become social media paragons – teaching others how to garden throughout the winter in the bitter cold of Minneapolis, MN and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Watch for those episodes coming in the next few weeks!
The takeaway for gardeners: You can have a garden even in the most inhospitable of places. Get creative and seek out other gardeners who are finding success in similar extremes.
Honeybees are an iconic garden presence, and they’ve been in the news a lot the past several years. The decline of their population due to the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder is a serious issue. Pollination is fundamental when it comes to growing the food that our society depends on.
What many people don’t realize is that there is more to the story, but if you’ve seen the episode on solitary bees or caught my podcast on the subject, you’ve probably been looking at bees a bit differently.
Did you know honeybees aren’t native to North America? That doesn’t discount the importance of protecting their populations, but our native solitary bee species play an even more important role when it comes to the production of our food. Solitary bee species are more efficient pollinators than honeybees.
Solitary bees are easier to support and attract to the home garden too. Traditional beekeeping can be a lot of work – not to mention that some gardeners have allergies, some HOAs won’t allow hives, and keeping hives can be expensive. Solitary bees, on the other hand, are extremely docile; and they live in small holes in the ground or in natural crevices and openings.
During the show highlighting solitary bees, we demonstrated just how easy it is to build a solitary bee “house” to mimic the natural crevices they seek out, so that the bees will take up residence in and pollinate your garden. We also interviewed Dave Hunter of Crown Bees, an organization which sells solitary bee cocoons and teaches gardeners how to care for them.
The decline of honeybees has yet to be resolved, but while researchers continue to seek progress on that front, we can all help to fill this ecological gap by supporting solitary bee species in our own backyards.
The takeaway for gardeners: You don’t have to raise honey bees to invite more pollinators to your garden. Don’t miss out on this easy opportunity to support native solitary bee species. In just a few minutes a year, you can promote these important pollinators, and your garden will reap the benefits too.
Money makes the world go round, and the gardening world is no exception. The plants available for sale at your local big box store and nursery are there for a reason – because they are popular and sale-able. Those stores only have so much shelf space, so they stock what’s in highest demand. It’s the nature of business, but it creates a vacuum of horticultural diversity.
Enter the seed. Seed saving and seed starting is becoming more and more popular as gardeners are increasingly interested in growing something beyond just the usual suspects.
The Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA has played a key role in preserving our plant heritage and encouraging gardeners to do the same. The members of their organization seek out and send in heirloom seed varieties to be grown and multiplied for future generations. They’ve been doing this important work since 1975.
About 90% of the plants which were being grown in the year 1900 have gone missing from the world of horticulture. Little by little, Seed Savers Exchange is bringing some of those varieties back from the brink. Thousands of species once thought extinct have been discovered in attics, keepsake chests and recipe boxes of people across the continent. Seed Savers Exchange collects those hidden treasures and grows them out to produce more seed to be made available to all of us.
Across the globe, there are a number of large plant breeding operations developing new varieties through genetics which have specific qualities – like shipability, disease resistance and color. That’s valuable work, but we can never again lose sight of how important it is to protect heirloom species. They offer a purity of flavor, fragrance, wildlife support, and other valuable qualities that can’t be manufactured.
My friend and tomato expert, Craig LeHoullier, is another important player when it comes to heirloom preservation. Craig has helped to rediscover and bring available for sale many of the heirlooms we all enjoy growing today.
Growing a Greener World featured High Mowing Organic Seeds of Burlington, VT last season. While we were there, we learned just how much work goes into growing seeds organically. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to produce organic seeds, and the importance of supporting those efforts just can’t be understated.
Every seed holds more than just the embryo of new life. It also holds the genetic memory of how its parent plant interacted with the environment. I don’t know about you, but I want the seeds for my garden to carry with them a natural resiliency – instead of a chemical dependency.
The takeaway for gardeners: Think about your seed choices and consider saving seeds from your own garden. When you buy, remember that the cost of organic seeds is just another dollar or so, but it helps to sustain businesses committed to growing things in a way that helps, rather than hurts, our environment. Plus, I know I can feel more confident in the quality of those seeds. So, it’s an easy choice for me.
Independent Garden Centers
The crew and I visited two nurseries local to the Austin, TX area to highlight their efforts to persevere in the face of increasing pressure from big box stores. Small businesses like these are an important resource for gardeners, providing quality products and information.
The big box stores have an important role to play, but it’s the independent nurseries which are most dependent on your success in order to succeed themselves. Garden centers are usually staffed with passionate gardeners who can offer real-world advice for questions on design, installation and identification of pests, weeds or diseases.
These small businesses are working hard to remain competitive in the face of rising costs and lower profit margins. So if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they are more likely to order it for you than a large conglomerate. They need your patronage and support to sustain in an ever-increasing push for big business development.
The takeaway for gardeners: You don’t need to shun the big box stores, but make an effort to support your local independent garden centers. If we won’t invest an extra few dollars to keep these small businesses in the “green”, who will?
Trailblazers and Trendsetters
Throughout the past decade, I have loved finding opportunities to feature gardeners who were blazing a new path. One of the first was Rosalind Creasy. She isn’t just a talented garden designer. Ros has been blazing the edible landscaping trail for the past forty years.
For years, the front yard of her San Francisco garden has been packed with mainly edible crop plants. If that brings to mind visions of an eyesore, think again. Her thoughtful designs (which she changes twice a year) are always beautiful and a real conversation starter. Once you watch the episode for yourself you’ll understand why just about everyone who passes by is in awe of the gorgeous, edible landscape Ros creates.
Ros has inspired a new generation of edible landscapers too. One of which is author and lecturer on the subject, Brie Arthur. She looks at traditional landscape beds and sees new opportunities for growing more of our own food.
Think of how many resources are spent in shipping produce to supermarkets across the continent. When they arrive, they aren’t always the best quality either – and yet, their price per pound can really pack a punch to the grocery budget.
This broken food model is one of the reasons Brie wrote her book, Foodscape Revolution. Like Ros, Brie is passionate about teaching others how to incorporate edible plants into spaces traditionally reserved for run-of-the-mill shrubs and other landscape plants.
The takeaway for gardeners: We all have room to grow our own food, and we don’t have to sacrifice beauty in the process. We just need to look at our spaces in a different light.
First things first: let’s all acknowledge just how important our heartland farmers are to our society. Their large operations require an enormous amount of work and dedication to provide monocrops to feed our country. That said, one of my top takeaways comes from hardworking people who manage small farms of under eight acres or so.
In our Young Farmers episode, we featured some devoted market gardeners who came to the industry with no previous farming background. They left successful and lucrative professional careers to work the land. They wanted more purpose in their life. They wanted to connect with the Earth and do good things in the process.
Their passion for the work is infectious. Spending long hours caring for plants and animals isn’t particularly rewarding financially, but these small farmers love knowing that they are creating change.
I developed an even greater appreciation for their hard work once I started a small heirloom seedling business with my daughter Amy. Our tiny fledgling business was designed to get Amy engaged in gardening and create (what I hope will be) an ongoing source of revenue for her. We’ve worked long hours to care for the plants and get them to our local farmer’s market every Saturday in spring. Yet, the time we spent was a fraction of what small farmers and market gardeners invest day after day.
The takeaway for gardeners: Support the local farmers in your area. Whether it’s at your farmer’s market or through a CSA (Community-Supported Agricultural Co-op), you can participate in their success and help them to weather their challenges. You’re voting with your dollars to support small, local businesses growing food versus supporting fossil fuel resources needed for mass supermarket alternatives. By joining a CSA, you’re becoming a partner in their small business. You provide them with a predictable income, and you get a share of their season’s harvest for your dinner table.
When someone experiences the wonder of getting their hands in the soil and growing their own food for the first time, that’s just magic, and it’s particularly powerful for children. We’ve featured a few school gardens through the years, but it was in our eighth season, that we visited the one that left the deepest mark on my heart.
In a low-income neighborhood of the Bronx, NY; kids are living with large family units in tiny apartments stuck in multi-story, public housing complexes. The families of these neighborhoods struggle. Budgets must be stretched. Groceries become limited to the cheapest food possible, but those choices don’t provide much more than empty calories.
At Community School 55, poor nutrition led to behavior and school attendance problems, low student test scores and weight issues. Self-esteem was scarce. Enter Stephen Ritz.
With no gardening experience under his belt, Stephen set out to teach the kids of the school how to grow food. In the middle of this concrete jungle, Stephen built an indoor growing system and raised garden beds on a concrete basketball court. Through his program – The Green Bronx Machine – students learned how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food.
Not only did the program generate enough produce for the student lunch program, but there was bounty left over for the kids to take home. Thanks to The Green Bronx Machine, the students learned a deeper appreciation for life and for themselves. Along the way, they ditched sugar-filled sodas for water and traded chips for a salad. Their confidence and test scores skyrocketed, as their weight and sick days plummeted.
Today, the school boasts one of the highest graduation rates of the city. That, my friends, is the power of gardening.
This episode won a Daytime Emmy Award last year, because it told such an important and deeply moving story. Stephen Ritz was one man, but he has made a difference in hundreds of lives. You can too.
The takeaway for gardeners: Never miss an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. Does your school have a garden program? If not, start one. If so, volunteer or become a mentor. In today’s world, so many students don’t have parents who can teach them how to grow their own food. You could fill that gap and plant a seed that will mature into a new generation of lifetime gardeners.
These episodes are just a drop in the bucket of our Growing a Greener World library. There’s a lot more waiting for you, if you’re interested. It’s all available from our YouTube channel and our website – including a two-part series documenting a year at my GardenFarm™.
I’ve been gardening for over 40 years, but I never run out of new opportunities to learn. We’re looking ahead to the future to bring you real, reliable and relevant gardening content. What does that future look like? Stay tuned.
Be sure to scroll to the top of the page and listen in to this episode by clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. I’ve shared a few other memories from filming that I think you’ll enjoy. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear your feedback. Do you enjoy watching gardening television, or do you appreciate the convenience of streaming it online – like from our site and YouTube channel?
Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!
A Way to Garden – Margaret Roach
Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy