The Growing Business of Garden Celebrity

By Lisa Baker

In the beginning, you hardly know you’re addicted.

After all, it’s only on the weekends, and you’re just dabbling. No danger in that. At least, that’s what you tell yourself.

The cravings begin and as the weeks pass, become stronger. They start earlier and earlier in the morning and continue late into the night. They won’t be denied.

And finally, it all catches up with you, this gardening thing. Your suppliers—garden centers and nurseries—know you by your first name. Your clothes are smeared with dirt; your boots are caked with mud. You have bugs in your hair. You go out to dinner and notice your fingernails aren’t the right color. The family budget is threadbare, but you don’t care because you must have it, whether it’s a bag of mushroom compost, a modest flat of winter pansies or a giant banana plant. You smuggle the goods into the garage and wait, planting under cover of darkness, flinging slugs gleefully as you go.

You’re out of hand, and you know it. What’s worse: The Enablers are everywhere.

Under friendly names like Garden Doctor or Garden Gal or Ask an Expert, they’re in the newspaper and on radio and television. The addicts are hanging on their every word, these garden gurus, flagging them down at local nurseries, sending them emails and calling them on the phone. Even coming to their houses and snooping around their yards.

Unseemly? Maybe. Deserved? Probably.

Even when traveling incognito, Oregon’s media gardeners are not safe from the fruits of their labors. The addicts can recognize them by voice alone, seizing them at parties or in checkout lines to “ask a little question.”

Now, it’s BrainstormNW’s chance to “ask a little question.” We interviewed five well- known garden gurus about what it’s like to be a soil savant, a compost connoisseur, a bona fide backyard celebrity.

Mike Darcy
Host, KXL's "In the Garden;" columnist, Garden Showcase Magazine's "Through the Grapevine;" author, "Garden Reference Guide.”

When Mike Darcy takes his coffee for a quiet early morning walk in the garden, it may be the only peace he gets. Later, there will be meetings, deadlines and phone calls, and there will a camera in that very garden.

It is a kind of scrutiny most home gardeners are thankful never to have, especially in the aftermath of a garden disaster—fertilizer-burnt grass, blackberry invasion or pruning accident. But Darcy says he’s fine with it. Fine with the open gardens, when dozens of inquisitive strangers go tromping through his sculpted yard.

Maybe it’s because his garden roots go way back. When most boys were playing in the mud, Darcy was cultivating it, already at work on his own garden in Ohio growing “mostly ornamentals.” By high school, he was working off-school hours in a nursery. He followed that up with a college degree in horticulture.

Which is why it’s unlikely he’s still spilling fertilizer on the lawn. It’s the expertise that fledgling and even experienced gardeners are turning to each week—either on television or on the radio, when callers can pitch questions on everything from pruning to hybridizing.

Darcy was the first to do a radio call-in garden show in the Portland area, a show for which the premiere prep included “making sure we had plenty to talk about because maybe no one would call.”

But call they did. “The phones just lit up,” Darcy says. The show was a hit and has remained so, going from a two-hour seasonal program to a year-round three-hour extravaganza. “We just don’t hit dead air,” Darcy said. “One question leads to another and then another.”

A television show followed, along with speaking engagements and appearances that allow Darcy to meet up with the faithful on a regular basis.

Despite plying the soil full-time, Darcy says he doesn’t get tired of it—ever—even when it leads to a bit of neighborhood competition. “Last year, there was an Open Garden and I persuaded two of my neighbors to participate with me. And as time got nearer, we all started to get competitive, in a friendly sense of course. We were going to each other’s houses, looking around, and saying, ‘So…what did you get today?’ ”

Despite his love for gardening, Darcy says there are times when he likes being truly off- duty. Being able to socialize without soil talk. But being a celebrated garden expert means folks will always have “just a quick question,” Darcy says, even at a decidedly non-gardening occasion. “You know, a short question can have a really long answer.”

Dulcy Mahar
Columnist, “Down to Earth,” the Oregonian.
Day job: communications manager, Bonneville Power Administration.

The mention of Dulcy Mahar around garden center customers prompts smiles of familiarity and the occasional squeal: “Don’t you just love her?!” Mahar’s self-deprecating style and warm wit couches a ‘been there, done that’ practicality that encourages imperfect plant handlers to venture one step at a time into daring territory, knowing that if something withers, dies or attempts a coup on another plant, Dulcy is one garden guru who’s experienced it all.

Mahar, who by day is a spokeswoman for the Bonneville Power Administration, is the first to say she doesn’t have a formal horticultural background, having learned everything the way most gardeners do—through victory and disaster.

“My column does not have great horticultural knowledge,” she says. “It is simply prattle—gardeners like to prattle about gardening. I chronicle my mistakes as much as my triumphs. If it helps people avoid mistakes, that’s good. But most times it just makes people feel better to know they’re not losers.”

Her vision for the column, she says, is “sort of this old-fashioned image of Miss Marple talking over the back fence, exchanging advice and thoughts with her neighbors.”

But make no mistake, Mahar’s park-like sanctuary is no ordinary neighborhood garden. Lush and bountiful, photos of it send wannabe gardeners—credit card in hand—scurrying to the nearest nurseries to buy whatever Mahar recommends.

Her garden is so outstanding that it has lured the likes of famed English estate gardeners Rosemary Verey and Christopher Lloyd (no, not the guy from “Taxi”). “It was very scary, knowing they were coming. I’d been to their sweeping estates, and in comparison I felt very shabby. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Christopher Lloyd put his plate down, and my dog started licking his plate and he was totally unaware.”

Aside from gardening, readers have come to think of Mahar as a member of the family. “I get that comment a lot, the ‘I feel like I know you,’ and I can’t think of a nicer compliment. People know I’m a chocolate fanatic. They know that I adore my pets, that I’m totally disorganized, and that my philosophy of life is ‘muddle through.’ And, unfortunately, they know I’m not tall, blond and thin—although I would like to perpetuate that myth.”

Now that she’s recognized in public, Mahar says, “If I go to a nursery these days, I have to be sure to be really polite because I’m no longer anonymous.”

Also part of the family, Doug the Wonder Boy (née Doug Wilson), who does the heavy lifting on the Mahar grounds and whose artistic eye and sense of adventure figure in Mahar’s outdoor masterwork. “People always want to know where they can get a Doug the Wonder Boy,” she says.

After the disclosure in November of her ongoing fight against ovarian cancer, Mahar received some 300 letters and cards from her readers, a testament to her popularity. “There were some really wonderful notes and a wonderful hat and flowers for my hat,” she says. She had finally told readers about her illness “because I’m bald now and someone might notice…and, because I want to convey a message that if you get cancer, it’s not the end of the world. You go on. And I have. I figure if I’m not barfing, I can handle things.”

Anne Jaeger
Master Gardener and host of “Your Northwest Garden,”
KGW-TV Saturdays at 7 p.m. and on Oregon Public Broadcasting on Thursday nights at 6 p.m. Jaeger is also a garden columnist for the Portland Tribune and for Portland Monthly. “The only thing that makes one person more expert at gardening than another: they’ve killed more plants.”

So says garden maven Anne Jaeger, who says she’s killed her share, and learned from each untimely death. And on her television shows and in her writing, she’s willing to share these lessons with you.

“I got an appreciation for the wonder of growing things from watching my dad,” she says. “We lived in Toronto and we had these tall tree roses. To keep them in that environment, you’d have to dig them up or lay them down and cover them, or you had to wrap them like a mummy. It was amazing to me how twigs could be bent over and then later straightened back up—and soon be again amazingly beautiful. I often followed my father around thinking it was all so completely mysterious.”

For a long while, gardening was a hobby, something to do on weekends. Weekdays, Jaeger was a television reporter, first for the ABC affiliate in Eugene and later for KOIN and KGW in Portland. It was at KOIN that she first pitched the idea of doing garden segments as part of her job.

She remembers the day she ventured the proposal to her news director. His initial response was not encouraging. “He said, ‘Well, what do you know about gardening?’” she says. “And I was just not ready for that question. I said, ‘Well, I’m an award-winning crime reporter, and I’ve never murdered anyone.’”

Apparently, the argument worked, because the “Dig It” segments were launched, soon augmented by knowledge she gained as she completed her Master Gardener certificate. Later, the segments blossomed into a viable show. “When I left KOIN to go to Channel 8, they put that garden show on prime time on Saturday night. It was unheard of.”

Jaeger says she emphasizes fun in the garden. “This should be fun and if it’s not, then why do it or watch it? The fact is, people who are experts already know where to get information. I want everybody else. Those are my peeps—you know, my people.”

In the beginning, people who met Jaeger face-to-face in public recognized her but were often confused where they knew her from. “I was at the grocery store and this lady came up to me and said, ‘I know you!’ So, I said yeah, yeah – I’m that girl on Channel 6.’ And she said, ‘No, you work at my bank.’” Like Mahar, Jaeger has learned from her own struggles, including the momentous effort it took to free her newly bought one-acre property from the grip of blackberries. At one point in the clearing effort, she found a blue Volkswagon bug hidden under the invading plants. “And they say blue is so hard to get in a garden,” she quips.

While Jaeger swears by organic methods, she’s no pushover. If you’re a plant, well, you’d better perform—or else. Take the climbing roses incident from early in Jaeger’s gardening venture. They were planted all along a fence line, the linchpin in Jaeger’s vision of a cottage garden look. “But I didn’t know then that climbing roses are just notorious for blackspot,” she says. “I tried everything. I babied them. I sprayed them with organic rose spray. I picked up all the leaves. Then after 10 years of struggle, I’d had enough. I pulled them all out. I said, ‘I’ve had enough of you,’ and dragged their dead corpses by everyone else in the garden and said to them: ‘This too can happen to you!’”

Jaeger noticed the popularity of her fellow garden icons and took advantage of it this year with the launch of a “Soil Celebrities” calendar featuring revealing photos of local garden glitterati festooned strategically in vines and other greenery. Sales of the calendar, available at Borders Books and local nurseries, will be used to create a public garden in north Portland for troubled children.

Dave Etchepare and Chris Totten
KEX-AM radio’s “Garden Doctors,” 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturdays.
Etchepare’s weekday job—manager of Dennis’ 7 Dees Garden Center in Portland. Totten works for Absorbent Technologies in Beaverton, which markets moisture-trapping products to garden businesses. Until recently, he was a buyer for Portland Nursery.

The journey from anonymity to celebrity has been an unexpected thing for Dave Etchepare and Chris Totten, who tag-team host responsibilities for KEX’s “Garden Doctor” show on Saturdays.

Despite the fact that radio is their gig, they are recognized nonetheless—not by sight, but by voice.

“I’ll be standing in line somewhere and someone will say, ‘Your voice sounds so familiar. You’re the Garden Doctor,’” Etchepare says. “It’s weird. I always just think of myself as that ‘guy at the nursery.’” Totten knows the feeling. He was working the grill in a restaurant booth one summer at the Oregon Country Fair in an unofficial capacity when his voice suddenly turned the head of a customer. “I heard this ‘Omigod, it’s the Garden Doctor!’” The customer insisted on taking a photo on the spot. Totten says he was amazed… “and flattered and surprised and taken aback.”

The two men, while having the show in common, couldn’t be more different by background or manner, although both hold degrees in plant science. Totten is bookish and environmentally-minded, a former Army brat gone green. Etchepare is pragmatic and down-home, the son of a farmer with dirt in his veins.

“People who meet me in public always say, ‘I hate to bother you…Do you get tired of questions?’” Etchepare says. “Well, it is what I do all day, but I love doing it. Growing things is one thing, but growing things and then talking to people about it—that’s even better.”

And people like talking to them, though not always over the radio. “When we have a live remote, people will bring me diseased plants or leaves to look at, or they’ll just come and ask a question they’ve had for awhile but didn’t want to go on the air with it,” Etchepare says.

He says his advice for listeners is based more on his own experiences and those of other gardeners than on anything else. “You can read scientific research that will tell you how to do something and it may or may not work for you. Then you talk to a lady who’s been doing that crop here for 50 years – she knows what works. I’ll tell you, over the years with schools, books and everything that’s out there to learn, I’ve never learned more than talking with people who have done it.”

The program has paid dividends to the Garden Doctors’ employers and for those gardening products discussed on the show. Totten says interest in his former home nursery—Portland Nursery—and in the events, tools and sprays discussed on the show suddenly skyrocket soon after they’re mentioned on the air. “There is a definite, corresponding bounce,” Totten says.

He believes the popularity of garden programs is rooted in the fact that people “are more disconnected from the earth and the land” than they once were; they are less likely to have grown up with gardening know-how. Or patience, as it turns out.

“People want a plant to be the size it’s going to be right now. They don’t want to wait for things,” Etchepare says. And so, the two docs find themselves advising their listeners to let time have its way. Totten puts it like this: “The garden has a rhythm that’s not human…It has its own pace.”

BrainstormNW interviewed just a handful of Oregon’s bounty of garden celebrities— there are many more standout green gurus throughout the state, each with their own loyal following of dirt-streaked fans. Among them is Mallory Gwynn, who hosts the gardening portion of "Good Day Lifestyles” on KPTV Saturdays and “Gardening with Mallory Gwynn” Sunday mornings on KPAM-AM. Duane Hatch is the garden expert on the “Hatch Patch” show Saturday mornings on KPNW-AM 1120 in Eugene. Doug Stott is the voice of gardening Saturdays on KBND-AM in Bend.

BrainstormNW - February 2006

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