It’s Groundhog’s Day, Cats and Kittens

Mike McGrath fires up his flame weeder.

WHYY’s You Bet Your Garden host Mike McGrath will appear at Grounds For Sculpture Sunday, Feb. 5, at noon to talk about – what else? – composting!

Learn why a compost bin filled with kitchen scraps will still be  a compost bin filled with kitchen scraps a year later. Then, at 2 p.m., he’ll answer questions on everything from slimy slugs, squirrels, crabgrass or mildew.

For Groundhog’s Day, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reprise an interview I did with the mad man about 10 years ago:

Mike McGrath is directing construction vehicles in front of his house in Zionsville, Pa., when I drive up. He directs me to park up the street, then back into the compost.

“The compost?” I say to the host of WHYY/90.9 FM’s Saturday morning show You Bet Your Garden. Didn’t he fear, as I did, that oil drippings might taint his pure organic compost?

“Why not?” The radio personality sounds just like he does
on his show, only louder. Fiftyish, bespectacled with graying hair, he wears a T-shirt that advocates taking your trees off drugs.

I carefully pull alongside the fermented organic brew and
creak out of my car after the two-hour trip, inhaling the manure-like scent.

There are two wooden bins, one filled with grass clippings and leaves, another with well-cured compost. Two plastic green composters have been given to him to test.

The Philadelphia native digs his hands into the rich black gold and lovingly scoops it up. As a regular listener to his call-in show, I have absorbed countless hours of talk on such subjects as making the perfect compost: one part kitchen scraps, one part leaves, one part grass clippings.

I have driven to the end of the earth for the opportunity of seeing the gardening guru’s very own one-and-a-half acre, and being in the moist, shady compost area is dizzying.

“I’m going to abduct you,” he says diabolically. My head
is spinning with thoughts of heirloom tomato or mushroom farms, but instead, I learn, we are going to the orthodontist.

First, we drive to his daughter’s school. Amanda, 14, has to have her braces adjusted, and Kathy, Mr. McGrath’s wife, cannot leave the office where she works as a bookkeeper.

In the car, he tells me how his career as editor of Organic Gardening magazine ended in 1997. Rodale Press discontinued the magazine and replaced it with Organic Style, an upscale version. Then, they relaunched
Organic Gardening as OG “which is what we always called it anyway,” he says.

Mr. McGrath was offered a position with Prevention magazine, also part of the Rodale empire, testing a natural-healing newsletter. He talked his way into Andrew Weil’s alternative medicine class at Columbia University, even though the course was for medical doctors only.

His cell phone rings and he takes a call from his producer at WHYY. They are discussing segments to cut from the next show. We pull up in front of Amanda’s school, and Amanda gets into the car. “Whatever we cut, we have to leave in the road pizza,” he says to his producer.

“Hi, Amanda,” I say to the tall, thin pretty girl with long blond hair. She smiles, exposing the braces that are the focus of our mission.

Mr. McGrath concludes his call and greets his daughter.

“How can you cut segments from your show when it is live?” I ask.

“Aren’t you sweet,” he says. He turns his head to Amanda in the back seat. “She thinks the show is live.”

It’s all smoke and mirrors. Yes, callers call in during the Saturday broadcast, but they listen to a message, recorded by Mr. McGrath, asking them to leave their name, location and a line about why they are calling.

The show is broadcast at differing times in Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Washington and Tennessee, and calls come in from all over the country.

On Sundays, Mr. McGrath gets the list of callers. “They’ll tell me, ‘Joe in Oklahoma has a possum under his porch’ — you’re organic, so you’re supposed to know how to get rid of all animals without killing them.”

On Tuesdays, Mr. McGrath drives the hour from his home to the WHYY studio in Philadelphia to tape his show. It takes two hours to record all the segments — interviews with garden experts, as well as phone calls — and record the promos. Then it’s cut down to an hour.

from Mike McGrath:

• Be merciless in pulling off dead stuff.

Fall is the best time to do this. If you’ve lost control of your garden

in September, God bless you. Let it go, you can relax. Pull up everything

and put in fall stuff. Columbus Day is the best time to plant garlic —

it’s good luck. I’m sick of eating cucumbers and I need the room, so I’ll

pull them out.

• People think plants need them, but it’s the reverse. We could be gone and these plants would do gloriously. The true secret of organic gardening is to get out of the way.

• The plants want to live. It’s their reason for existence. If they don’t produce delicious tomatoes, then the bears wouldn’t eat them and spread the seed.

• Grow mustard greens for remediation of toxic soil. Plant it in the fall and don’t eat it. Harvest it when it’s young, and then do it again in the spring. The soil has to be free from chemicals for three years to be certified organic.

At the orthodontist, Amanda disappears inside a brown building. Mr. McGrath and I sit at a picnic table in the parking lot behind the orthodontist as he recounts the story of how a Philadelphia homicide detective’s son became the NPR guru of organic gardening.

While studying radio, TV and film at Temple University, Mr. McGrath was writing entertainment stories, interviewing the likes of Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and John Lennon. “Like two male dogs, we almost got into a fight,” he says of the former Beatle.

After college, Mr. McGrath worked as a ranger in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, which included emceeing concerts in the park. Later, he was offered a job as entertainment editor at The Drummer, an underground paper in the City of Brotherly Love. From there, he went to the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, and then to Marvel Comics, where he wrote a book, Best of the Worst, for Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and X-Men.

Then, two things happened that changed his life: a nearly fatal car accident, and meeting his wife, Kathy.

Hydroplaning on Wissahickon Drive, he was hit by another car. The crash cost him his spleen, as well as fractured ribs and a broken pelvis. “They thought I would die. I had nine hours of surgery with a brilliant trauma surgeon,” he says.

Instead, Mr. McGrath had a miraculous recovery. “After 10 days I was hobbling after the doctor, begging to be released, so they let me go in two weeks.”

He wrote about his miracle for the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, and “Everybody read the story. Then the Temple alumni magazine asked me to write a series of medical stories. Do something twice and you’re an expert. All of a sudden I was a medical writer.”

He met Kathy — “she’s a babe” — at the home of a mutual friend. They were seated on a sofa, and another guest sat between them, but that didn’t stop the sparks from flying.

“My wife is entirely the reason for my interest in gardening,” Mr. McGrath says. “She remembered her grandparents’ farm where she picked raspberries. I’d do anything to please her. That’s why men were put here, to please women.

“Having a garden fit in with our lifestyle. We were eating
organic, and she was an aerobics instructor. She was following the Pritikin method, and she looked fabulous. I became the gardener.”

Then he turned 30. “I was tired of dinking around. I wanted
to go into an office like they do on sitcoms. Kathy wanted to send me to therapy, because I was the most successful free-lancer in the city.”

He applied for a job at Organic Gardening, but was
instead offered a position at Prevention. “I loved it. The company gym was fabulous and they fed us well. And there was the sense you were doing so much good.” He was writing books on subjects such as sex allergies. “I had to handle it carefully, but it begged to be humorous.”

After several years, when Organic Gardening was again editorless, he marched into the president’s office and said, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but this is my job.”

The president wanted a résumé. So the next day Mr. McGrath brought in raspberries, watermelon and lipstick-red peppers from his garden and dumped it all on the president’s desk. “You want a résumé? Here’s my résumé.”

After his first year as editor, Mr. McGrath recounts, not only had he cut the magazine’s losses but it was turning a profit and winning awards. From there, he became the garden expert for the Today Show.

He was a frequent guest on WHYY’s Radio Times, and it served well during the station’s pledge drives, so he was offered his own show in 1998.

“I’d never make a dime answering gardening questions. It’s the ensuing conversation that matters,” he says of his success. As with Click and Clack on NPR’s Car Talk, you don’t have to have a particular interest in the subject to enjoy the humorous exchanges between host and callers. (Continued below.)

Amanda emerges from the orthodontist’s with new pink rubber bands on her braces that she shows off with a smile.

“Does it hurt?” he asks.

“A little.”

“I should have brought the ibuprofen.”

“How about a milkshake?”

We head off to the McGrath family’s favorite ice-cream shop, where there is a grand view of the lights of Allentown at night, I’m told in the bright light of the day.

Back at the house, Max, 12, is home from school, sitting at the computer. We hear his voice but can’t see him behind the tall chair.

The family has lived here for 16 years, and the house is in tumult while they add on a master bedroom. Mr. McGrath offers me a taste of his tomato sauce made from homegrown tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers and “a s—- load of herbs. I whiz it in the food processor and cook it all down.”

You read it here — Mike McGrath could put Newman’s Own out of business. The sauce is thick, rich, full of flavor and tang — the kind that makes the taste buds go snap, crackle and pop.

The light is fading by the time we finally get out into the garden. It is just as he describes on his show, raised beds surrounded by wood-chip covered paths. There are no neat rows of crops here; rather, a single bed may contain a tomato plant, a pepper plant, carrots, roses and a canna. This biodiversity helps plants resist insects and pests specific to that plant that are likely to be drawn when they are clustered. “Different plants attract different beneficial insects,” he explains.

The beds themselves are spilling over with a rich soil mix. The garden shows no signs that we have had one of the worst droughts in recent history. Amanda brings me raspberry and alpine strawberries — these resemble
wild strawberries in appearance but are rich with fruity flavor.

Mr. McGrath had to disassemble his greenhouse during the construction, but he grows many plants indoors under a 40-watt shop light, just as he instructs his listeners to do. The addition will include two large windows looking out on the garden, where he can over-winter plants. “I will rule the world,” he vows.

Rising taller than 10 feet are the heirloom scarlet runner beans he talks about. It is the plant that has it all — the flowers are ornamental, and the fruit, starting in its early stages, yields everything from haricots verte to green beans, broad beans and lima beans. Not only does the flower attract hummingbirds, but the hummingbirds pick off the pests.

Elephant’s head amaranth is another versatile plant. Its purple flower cluster indeed resembles an elephant’s head, and both its greens and seeds are nutritious.

The delightful scent of lemon balm crops up everywhere and
repels mosquitoes, promises Mr. McGrath. “It is also good for winter depression — you can grow the plant indoors, or make a cachet and fill your bath with it.

“Rosemary is my favorite herb,” he continues, putting a sprig behind his ear. “It’s good for mental alertness.”

His roses show no sign of Japanese beetle visitation. “Japanese beetles aren’t welcome here. I don’t have any pests because I’m an organic gardener.” He insists the mix of vegetables, ornamentals and herbs fools “the poor bugs so they don’t know what to do.”

Birds and bees, on the other hand, flourish in this paradise.

“The more life in your garden, the better it will do,” he says.

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