Organic gardening is a much more widely accepted practice now than it was 30 years ago when John Dromgoole became fascinated with it. He studied radio and television in college, but after working in a friend's organic nursery in Austin, Texas, he was hooked.
Wanting to learn more, he immersed himself in a range of horticultural venues, including commercial propagation, floriculture (forcing flowering plants to bloom on specific schedules), and landscape installation. After about five years, he opened an organic nursery in San Antonio, but customers weren't ready for the concept. "They'd storm out because I didn't have malathion," he recalls.
Dromgoole remained committed to organic growing, and he eventually put his media background to use in reaching the average homeowner about the benefits of organic methods. For the past 22 years he has hosted a local call-in radio show in Austin that he thinks is the longest-running organic gardening program in the country. When he became frustrated at the limited availability of organic products, he decided the time was ripe for launching another nursery and gardening store, which he called the Natural Gardener. That was eighteen years ago, and the business has expanded along with the public's interest.
"I used to feel that I was butting my head against the wall," recalls Dromgoole. But now he's convinced that a large-scale attitude shift is taking place as more and more people are concerned about long-term health effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, especially for their children. "I compare our education process over the years to putting consumers in a boat and rowing them across the river to the organic side," he describes. "Now we're rowing back and forth a lot faster than we used to."
The Natural Gardener features eight acres of demonstration gardens, including a butterfly garden, herb garden, vegetable garden, native plants, and fruit trees. Classes are offered on many topics, and at the heart of all of them is the importance of building the soil and and choosing well-adapted plants. "People need to understand that healthy soil is the basis for success, so we start there," says Dromgoole. "Maladapted plants struggle with pests, such as whiteflies, so you're better off removing plants and replacing them rather than battling the pests every year."
Well aware that more people will choose organic products if they are easy to use, he developed a line of products under his Lady Bug Natural Brand, including potting soil, fertilizer, and compost. "Not everyone wants to make compost tea, but if we put it in a bottle, it's simple for them." Dromgoole also carries popular organic pest controls, such as beneficial insects, diatomaceous earth, and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
Although he is entirely satisfied to make converts one at a time, Dromgooles' communications background has allowed him to reach a much broader audience. In addition to his radio show, he's featured in weekly, five-minute television segments for both PBS and NBC affiliates, explaining what to do in the garden each week. "Years ago I used to get flak from skeptics on the radio, but now I frequently get callers who say, "I started doing what you said, and you should see my yard!'"
Visit The Natural Gardener Website for Lady Bug Natural Brand organic products and more: http://www.naturalgardeneraustin.com/.
Article published on June 23, 2008.