Jessica Walliser: Organic Gardening Advocate

– Posted in: Interviews

Image of Jessica WalliserI met Jessica Walliser at the Garden Writer’s Symposium in Oklahoma City earlier this year, and after meeting her and learning all that she was up to, I’d knew you’d want to meet her, too. When she asked me to review her book, it seemed like the perfect time to ask for an interview.

How involved were you with gardening as a child? Is it safe to assume that since you got a degree in Ornamental Horticulture, you had a long standing interest in plants, or was there some event in your life that triggered your interest? My mother had a beautiful organic vegetable garden in our yard but, like most kids, I only worked in it when I was forced to. I grew up in a very small town (we had a big parade when we got our first stop light in 1985) and there was only one flower shop and greenhouse in the area. Every time we went there to buy our bedding plants I would tell my mother that someday I would work there. Turned out my homeroom teacher’s family owned the place and I really liked her, so the day I turned 16 I applied for a job in the flower shop. About two months later I screwed up an order (I really didn’t but they blamed me anyway) and I got “demoted” to the greenhouse. Turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I remember my first job in the greenhouse was to take cuttings of a wandering Jew plant and I thought to myself that my boss must be playing a joke on me…there was no way these things were going to grow! But they did, and so did I. For the most part I loved that job (except for pinching thousands of mums in 95 degree heat) and I decided that I wanted to work with plants for the rest of my life.

On page 16 of Grow Organic you describe switching to organic practices and then converting your clients as well. That must have been tough. Do you remember anyone being particularly hard to persuade? There was only one client that said she thought it was a great idea. Everyone else was a challenge. These folks were pretty affluent and it was important to them to keep up appearances. I remember being at a client’s house one spring pulling dandelions out of her perennial bed. One of her friends pulled up, got out of the car, looked at me and said “Ugh. Don’t those damn things just make you sick?” I smiled and told her “No, they keep me employed”. The whole concept that is so difficult for people to understand is that it takes time to convert your garden and you may go through times when it doesn’t look so good, but once the techniques are in place and the garden has been weaned off chemicals, you are in for a treat for the rest of your life. A beautiful garden and a clean conscience. Eventually everyone came around and I know that most of them have continued to have their gardener use organic techniques.

How did you hook up with Doug Oster, your co-author and fellow radio host?

Jessica Walliser and Doug Oster

Jessica Walliser and Doug Oster at Phipps Conservatory (photo courtesy Jessica Walliser)

I was doing some short organic gardening segments for a local environmental radio program and my then partner, Paul Weigman (conservationist and naturalist extraordinaire) retired. Doug had done a little work for the show too and the producer decided to pair us up. We recorded the first session in a public park in seriously cold weather and Doug did not make a good first impression. We still tease about that day when this question comes up at public appearances…. I thought he was a jerk! Turns out he is far from a jerk and was just having a bad day (in fact, he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet). After we recorded a few more sessions, we knew there was a real on-air chemistry between us and we decided to hire a producer to help us put together a full-length pilot show to “shop” to other local radio stations. The program director at KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh called us on a Tuesday and asked “What are you doing on Sunday morning?” and just like that The Organic Gardeners hit the air waves.

Do I have this right? Your radio show started out local to the Pittsburgh area and then got picked up by Sirius satellite radio? How did you move to the “big time”? Did broadcasting to a national (international?) audience necessitate any changes? After several years on KDKA we decided we needed a wider audience to really spread the organic word effectively. My husband had recently subscribed to Sirius Satellite Radio and he told me I should check out Lime Radio because he thought the network would be a great fit for The Organic Gardeners. I perused their website and listened to a few of their programs and sent an email to their general mailbox, never expecting a reply. A few days later I got an email from a programming assistant there telling me she had read the email and then listened to our local show via the internet. They wanted to hear more. So we produced yet another pilot CD and submitted some ideas for what would become a very different show. Laura Smith, the program director at Lime, loved the show and it was picked up a few months later.

Image of At the GWA conference you and I recently attended they had a panel discussion about getting into radio, and one of the panelists made the statement that he didn’t think a national radio show about gardening was possible. I just about jumped out of my chair, pounced on the table and told him he was wrong, wrong, wrong. But that wouldn’t have been very “organic” of me, so I held my tongue. The KDKA show is almost exclusively call-in based and the Sirius show, though we do get callers, is largely meant to educate listeners about general organic gardening concepts and themes. We work very hard to talk about subjects that are pertinent to gardeners across the country and our “Expert’s Corner” segment features gardening gurus from all over the U.S. and Canada. We don’t focus on individual plants because we know not everyone can grow them where they live; instead we focus on overall gardening themes and the principles of organic gardening. We feature national companies that sell gardening products or organizations that provide the public with sound organic gardening advice. And we have a weekly produced piece in which we interview a regular everyday gardener to find out why they are so fond of the dirt.

In Grow Organic, it seems like you’re on a mission to make organic gardening less intimidating and more doable. Would you say the book was an outgrowth of your radio program? Without a doubt. On the radio, you can only give information bit by bit and we needed a way to give people a total organic plan. The book has the “feel” of the show in that it is friendly and accessible and nothing is shoved down your throat. We wanted to create a book that walked you through the transition process step-by-step and did not make you feel guilty about past transgressions.

What is your favorite part of the radio show? The community of remarkable people that has developed. Our website forum is filled with so many characters with such great passion and interest in organic gardening. Whenever we give a lecture or have a book signing, at least one forum user is in the audience. They walk right up to us and introduce themselves by their username and it’s like we’re old friends. We have regular callers on the KDKA program who call just to tell us that something worked (or didn’t work!) and our local sponsors have not only become great sources for organic gardening supplies, but also good friends.

Tell us about your own garden. What are its special delights and challenges? Here’s an excerpt from A Gardener’s Journal: Life with My Garden, our newest foray into the book world. It’s scheduled for national release within the next two weeks. This is one of a few personal stories in the new book (of course it’s mostly meant for gardeners to write down their own stories).

With a young toddler, career changes, and commute distance in mind, my husband and I found it necessary to sell our farm and move closer to the city. I was heartbroken to leave my enormous ‘garden’, and going from 25 acres to two has presented me with some touch decisions. I went from growing food and flowers for hundreds of farmer’s market customers to growing only for the three of us. The biggest difficulty has been deciding how to pare down my selections – now I have to plant only what I really love and I definitely have less room to experiment. This, as it turns out, has not been a bad thing.

Since downsizing, I have found myself paying closer attention to all the details that fell neglected on the farm. For the first time in years, I have a weed free garden; and instead of looking only at the big production picture, I’m now able to focus on creating the intimate, personal garden areas I’ve always wanted. I can now appreciate plants for their individual beauty and am enjoying building beautiful combinations of container plantings and festive veggies. Don’t get me wrong, there is still lots of work to be done to make the garden ‘mine’, but I feel this garden growing on me, and I love it more every day.

My son, too, is thriving in this new garden. Feeding him home-grown blueberries right off the branches, watching him try to find the fish swimming in our small pond, and seeing him absolutely filthy with earth makes it crystal clear that it doesn’t matter how much you grow, just that you do. Growing a child and a garden side-by-side has brought me overwhelming peace and happiness. I wish more parents would give it a try.

I understand you just sent another book to the publisher. Tell us about it. Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically: All You Need to Know about the Insects in Your Garden is the official title and I’m so excited about it! It’s my first solo book and is scheduled for release in spring of 2008 (April or May at best guess). The book is a pictorial and informational guide to some of the more common insects you are likely to find in the yard and garden (meaning there was lots and lots of research on my part!). Apart from the introductory material, each page of the book is dedicated to an individual insect. The first half is devoted to “pests” with clear images of both the pest itself and the damage it causes along with information about proper identification, some physical techniques for control, and a list of possible organic product controls. The second half of the book is dedicated to “beneficial” insects with pictures and information about identification, what pests it helps control, how to attract it to the garden and how to increase its population. Good Bug, Bad Bug will have heavy laminated pages and be spiral bound so you can take it right out into the garden with you.

What else do you have going on? My regular article in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is going strong and I’m a regular contributor to Organic Gardening and Hobby Farms magazines, and I started a blog in August. Oh, and I’m technically a full-time stay-at-home mom…

I couldn’t help noticing the cute photos of your little boy. How has being a parent changed the way you approach your communication work, and the way you garden? Honestly, he’s changed everything about the way I live my life…but not in the way you might think. He’s actually helped me focus my career and keep it on track. I pick and choose work more carefully than I did before (I used to say “yes” to any gig that came my way). I was gardening organically long before he came along so nothing has changed there, but I do feel like I need to somehow convince more people to go organic. You know, the whole “leaving the world better than you found it” thing. I’m actually feeling a pretty heavy responsibility about that. I know all the research and it scares me that so many people are still being so irresponsible (albeit often unknowingly) around their kids….

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jane Pietz June 20, 2014, 3:25 pm

I listen to you and Doug on Sunday mornings and you always advise getting an Arborist for tree problems…well, I’ve got problems..with some of my trees….I need some advise….can you recommend an arborist..there does not seem to be many in this area? Thank You, Jane

Diane M. Schuller December 13, 2007, 11:11 am

Kathy, thanks for this interview. I went and investigated her site and I can hardly wait for her solo book Good Bug, Bad Bug to come out in spring!

Diane, Sand to Glass

jessica December 7, 2007, 2:52 pm

Thanks Kathy for the review of Grow O – both Doug and I are so pleased that you found it so useful. It was a real pleasure to meet you and I look forward to seeing you next year in Portland. Debra, thanks for your kind words….being a ‘stay at home’ mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had!

debra December 7, 2007, 2:23 am

Kathy and Jessica! Thanks for letting us in on your conversation. Reading Kathy’s great interview with you, Jessica, brings to mind a comment from Carol Hicks Bolton, an amazing furniture designer whose “shed” is featured in my upcoming book. She said: “I’m not a working mom; I’m a stay-at-home mom who ‘dabbles’ on the side.” Yeah. Right. There are some pretty gifted women out there, and you two are on the list. You both make it work, because you love your kids AND you are energized by your writing. Thanks for letting me in on the uplifting conversation. xoxodkp

Carol December 6, 2007, 10:58 pm

Great interview. I’m tempted to get Sirius radio so I can listen to their show. I’ll definitely be checking out her new blog.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Kathy Purdy December 6, 2007, 9:01 pm

Welcome! Is that zone 3 USDA or the Canadian zone 3? They are different, you know.

rlewing December 6, 2007, 3:52 pm

A great review and sounds like a book worth reading. i am a zone 3 gardener and committed to organic methods.