The Garden: A Place Where Everybody Can Meet
Meet nationally recognized garden writer and speaker, Charlie Nardozzi
Growing up on a multi-generational family farm in Connecticut, Charlie Nardozzi was surrounded by food and family as far back as he can remember.
"There was this atmosphere of gardening and farming, with animals, fruits, berries, flowers, fields and trees," Charlie recalls. "Great food and cooking came out of that. My city relatives would visit and pick dandelions from the hay fields in spring, and my grandmother would cook them up."
His grandparents had stopped farming by the time Charlie was a teenager, but he had developed a lifelong appreciation for gardening, food, and nature. He majored in plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, helped farmers in Thailand with the Peace Corps, got a Master's Degree in Adult Education, and started his gardening career working with community gardens. Today, he's a go-to gardening writer, speaker, TV & radio personality, and garden tour leader who uses his extensive knowledge and experience to connect with people all over the U.S. and the world.
"Gardening is a place where everybody can meet, regardless of politics or religious affiliation," says Charlie. "Everyone loves plants and flowers, and everyone loves to eat. It's a joy to use gardening to connect with people."
How did you get started with gardening?
My grandparents on my mother's side came were immigrants through New York, from a little village outside of Naples, Italy. They moved to Connecticut, where they started a farm and had their six kids. Whenever one got married, they'd put up a house on the farm.
My family lived in one of six brick ranch houses going up the hill from the farmhouse, so the farm and the field were my backyard. I helped my grandfather pick apples and potatoes, and as each one of the boys got old enough, they were assigned taking care of my mother's garden. Growing up that way, I felt like I could never get away with anything! But I now realize how unique it is, and how sweet it was.
Why do you garden?
I just love being outside, being a part of nature and what's happening. I also love the freshness and self-sufficiency of a garden — I've been a vegetarian since college. And then there's the unusualness of all the things you can grow. For example, I've grown celtuce, a lettuce where you harvest and eat the stalk, a bitter gourd from India called karela, and tiny cucamelons.
What kinds of gardening do you enjoy?
For me, experimenting is part of the joy of gardening. It can be serious, but it doesn't have to be. I'm always trying new things and I certainly still kill plants. With gardening, there are always new things you can learn, and you can start all over again. You never feel like you're done.
I experiment with container and small-space gardening. Once during a radio broadcast, I said we couldn't grow peanuts in Vermont. A listener got in touch and told me she had done it, so I was inspired to try them in containers. I had a beautiful crop of peanuts... until the mice and voles got them. They left the shells behind, just like they were at a bar or a baseball game! I hadn't found the right setting, so I'm still trying.
I also do straw bale gardening every year because it's a little unusual. We have plenty of land and I don't have to do it, but it's kind of a cool thing.
Describe your own garden.
We have five acres around our home, and about half is cultivated with a little bit of everything, including grapes, herbs, flowers, annuals, perennials, and fruit and nut trees. I'm not so much interested in the aesthetic — I'm like the cobbler's son — I just enjoy having all of it around, and all the production we get from it. It would be nice if we could weed a little more!
Most of our plants are in-ground. Our edible hedgerow is on a mounded raised bed, our vegetables and annual flowers are in raised beds, and our perennials and sprawling plants, like melons, are in-ground. We also have a bunch of self-watering containers.
Our soil is clay: very fertile, but still clay. When we first got here, we tried to garden in it as is but said "Nah, we're too old for this," and decided to build the soil. A local farmer brought in manure and we spent the first growing season watching, seeing where the sunny spots and shadows were, and how it changed from June to September. Because gardening is my profession, I think it made a big difference in how we were able to get things to grow.
What gardening topics are you most passionate about?
Lately I've been talking a lot about foodscaping, integrating edibles into your landscape to create a yard that's beautiful and ecologically sound. The attitude you bring when gardening this way is good for the earth, and for pollinators. I'm in no way an expert on permaculture, but I use some of those ideas in my yard. Having an area that's a little wild or that has some native plants in it is very important — not only for ecology, but also for our mental health.
As you get older, you think more about leaving something on the land, so I've also gotten interested in trees, like American chestnuts. I always plant a Dawn Redwood, a conifer that drops its needles, wherever I live. The American persimmon is a really beautiful and unusual-looking tree. If you're not going to eat the fruit, the animals will love it.
What do you feel is the biggest benefit of gardening?
It gets you outside and closer to nature, which benefits everyone. I think part of the reason there's been a boom in houseplants lately is that people are craving a connection with the natural world but don't have the space to garden. Plants do great things for our mood, and science shows the health benefits. In this crazy world, as it gets faster, people are looking for things to help them reconnect. Gardening can do that.
I've also seen how people really come alive when they start working with plants. Once I worked with a Veteran as part of a group in a community garden program, and I quickly realized he had PTSD and spoke very little to other people. But by the end of the season, he was one of the garden leaders, talking with people and taking care of the plants. I could see how he was transformed and came back to himself, just through being in the garden. Those things encourage me.
What's your biggest gardening challenge?
It's my clay soil. I live in a beautiful place with views and a pond across the street, with soil that's great... for growing corn and alfalfa. I go to other gardens and get jealous at how the plants grow so easily, and everyone looks happy!
Once things are established, though, they do well, but it takes work and patience to figure out ways to work with clay. For annual plants we use raised beds, and we amend the soil with compost for perennials. We do more mulching for woody plants and shrubs, first breaking up the native soil, then putting a thick layer of organic matter on top, in a wide diameter around the plant. It feeds them better in the long term than just digging a hole.
We also use cover crops to continue to develop the clay soil, and I'm trying hügelkultur, which is a German term meaning "mound beds." You take old branches, logs, and things that would be rotting, bury them in the soil, and create a mound. The idea is that heavy carbon materials break down over time, and after the second year, whatever you plant will benefit from the slow release of nutrients.
What is one of your gardening best practices?
Be patient and don't rush things. I always wait to start my tomatoes until April. And there's no reason to push warm season plants out into the garden by Mother's Day.
Watch what nature is doing — what's budding or flowering, for example — and use those actions as cues. If it's happening in the natural world, it's probably a good time to bring it into your garden.
What is your most memorable gardening triumph or disaster?
Sometimes, as gardeners, we get fixated on things. There was a nice spot in our yard where we wanted to plant a flowering tree. It took us three attempts to get a tree to grow in that spot. They all died! Not only was it clay soil, it was too wet. So we finally put a willow up there and it's thriving. As my grandfather used to say, "You get a little boneheaded."
If you could only grow one plant, what would it be and why?
I love figs. It goes back to my Italian heritage — they're nutritious and probably a complete meal, right there in one fig! It's also a tree, it's productive, and it's delicious. I've grown fig trees in containers for 5 or 6 years, and every year in September, I get 50 or 60 figs from each tree. When I'm a 95-year-old gardener, hopefully I'll have a fig.
How have your gardening practices changed through the years?
When I started out, working with community gardens in Vermont and writing for national gardening magazines, I actually started doing more gardening: That was part of my education. My interest was all about edibles. Then I got land and a house, and could do some in-ground gardening, so my interests evolved and expanded to flowers, shrubs and trees.
I always wanted to be an organic gardener and I've maintained that. Over time I've developed aesthetic and strategic ways of putting different plants together in the garden to attract a lot of beneficial insects. I mix flowers, herbs, and vegetables and have a diversity of plants in the ground, raised beds, and containers.
What is your favorite garden tool or product?
I like those long-handled, three-prong cultivators. They're great for seeding — you make a little furrow, but they're hefty enough to move soil around. They're great for weeding, too.
Gardener's Supply offers useful products and maintains a strong social component to their business. I'm fortunate they're in my backyard because I enjoy researching and trying out new things. I use their square tomato cages and have a bunch of self-watering containers. The GrowEase Seed Starter Kit is self-watering, so I can go away for the weekend and not have to worry about my little seedlings in the basement.
When I talk about Gardener's products at flower shows, people say, "Wow! I've never seen anything like that." They're on the cutting edge of what's new in gardening.
Have any of your friends been bitten by the gardening bug?
Whenever I do personal gardening appearances, lots of people come up and tell me stories of how important gardening has been in their lives. It's rewarding when people take the time to make a personal connection.
How did you discover Gardener's Supply?
Early in my career, I interned with a nonprofit group called Gardens for All. That's where I met Will Raap, the founder and chairman of Gardener's Supply, and I became a part of that family. Since then, I've always had a personal connection to Gardener's: I'm interested in the non-profit world and doing good, and Gardener's social mission is strong.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell Gardener's Supply Company's readers?
Hopefully, hearing from me will inspire people and make them less afraid of trying new plants and new techniques, or even of killing things. Have a sense of joy and simplicity about gardening, and just try it. It could be fun! Imagine what the benefits could be.
Look for Charlie Nardozzi online on Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, and his own comprehensive website, Gardening with Charlie Nardozzi. For information on upcoming on-air or in-person appearances, including information about garden and food travel tours, visit Where's Charlie?.
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