Snow's on the Ground, but Thoughts Turn to Gardening

Experts provide advice on how you can grow in green-friendly ways, and find out why a dust buster may be an organic gardener's best friend. Guests and callers also discuss plans to change the hardiness zones to reflect recent upswings in the temperature.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Sure, there may be snow on the ground, it may be floods in other places, all kinds of weird weather, but you know what you got in your mailbox, right? You got something nice and warm and cozy. It's that seed catalog from your favorite seed company. Planter growers, you know, we have lots of different catalogs. Lots of people prefer one company over the other. But apart from the robins that appear in the spring, the seed catalog comes even first, I think, before other signs of spring. And if your green thumb is getting itchy, this hour we're going to try to scratch it for you, because we're going to talk about gardening with gardening experts and get into some organic gardening.

You know, you buy organic food in the grocery stores? Increasingly you'll find it everywhere. What if you want to grow organic food on your own? We're going to talk about that too. We're also going to talk about plans to change the hardiness zones to reflect the upswing in global warming. Have you noticed that your plants may be budding a week or two earlier? Maybe you want to try growing something that's - if you're in Zone 6, you want to try a little different zone, maybe a little warmer zone, maybe you want to try that. We'll talk about some people who think that the zone charts should be changed. Our number: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Tanya Denckla is a gardener and a writer. She has written a gardeners A-Z guide to growing organic food. She joins us from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. TANYA DENCKLA (Author): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. David J. Ellis is the director of communications for the American Horticultural Society. He is also editor of The American Gardener. Perhaps you get that booklet in the mail. He joins us by phone from Alexandria, Virginia. Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Ellis.

Mr. DAVID J. ELLIS (American Horticultural Society): Hi, Ira, thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tanya, there's still snow on the ground. What can people get ready to do? Do to get ready?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know what I'm talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah, well, there's lots that people can be doing. This is, I think, as you said, this is an ideal time for people to get started in their gardening season and start - waiting for a couple months may even be too late.

FLATOW: Really?

Ms. DENCKLA: This is the time - oh, yeah. I mean this is really the ideal time to start thinking about it. It's a time to go out and dream and look at your yard and where do you want to put your garden? And do you need to build gardening beds? Do you need to put in some raised beds? Maybe you want to test your soil. And as you said, this is the time to start planning your garden. What do you want to grow? And I think the place to start is what do you want to eat, and what will your family eat, and what might you start experimenting with to sort of broaden the stretches of your palate, so to speak?

FLATOW: Should you be, you know, planting some of those seeds indoors now, a thing that you've decided to eat?

Ms. DENCKLA: Really...

FLATOW: Or is it better to wait for it out - you know, for the ground to warm up?

Ms. DENCKLA: Well, there's different things you can do, and it all depends on where you live. Everything is oriented towards your first and last frost dates, so it's great that we'll be talking about hardiness zones a little later. Right now if your first - your last frost date is mid-May, which is about the range for the Charlottesville area, you'd probably want to be starting your seeds - and I'll be doing that - in a couple of weeks. And so you want - yeah, so you want to get everything geared up for that. So in order to start your seeds, you have to decide what to grow.

And in organic gardening, that's paramount because 99 percent of the work in being a good organic grower is prevention. You know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And so what we want to do in organic growing is find the right plant for your particular microclimate. So you want to - if for example, on the East Coast here we are often befuddled by fungal diseases and viral diseases, so we want to look through these catalogs while we're dreaming and curled up on the couch, we want to look for those varieties that are resistant, naturally resistant, to those particular fungal or viral or bacterial diseases, and so on.

We want to find - we want to choose more than one variety. So if you are really going to get into tomatoes this year, and you're maybe even going to be experimental and try canning or freezing tomato sauce, you know, you should be growing more than one type. So have some fun. Maybe you want to grow some yellow tomatoes to make yellow curry tomato soup. Or maybe you want to grow purple potatoes to make purple vichyssoise, both of which I've done, and it's so much more fun than just the same old same old.

FLATOW: Right. Let me bring in David Ellis. David, do we - Tanya and I were talking about the hardiness map, and I know that the American Horticultural Society revised their hardiness map back in 2003. Tell us why you did that, and for folks who don't know what that map is, give us a little thumbnail on it.

Mr. ELLIS: OK, the USDA Hardiness Map was first published in 1960. It was revised again to show, you know, temperatures that have changed in 1990, and since 1990 had not been updated. So in 2003, actually the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave us a grant to update the map. We did create a draft version of the map in 2003, but it turned out that wasn't quite what the U.S. Department of Agriculture had in mind, and they took the project back over and are currently working on a different updated version of the Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

FLATOW: Well, that was at a time when the U.S. government didn't admit global warming existed. That might have meant they admitted it back in 2003.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIS: Well, there's been a lot of speculation about that. I hope that that is not the case in this instance. The reasons given have been a number of different ones, and I spoke with the USDA spokesperson last week, and she is hopeful that they will be able to have that map out as soon as possible.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Tanya, you were talking about getting the soil ready and - this time of the year - and first deciding where you want to do your plants.

Ms. DENCKLA: Right, so one of the things you want to do, you could do, is to either get one of these home soil test kits, or you could work with your cooperative extension and take soil samples to them. And you'd want to find out what do we need, so - and once you find out what you need - whether it's nitrogen or potassium or phosphorous or magnesium or calcium, who knows - then you want to start looking at what are some of the organic ways of amending your soil. And as I have in my book explained is that what we really want to do in organic is we want to avoid the sort of quick ivy push of nutrients into the soil, which is what you get with the synthetic fertilizers. In organic we want to find very slow-release amendments. So you know, just an example, if you need potassium in your soil, you'd want to add green sand or kelp meal and work that into your soil, that kind of thing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people want to ask questions, so we'll go to the phones early this hour. Let's go to Shad(ph) in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

SHAD (Caller): Hi, Ira, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Do you actually live in the park?

SHAD: I do.

FLATOW: Oh, you lucky.

SHAD: Yeah, I do, and I - because I live in the park, because of foraging animals and aesthetics, visitation aesthetics, I'm not able to have, as you can imagine, an outdoor garden. But I am interested in having an indoor herb garden, and I was wondering if your guests could speak to how to initiate a garden of that type and sources I could possibly refer to for that.

Ms. DENCKLA: Yes, I think an indoor herb garden is very doable. Do you have a sunny window?

SHAD: I do.

Ms. DENCKLA: OK, and a windowsill? That's the key is that these plants inside need to be able to get enough light to meet their light requirements. So that's really the key. If you can find a window that has lots of light, it may not - you may not want a lot of direct light that would burn the plants, necessarily, but you'd want to create a shelf near that light source, and there's many of your very common herbs that you could grow. Oh my gosh, marjoram and basil and even oregano and thyme, all of these can be grown indoors.

FLATOW: Wow, that's great. All right, thanks for the call.

Mr. ELLIS: There's also a new semi-hydroponic unit you can buy that's very successful for herbs. It's got a built-in light source, and essentially the plant roots just live in water, with some food in the water.

FLATOW: Would that be considered organic?

Ms. DENCKLA: It depends on what's in that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah, the fertilizer itself might not be organic, although you may be able to find a substitute that is.

FLATOW: The American Horticultural Society has a program called Green Garage, David. Tell us what that is.

Mr. ELLIS: We developed the Green Garage program because, you know, gardeners were always coming to us asking for sources for products that are Earth friendly and techniques for gardening to reduce, you know, the environmental impact on their gardens.

So we developed this program to provide ideas and tips for people for what they should look for, and also to start looking at products or viewing some products and trying to find the ones that were made of recycled materials and offered things like water conservation and low toxicity, organic or natural pesticides, things like that.

FLATOW: Let's go to Will in Amesville, Ohio. Hi, Will.

WILL (Caller): Hey. I think I have a couple of suggestions. One is to curl up on the couch in front of a laptop instead of the catalog because there's some wonderful catalogs on the Web.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. DENCKLA: Absolutely. And almost all of my favorite catalogs are on the Web.

FLATOW: What are - what are your favorite catalogs?

Ms. DENCKLA: Well, some of my favorites…

FLATOW: Can you share them with us?

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah. The Southern Seed Exposure and the Seed Saving Exchange. I like the catalogs that err on the side of providing heirlooms and…

WILL: A good heirloom catalog is Appalachian Heirlooms. Have you taken a look at that?

Ms. DENCKLA: I haven't. It sounds great.

WILL: Appalachian Heirlooms. It's got nice stories about people who grew them.

FLATOW: What's - what's better about heirloom seeds?

Ms. DENCKLA: Will, do you want to answer that?

WILL: I think maybe your specialists can answer that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DENCKLA: I'd be happy to give a shot.

FLATOW: Sure. Give it a shot.

Ms. DENCKLA: And then you can chime in.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Ms. DENCKLA: Heirlooms - heirlooms are - it's interesting because we started out talking about biotechnology. And heirlooms are really sort of the total reverse of that. These are seeds that have been saved and grown and saved and grown for generations.

And the reason why they're important is, first, they provide us with an enormous genetic diversity, which is important organically for the health of our globe. And secondly, they've been tried and tested for generations.

So Appalachian Heirlooms, for example, would be ideal if you're growing in Appalachian type conditions. They would probably have the heirlooms that would be best for resisting the pests and the bugs and the fungal diseases in that region. And so that's why they're great.

WILL: Can I suggest something else?

FLATOW: Sure.

WILL: That Appalachian Flowers I guess is the name of it, Appalachianflowers.com, also has deer-proof plants on it. So the fellow that called from the park might be able to find something there that he could plant that would resist all the animals that he sees.

And if he wants to grow something on his windowsill organically, try worm tea.

FLATOW: David Ellis?

Mr. ELLIS: The other good thing about heirlooms is, of course, many of the vegetables just have amazing flavor. Some of the newer varieties have been bred more for, you know, production, heavy production or for shipping to stores. So they've lost some of that flavor and nutrition that some of the older varieties had.

FLATOW: Yeah. And -

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah. That's what I was going to say, is that I love that you added the nutrition because a lot of the - we have found that a lot of the hybridized vegetables have lost their vitamin A, C and so forth. And you're absolutely right, that that's why we want to grow heirlooms as well.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Will. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, talking about gardening this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking with Tanya Denckla, who is a gardener and writer, who's written "The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food," a terrific, terrific book. Being a gardener, I'm always collecting these books. And it's a great one for my collection.

And with David Ellis, who is director of communications for the American Horticultural Society, also editor of, "The American Gardener," another great little resource for everybody to take advantage of.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. David, you know, when most people think of the term organic gardening, I usually think of vegetable gardening. But can flowers be organic, too?

Mr. ELLIS: Oh certainly.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Mr. ELLIS: You know, it's all in what you put into the soil and onto your plants. And there have actually been several very good books out on the market about organic flower gardening.

And we certainly encourage gardeners to use a little or no chemical input in their gardens. And you can be very successful without those. Part of the industry has been this marketing scheme that is promoted that you have to spray things, you know, with pesticides.

And often you're doing more harm - as Tanya said earlier - than good when you actually are killing some of the beneficial organisms that are helping to protect them from the pests.

FLATOW: Well, let me give you an example of something I've been trying to grow for years with various success, and that are rosebushes. And they seem to come down with so many different diseases, you know.

And I'm trying not to spray them. But it doesn't seem like - and I've given up on them rather than keep spraying them with herbicides - not herbicides, the fungicides and things like that.

Any suggestions on what to do there?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, if - the first trick, as Tanya said earlier, is to pick roses that are resistant to some of the most common diseases. The two most common are black spot - which is a fungal disease - and they're also very prone to aphids.

But there are lots of resistant varieties. Breeders are now understanding that gardeners don't really want to have to spray their roses weekly and during the summer and have come through with a lot of great varieties.

One of the new ones that's great out there is the knockout rose, which is not only disease resistant but you don't even have to prune it. It keeps flowering on - even if it's not pruned, unlike many of the rose varieties.

FLATOW: Okay. Tanya?

Ms. DENCKLA: Ira, let me ask you, was one of your problems also Japanese beetles? That's a classic.

FLATOW: Only for the last 50 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DENCKLA: Well, let me just - let me just say one of the things I love about organic gardening is it can be so fun. And let me give you an example, is we - in organic gardening we try to use tea least invasive method of control. And we start with mechanical remedies.

And so for Japanese beetles, let me share with you my favorite remedy, which is a small hand-held dust buster. And you go out early in the morning while they're still nice and cozily asleep and they can't move. And you just suck them up and drop them into a bucket with a little bit of soap on top. And there they go.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow.

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah.

FLATOW: Will that work on aphids and things like that?

Ms. DENCKLA: Um…

FLATOW: They're a little harder than…

Ms. DENCKLA: They're a little harder to get.

Mr. ELLIS: Aphids you want to try a hose and do a high velocity stream of water, is a better, I think, tack for aphids.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to come back with lots more hints. And this is great. I'm getting a whole new education here.

Take your questions on the gardening show this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of news)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about plants and gardening with my guests. Tanya Denckla is a gardener and writer. She has written "The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food." David Ellis, who is director of communications for the American Horticultural Society and editor of "The American Gardener."

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And lots of people want to talk about what they're doing with their gardens and things like asking questions. So let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here.

Let's go to Scott in Vienna, Illinois. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

SCOTT: I'd like to talk about what we can do as far as helping our planet in regards to organic gardening. And by planting an organic garden we can utilize our waste products that we typically - are nutrient rich, that are flushed down our drains.

Also we can save our coffee and things like that and apply that to our gardening areas. And by doing this we can reduce the cost of transporting food to our homes and things like that by providing more of our own food source locally.

And also I think that there's issues with growing the genetically modified foods that we're facing that we don't even know what we have to face yet. Right now we're looking at honey bee populations disappearing, like up to 50 percent in about 22 states. And we don't know if this could be a - you know, a product of this genetically modified food as well.

FLATOW: Tanya, a comment?

Ms. DENCKLA: Oh wow. That was rich. Scott, you had a lot there. I think first of all yes, composting is a key to organic growing. And we can do our own part. We can - we can compost in our back yard. That's one of the things, Ira, that we can be doing right now, is trying to find a place to set up our compost pile.

And Scott you also mentioned that, you know, we're reducing the, you know, what would be called the oil miles on our food. The average number of miles that our food travels from farm to fork is 1,500 to 2,500 miles…

SCOTT: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DENCKLA: …depending on which source you look at. And so by growing our own food or even supporting - supporting those locally who are growing food for us at our local farmers market or such, we're really doing our part in a sense to help reduce all the carbon emissions associated with food growing and eating.

FLATOW: Right, Scott. Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. This is - this would be a good time to sort of segue into a related topic. He was talking about genetically modified foods and genetically modified plants.

Well, there's a company, is working on a genetically modified version of petunias meant to withstand the frost. And there's also a carnation available modified to a shade of blue not normally found in nature.

So will all these new genetically modified flowers, will they satisfy the gardeners? I mean are gardeners going to be happy with this or are companies going to risk having their products labeled Frankenflowers, scaring off some potential growers?

Joining me now to talk more about that and other news about genetically modified plants is Dan Charles, contributing science correspondent for NPR. He's also author of "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food."

And he joins us from NPR in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dan.

DAN CHARLES: It's nice to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Well, what do you think? Are gardeners looking for this? Or are they going to be offended by this and insulted and worried?

CHARLES: Well, you know, the short answer is I have no idea. But it'll be a very interesting question.

This has been left to the little companies, because the big companies have really focused on the big agricultural crops, the soybeans and corn and so forth. You know, and the thing is, the people who actually grow crops have for the most part sort of taken to these things.

So it'll be interesting if a gardener looks at that as a possibility and says, oh that would be fun to try, because it's more under your control, I guess. I mean the - I think one of the big reasons for the negative reaction to genetically engineered crops is most consumers felt like this was being sort of foisted upon them. They had nothing to gain.

FLATOW: Right.

CHARLES: Maybe a gardener thinks that he or she does. I don't know.

FLATOW: Yeah. And of course GM crops are still in the news and consistently in the news.

CHARLES: Yeah. The - there've been a couple of things lately. You know, the Department of Agriculture, which regulates genetically engineered crops, they've had a very bad run recently in the U.S. courts. They've lost a series of decisions where judges have said you needed to do some things to evaluate the environmental risks of things - these things, and you didn't do them and you've broken the law.

FLATOW: And there was news today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is going to allow the production of rice with human genes in it. You know about that?

CHARLES: Yeah. It's a preliminary decision. This is not final approval. And these are either technically field trials but they are on such a scale that they're really that's not, you know, technically they are confined field trials. But these are anywhere from hundreds of acres to potentially thousands of acres of rice in Kansas, in this one particular county in Kansas.

FLATOW: And that would be to produce something that might have been produced in the laboratory, have the plants produce a drug that are for people.

CHARLES: Right. These are things that - they are producing, I should say, they are producing things that we have in our bodies. They are sort of beneficial compounds, sort of disease-fighting compounds. One of them is one of the key ingredients that's in mother's milk that's so good for us.

But the idea - and these are sometimes, I think, by other companies produced by, you know, sort of, you know, fermentation from yeast organisms. But this company, Ventria Biosciences, I believe it's called, they are planning to grow it in rice. They've inserted the gene that produces these proteins in rice. And they want to grow this in fields, and then process the rice, recover the, you know, the - I don't know what you call it, do you call it a pharmaceutical, do you call it a food additive?

FLATOW: A rice-maceutical.

CHARLES: Yeah. You recover that, and then they are thinking of putting it in sort of energy drinks and, you know, health bars, and potentially even sort of formulated, I guess, medicines for infants to drink to get over diarrhea.

Mr. ELLIS: I guess, in theory, this would be good for you if you ate it.

CHARLES: Right.

Mr. ELLIS: But they want to keep it out of the food supply, and it's one of the reasons why they're growing it in Kansas, because I guess nowhere else in Kansas is there a rice field.

FLATOW: They're afraid that the rice could spread out of that growing area into some other rice crop.

CHARLES: Right.

FLATOW: But you could harvest them and not know that you're getting it in them.

CHARLES: Exactly. And there's some, you know, there's some precedent for this. I guess not so much that there would crosspollination, because rice doesn't cross-pollinate very much. You know, the flower is kind of contained and the pollens stays within the flower. It's self-pollinated. But if you were growing this, you know, next to another rice field and using the same equipment to harvest both, there's going to be - there would be some mixtures. So they want to keep this strictly isolated.

The USDA apparently thinks they can do that, and that's fine. I'm sure that people are going to take this to court.

FLATOW: Well, everything lines up in court.

CHARLES: Yeah.

FLATOW: These days with GM Foods. Thanks for joining us, Dan.

CHARLES: It's a great pleasure.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. We're talking about gardening this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We were talking with Dan Charles who was a contribution science correspondent for NPR and author of "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food."

Also with us is Tanya Denckla, who is author of "The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food," and David Ellis, who is editor of The American Gardener.

1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Tanya, do you think that people will welcome these plants, not the edible kind but the new kinds of varieties or are they going to be fearful of them?

Ms. DENCKLA: Well, that's a great question. That is probably the $10 million question on the table. And I tend to think that at - I mean, time will bear us out and this will be argued out in the courts, I believe. But I do think that there will be a lot of resistance.

There is a thing that is called the precautionary principle that I think is gaining ground here in the United States. It's already very much alive in the European Union. And that basically says that if there's an action or a policy that might cause some kind of severe or possibly even irreversible harm, and if we don't have a scientific consensus about it, then we should err on the side of caution.

And the burden of proof belongs on the people or on those who are advocating the use of these new, you know, biotechnology plant. And so, again, it's sort of the idea of let's be safe rather than sorry. Let's go slow. Let's really find out what the unintended consequences of this might be.

FLATOW: Now we get a comment from David Ellis. David, do you agree?

Mr. ELLIS: I think one of the things that the gardening world has been cautious about has been the idea of some of the Roundup ready plants, especially grasses. Those are plants that have the resistance to the Roundup herbicide built, excuse me, built into them for fear that, you know, eventually this could escape and create some kind of a super weed that would not - you couldn't eradicate from the landscape.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Debbie in Littleton, Colorado. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE (Caller): Hi there. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi.

DEBBIE: I have question. I was sitting on an airplane next to a lady and she was telling me about how she grows tomatoes all year long, and she grows them upside down. Have you heard of anything like that?

FLATOW: You mean indoors then?

DEBBIE: Indoors, and she grows them upside down. She said she takes a pot, like a hanging pot that you would have a plant in, and puts the tomato plant upside down. And basically she said the gravity works with that and so it gets the nutrients and she said they were the best tomatoes she's ever had.

Mr. ELLIS: I've seen the upside-down planters used, but only outdoors. I haven't seen any indoors.

DEBBIE: She lives in Nevada, so they have lots of sun. So if they do it upside down, how do they stay in the pot?

Mr. ELLIS: I think the ones that I have seen the soil is secured in kind of a netting bag and - then the pot is kind of inside out.

FLATOW: But the plant is going to go up even if it comes out upside down. Would it turn itself…

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah. It's going to try to…

FLATOW: Follow the light, right?

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah. It will try to go to the light unless they're using artificial light below it to draw it that way.

DEBBIE: She said she just hangs it in the window that always gets light.

FLATOW: Maybe she just has great tomatoes.

DEBBIE: She said they were great. I was hoping you'd heard of it and I could figure it out.

FLATOW: You could try it. Right?

DEBBIE: Yeah.

FLATOW: You could Google upside down growing plant method pot.

DEBBIE: Pot. Tomatoes.

FLATOW: Tomatoes. All that in a sentence and find out where to buy that pot.

DEBBIE: That's right.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Debbie.

DEBBIE: Thank you. Bye.

FLATOW: We're talking about planting this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

David, have you ever heard any other weird ways of growing plants?

Mr. ELLIS: Oh, I think the, you know, growing plants is only restricted by the imagination of the growers. I'm not sure that I've heard of anything beyond that one. That one's probably about the most extreme.

FLATOW: Tanya, any?

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah. I'm not sure I have heard of anything more weird than that, but I have seen that, like David.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Ms. DENCKLA: But there are fun things that you could do with plants like in terms of, you know, I'm thinking about what David was talking about earlier in terms of recycling things. There are all sorts of fun and weird things you can recycle and use in your garden.

I'm thinking, ladies, you can start saving your old pantyhose and, you know, if you're growing corn they can be used, you know, people have put pantyhose over the corn heads to prevent corn bore and cabbage worm coming in.

FLATOW: I've seen people tie up their melons with old pantyhose.

Ms. DENCKLA: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

FLATOW: Let's go to John in the Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JOHN: Well, we're all happy that you're giving us all this wonderful information.

FLATOW: Great. Have you got something you'd like to find out about.

JOHN: I do. In composting I'm wondering if there is too much in the application of spent coffee grounds over bare soil during the wintertime in preparation for the spring growing season. And this would be coffee grounds that would come from either commercial site like a Starbucks or your local coffee house, or even your own coffee pot at home.

FLATOW: Used coffee grounds. Yes.

Mr. ELLIS: Well, if it's - if you composting almost exclusively with coffee grounds, the only issue is that it's pretty acidic. And many plants grow well in soil that's closer to a neutral pH. So if you have too acidic a compost it will make it tough. But if you're integrating it with other materials, then it should be fine.

FLATOW: There are some acid-loving plants that love coffee grounds.

Mr. ELLIS: Right. Azaleas like acidic soils, roses, blueberries.

FLATOW: Can you put too many grounds on the ground for those plants? Is there a limit or no limit?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I prefer to allow things like coffee grounds and other things to mature a little bit. You know, you put them in the compost pile and you mix them in, you let them sit there for a couple of months and let them soak out a little bit of the strength of it. And if you mix them up with the other materials, you're creating a more balanced type of compost. So I wouldn't tend to put a lot of coffee grounds directly on to the soil around plants. I'd let it compost for a while first.

FLATOW: I've got about a minute left. I want to ask both of you one question. Is there some new, great, wonderful plant coming out this season that we should all buy, look for in our catalog?

Mr. ELLIS: Wow. Well, there's - that's a - each growing season, of course, everyone is bringing out hundreds of new plants to see. Tanya, have you seen anything in particular from your…

FLATOW: He's thumbing through his catalogue.

Mr. ELLIS: I am. I'm looking at it.

Ms. DENCKLA: I haven't, and I guess my interest is more in the new, old ones. This is what old…

FLATOW: Give us one. Give us a good, old heirloom plant or something that everybody should try. Have you got that?

Ms. DENCKLA: Well…

FLATOW: Is there a tomato or, you know, something like…

Ms. DENCKLA: One of my favorite tomatoes is actually an old heirloom Italian tomato called, I'm probably going to butcher the Italian, but Principe Borghese. And it's used in Italy for sun drying, so they are these really big, cherry-like tomatoes but very dense and rich. And they are great for making sauces. They're great for sort of dehydrating and having your own dried tomatoes. And they're an heirloom and they're wonderful.

FLATOW: That's great. You have to move tomato crops around, right? You can't plant them in the same place over the years?

Ms. DENCKLA: There is actually a debate about that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. DENCKLA: Typically, most people will say that you should be moving them and not growing tomatoes in the same place. But there have been - there's one study in particular I'm thinking of where a fellow said, well, let me try and he grew tomatoes in the same place for years and had wonderful yields. So what do you think, David?

Mr. ELLIS: I still rotate mine just for safety's sake.

FLATOW: All right.

Mr. ELLIS: I don't think you can get hurt that way.

FLATOW: All right. There you go. We've run out of time. Hopefully, we've gotten some great gardening tips from Tanya Denckla, who is a gardener and writer of "The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food."

David Ellis, director of communications for the American Horticultural Society, also editor of The American Gardener - two indispensable books for this year, if you're looking for something different to try.

Thank you both for joining us this hour.

Mr. ELLIS: You're very welcome. It's been a pleasure.

Ms. DENCKLA: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

FLATOW: Happy gardening.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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