Sunday, February 24, 2008

Gardening Podcasts

One of the greatest inventions of the last 10 years must be the portable mp3 player. I spend most of my waking hours at home and at school with an ipod strapped to my waist (more than once, I’ve had colleagues and parents come up and ask, “How’s that insulin pump working for you?”). As I music teacher I have found it an invaluable classroom resource for playing audio and video files, and at home I entertain myself with it while driving, exercising, cleaning, and gardening. Its major appeal for me is the ready availability of audio and video podcasts from all over the world on any subject one might possibly imagine, and a number of these apply to the art and science of gardening.

As might be imagined, these podcasts vary widely in the quality of information being distributed, not to mention the level of production value and professionalism. Some are basically audio/video blogs posted by people like myself. These are usually pretty enjoyable, even if the information isn’t particularly scholarly; it’s like having a neighbor (albeit one who lives in a totally different climate zone) discuss his garden with you as you work on your own. These tend to come and go as the podcasters’ interests wax and wane, and, like blogs, the frequency with which they appear in my itunes playlist is sporadic, due to the vagaries of individual life schedules.

Another category of gardening podcast is the radio call in show, usually carried by a local PBS radio station and manned by a resident extension educator or horticulture professor. I find many of these enjoyable, but some are much more listenable than others for a number of reasons. First of all, though it’s obvious that most of the presenters of these programs are extremely knowledgeable, some are much more talented as broadcasters than others. Felder Rushing’s “Gestalt Gardener”, out of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is one of the most entertaining listens available, whether or not one is interested in gardening (my roommate will listen to this gardening podcast, but not others.) A retired professor of horticulture and author of several solid (as well as slightly irreverent) gardening books, he aims to entertain, debunk myths, and encourage outright rebellion as he encourages gardening for the pure fun of it. Granted, the show’s sometimes light on hard information, and callers tend to get short shrift when it comes to getting a definite answer (which underscores the fact that there really ARE very few absolutes involved in gardening), but it’s always darned entertaining, and Rushing’s folksy delivery makes anything he says seem completely credible. He’s the Garrison Keillor of southern gardening.

Another favorite of mine originates in a tiny, low-power radio station at UC Davis; the signal is sometimes pitifully weak, and I have to turn my car radio volume all the way up to hear it, but I never miss an episode. Hosted by Don Shor and Lois Richter, the Davis Garden Show is packed with great information, some of which is applicable 3000 miles away, some not. Don’s wealth of knowledge is staggering, and he has an easy wit and delivery style which makes him very listenable. Lois is no gardening slouch, herself; though perhaps without as much formal gardening education or professional experience as her partner, she holds her own in discussions on most topics. She also has one of the most pleasant speaking voices on the radio anywhere. I haven’t seen a picture of her, but she sounds amazingly like Jamie Lee Curtis. I would credit this to the existence of a California accent, except that Lois hails originally from Michigan. There are very few callers, and this affords more time for Don and Lois to discuss timely topics in depth; the one regular caller, an obviously erudite, educated, and obsessive gardener (it takes one to know one), brings frequently arcane subjects into the mix and offers (sometimes unintentional) comic relief.

Speaking of voices, another podcast I enjoy is “Wiggly Wigglers”, produced by the eponymous British company which promotes and provides materials for worm composting (hence the name) and organic gardening. While most of the info applies mainly to farmers in the UK, I would listen to Heather Goering read the phonebook. She also has the best laugh since the woman who sang the role of Madame Thenardier on the cast album of Les Mis. Ditto for “Talkback Gardening” and “Highlights from the Garden Weekend”, a pair of Australian broadcasts. The accents and syntax alone are worth a weekly listen, although Australians in general do seem to punctuate every sentence uttered by another speaker with “yes...yes...yes...”

I’m a huge fan of Ken Druse’s writing and photography, and for over a year now I’ve really enjoyed the garden podcast which he hosts with Vicki Johnson from his home in New Jersey. I’m hoping that their recent preoccupation with politics and environmental concerns is just a way to tread water until the gardening season begins again in earnest. While I’m totally in favor of “green living”, to use the PC term, I’d rather hear gardeners of this magnitude talk about gardening. (Note - it's April now, and they're gardening again!)

There are some podcasts, which, sad to say, just don’t appeal to me. Jane Nugent’s garden show from Pittsburgh dispenses solid information, and the host is obviously knowledgeable, but is also obviously reading most of her copy, throwing in “my goodness” at least once in each paragraph in an effort to make her delivery sound extemporaneous. Jane seems like a very nice lady, but one who could benefit from the calming effect of a good, stiff drink. This, coupled with the generally poor audio quality of the podcast, makes it a tough listen for me. Ditto for Ralph Snodsmith’s “Garden Hotline” out of NYC; Mr. Snodsmith’s got voluminous background knowledge and experience, but his delivery is a bit too pat for me, he gets hung up on his own pet issues (I think a great drinking game could be formulated by requiring each player to take a swig every time Ralph says “emerald ash borer” on the air), and his treatment of callers is sometimes a bit brusque and dismissive. Not that I blame him on this last point – they’re generally asking pretty trivial questions. It must get tedious to explain how to rebloom an Amaryllis or Poinsettia for the hundredth time in a year. Not surprisingly, both of these big-city based podcasts tend to host a preponderance of urban callers whose gardening opportunities are limited to one sunny window.

An interesting paradox I’ve discovered from listening to garden podcasts of the call-in ilk is that many of the callers are not computer literate; when you think about it, if they were, they could find the answers to their questions in great detail and with copious illustrations on the internet. Anyone tech-savvy enough to be listening to a podcast on an ipod is probably familiar with using a search engine, and therefore not likely to benefit much from the questions of those whose information gathering skills are limited to dialing an 800 number, so the quality of the podcast has to depend more on the host’s background and delivery style than on their responses to frequently inane questions. Felder Rushing, for instance, almost never gives callers useful answers to their questions over the air (although he does answer emails in depth, from what I understand), but I tune in week after week for the entertainment value.

Speaking of pure entertainment value, you can’t beat the “Gardening Australia” video podcast. Gorgeous gardens full of plants I’ve barely (or never) heard of are beautifully photographed at the height of the season, which happens to occur when our gardening year hits rock bottom, and it’s all presented with humor and a plethora of solid information (and again with those Aussie accents!) I let out an audible squeal of glee last week when the first episode began to download, after several weeks of hiatus.

It’s obvious that the information age has changed all aspects of life in amazing ways, and the gardening hobby is no different. I’m glad to have so many entertainment options which make some pretty onerous tasks more bearable, and I’d secretly love to produce my own podcast one day. For now, however, I’m enjoying listening; it’s like gardening with friends who don’t expect thoughtful responses, borrow your tools, or want refreshments when they visit.

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