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Dirty talk with the Dirt Diva

  • Jennifer Kinion
  • In "Talking Dirt," Annie Spiegelman sets out to deliver a "down-to-earth guide to organic gardening" for new and experienced gardeners. This five-part guide starts with the basics: designing and planning a garden, picking tools, soil building, irrigation and pest management. The author serves as cheerleader and teacher, maintaining a balance between infectious enthusiasm and practicality.

    Acknowledging that today's gardeners are coping with a range of challenges unknown to previous generations of gardeners, Spiegelman asserts a simple philosophy: "Being an organic gardener is not about going back in time. This isn't your mother's garden or your grandmother's either. It's simply smart, safe and sustainable gardening."

    The other parts of the guide build on the first, as Spiegelman offers guidance on specialized gardening topics such as edible flowers, vegetables, bulbs and herbs. Using an upbeat, conversational writing style, Spiegelman provides details and step-by-step instruction as appropriate, giving readers the sense that they are working one-on-one with a garden coach. Her flower chapter, for instance, includes one of the most thorough and helpful descriptions of cut flower care I've found in a general gardening guide.

    "Talking Dirt" (286 pages. Penguin Books, $15) is written for a geographically nonspecific audience, so a section on gardening with native plants includes examples of good choices for different regions of the United States. There's enough information on each horticultural niche to engage gardeners of every stripe, whether their particular interest is seed starting, tomato culture or building an environment to attract butterflies.

    If you've read Spiegelman's previous writing, you know how much of a rose fanatic she is, and it is no surprise to find that she devotes a portion of the guide to rose care. Throughout the guide, Spiegelman keeps readers focused on the backbone of a healthy garden: "If you don't continually build, bless and bolster your soil (the foundation of your garden) with organic matter (compost) you'll simply be wasting your time and money."

    Early in the book, Spiegelman admits that initially, her own forays into gardening were more prone to trial and error than success. Inspired in part by her local Master Gardener program, she shifted her focus from quick fixes to the ongoing work of building a healthy garden from the ground up. Success with these ecologically sound, scientifically researched tactics led to a new appreciation for soil microbes and the organic matter that fuels them.

    "The idea of free horse manure, which I'd heard was a zesty crop fertilizer, gave me the same endorphin rush as a Macy's semiannual shoe sale," she admits.

    The author injects hipness and humor into each passage. Don't be surprised to find yourself laughing out loud at Spiegelman's references to her own garden gnome phobia. I had to giggle when I realized that a section entitled "Snacking and Drinking on the Job" was not about what gardeners eat while weeding, but about the nutrients that crop plants like to "snack on" during the growing season.

    "Talking Dirt" isn't all fun and games, though. Spiegelman also dishes the dirt on the horticultural industry's dark side, providing sobering facts on pesticide and herbicide use. Encouraging readers to explore alternatives, she suggests easy-to-achieve, positive steps such as embracing less-toxic product options for pest control and fostering an environment that supports beneficial insects.

    The topics in "Talking Dirt" are interspersed with profiles of recommended plants, each graded with the proprietary (and amusing) rating system of the author's own Dirt Diva Royal Horticultural Society. The system, which "rates plants on their practical botanical merit and their level of whining," takes into account factors such as water use, visual appeal and disease resistance. An illustration by artist Maggie Agro accompanies each plant description.

    One of the joys of this book is that Spiegelman so expertly sums up the little "aha" moments that go into the education of a gardener. As an advocate of building soil fertility with cover crops, Annie tells us how to accomplish it, and then provides a friendly kick in the seat to encourage us to keep doing it: "Plan to do it every fall and or spring; like flossing your teeth, it should become a habit (You don't floss just twice a year, before your cleaning. Or do you?) You can't just build your soil one year and then stop."

    Novices will appreciate this no-nonsense guide to gardening tasks, and experienced gardeners will discover new techniques and tricks. Spiegelman hooks readers with her quick wit, easy writing style and enthusiasm, and will keep them engaged with her deep knowledge of the subject matter. Read "Talking Dirt" from start to finish for informative fun, and then keep it handy on your gardening reference shelf.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.