John Dromgoole has been Austin’s iconic organic-gardening guru and radio personality for the last 30-odd years. His business, The Natural Gardener—located in Oak Hill on Old Bee Caves Road—continues to grow steadily, and people from all over Texas and points beyond frequently seek him out for advice on everything from growing a healthy tomato to choosing quality gardening tools. We sat down with him recently to find out a little more about the man behind the mission.
Edible Austin: How did you get your start in organics? Have you always been in this business?
John Dromgoole: When I moved to Austin, a friend of mine gave me a job at her garden center, The Jungle Store, while she took maternity leave. There, I learned about plants, soil mixing and the gardening industry. It was very different from the boutique business that I owned before, selling clothes.
EA: What kind of clothes?
JD: Oh…bell-bottoms, big-collared shirts, tasseled vests, hippie beads…that sort of thing. I was in Laredo…I broke my back in a car wreck and was out of commission for a year. As a result, I lost my business. That’s when I came to Austin. All my friends had moved up here, and they never came home. So I came up to see what was going on, and I never went home either.
EA: You’ve been involved in organic gardening for about 30 years. Is that right?
JD: Yes, easily. I’m not a born-again organic gardener. I learned organics right off the bat. Once I decided to work in the gardening industry, I worked for a few traditional growers, growing everything from trees to mums. Professional growers use a very scientific, chemical approach to gardening. I went to work for these growers to learn about propagation, disease identification, commercial production, fertilization and more. Then I worked in San Antonio for a very prestigious landscape company called Los Patios and learned the landscaping industry. All the while, I was reading and applying the organic alternatives to everything I was learning. All of this experience, including my work here in Austin, has been my education in horticulture. That’s what allowed me to do radio, too.
EA: Had you done any radio before you got into the organics business?
JD: Yes, I studied radio, television and film in college—not horticulture. I was on the air for many years in Laredo. I started in high school and continued in college. I’ve done a lot more radio than people think. I’ve been on about twenty-eight years here at KLBJ, about two on WOAI in San Antonio, and I spent about four years on the radio in Laredo doing music and news reporting. I even broadcast in Mexico.
EA: What is the one driving philosophy that keeps you interested in organics?
JD: I tried working in the herb business for a while. I think they are important plants because they heal. After a while, I discovered that wasn’t my path. I decided that organic gardening is more important because it covers everything. Rather than just healing people, organic gardening heals the environment; it’s a much bigger scope.
EA: So what is the basis of a good, healthy, organic garden?
JD: Soil. A good, healthy soil. Organic Gardening and Farming magazine was my textbook. That’s how I found Malcolm Beck—a farmer in San Antonio. The old Rodale Press magazines were small—not the big, slick magazines you see today. More often than not, the articles focused on soil. They wrote about companion planting and tomatoes, too, but ultimately came back to the soil. Eventually, I worked for the magazine as a consultant and a contributor to their garden calendar for the Southwest.
EA: I’ve heard you say “Grow food, not lawns.” What do you mean by that, and why should people do it?
JD: People are concerned these days about the quality of their food—salmonella in eggs, E. coli in spinach…it has people worried. So the homeowner decides that if they are going to spend money, water and time mowing the lawn, why not grow food instead and get something in return? The average salad travels 1,400 miles, but you can cut down on that by growing it yourself and buying local.
EA: Let’s say I’m a city girl. I live in a condo and don’t know a thing about gardening. Can I still grow my own food?
JD: I would try a bunch of things. You can put a raised container on your balcony. You may or may not be able to grow tomatoes, but could certainly grow leafy greens and herbs. Or you could put hanging containers on the rail of your balcony. You will still have the pleasure of growing your own basil and peppers. Peppers are more shade tolerant than most plants. I think we will continue to see more rooftop gardens on homes, condos and high-rises as developers and builders realize that these components make them more marketable. You could always join a community garden, too.
EA: How do you think the organics movement is affected by the Slow Food or foodie movement?
JD: It’s a gourmet idea. These groups cook together and enjoy eating in season. It’s a very pleasant communal experience. It’s creating a community beyond the farmers market. They buy local, and there are some very good cooks, very good butchers, bread makers, artisans…all working together. When people get into this new movement, they are buying local, supporting the local farmer who grew the grain or raised the pig…it’s a great big picture. As this grows, everybody benefits. The big difference is that your food didn’t travel 1,400 miles.
EA: What can Texans do to help their local farmers, and why should they do it?
JD: Buy local. As I said, it’s a chain effect and everyone benefits at the local level. I have never heard of an outbreak of salmonella at the farmers market. Never. You can depend on getting clean, fresh, healthy, organically grown food from the farmers market. They’re diversified. When insects or disease get into their beets, they might lose the beets, but they won’t lose everything. A corporate farm might have 5,000 acres of spinach, and if the crop gets sick, they have no choice but to spray and spray. That’s their whole crop for this year. It might be a million dollars. Small farmers know they can lose a little bit and still be in business.
EA: Though international in scope, it seems the Slow Food movement represents a way to fight for sustainable living on a local level.
JD: Well, that’s what’s happening with the family farms and the gardens. We’re fighting for sustainability. We’re trying to build the soil. We need to leave healthy soil for generations to come. Sustainability is coming back. We want to leave the Earth better than we found it—that’s critical. That’s what we do at The Natural Gardener. We invest in our community by teaching people about soil building, fruit-tree maintenance, organic gardening and more. We want people to be more independent.
EA: Where do you see organics ten years from now?
JD: I think that in ten years, if you walk into any nursery or garden store, including the big-box ones, and you ask for a product, they will hand you an organic one. Organics will dominate. They’re going to take over and become mainstream. You’ll have to ask for the chemical stuff. Chemicals will be old school. Organics will continue to grow, and chemicals will be phased out, as organics prove to do the job safely and more effectively.
EA: Many consider you a local icon and hero. Who would you say is your hero? Is there any one person who inspires you?
JD: Arden Anderson is one of the great ones. He’s a fantastic speaker and writer. I consider him to be top in the country.
EA: Finally, if you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
JD: Rachel Carson would be a good one to talk to…John Jeavons, for sure…also Jim Hightower. If one of them couldn’t make it, then I would like John Lennon.
For 28 years, John Dromgoole has hosted Gardening Naturally, which airs every Saturday and Sunday morning on KLBJ. He also hosts KLRU’s Backyard Basics and KXAN’s The Weekend Gardener. The Natural Gardener offers free classes every Saturday. Visit naturalgardeneraustin.com for class details. Dromgoole lives in Oak Hill with his wife, Jane, and dogs, Daisy and Onyx.