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ROGER SWAIN : A Green Thumbs-Up


If your thumb hasn't turned a deep shade of green yet, don't blame PBS' "The Victory Garden." Television's longest-running gardening series has been working hard at turning the country onto growing things for 18 seasons now.

Since it first broke ground with the late horticulturist James Underwood Crockett, the WGBH Boston-produced gardening guide of the air has expanded to include not only how to get seeds and plants deftly into the ground and growing nicely but also what to do with the fruits of your labor once they get to the kitchen. Correspondents scour the country as well as international gardens looking for the best among new, and old, approaches to home gardening.

Not unexpectedly, the program has produced several well-regarded gardening books, garden cookbooks and, naturally, home videos: "Victory Garden Recipes: From the Garden to the Table" and "The Victory Garden Vegetable Video."

TV Times Editor Barbara Saltzman, an inveterate gardener, caught up with the show's Roger Swain (science editor of Horticulture magazine), who supervises the practical planting segments, as he was readying the Victory Garden for fall planting in Lexington, Mass.

How do you account for "The Victory Garden's" staying power?

We all eat don't we? Gardening is the foundation of every major culture. So, all of us have gardening in our hearts and souls, if not in our blood. Whether or not we do a lot of it, there are echoes of the past and the good life and the foundations of civilization in it. It's a sort of magical and mystical subject to all of us, whether we're actually gardeners or not. Gardening has a fundamental importance. It speaks to the very fact that all of us depend on the sun for nourishment and that gardening is the backbone of our civilization.

How do you get people interested in gardening?

For one thing, we don't drag them kicking and screaming to the task. Children who are forced to weed tend not to grow up to be gardeners. You show people how much fun it is, how easy it is and how dramatic it is.

In a single season you put seeds and small plants into the ground and a few months later you've got a luxurious forest filled with good things to eat and beautiful sights. It's a complete transformation of a patch of ground. That's magic. How could you not be drawn to it?

How easy is gardening?

It's extraordinarily easy. It's like sledding, if I might draw on an analogy from my part of the country. You carry the sled up to the top of the hill and you give a little push. And gravity does the rest. In the case of plants, they want to grow. All you're really doing is a little steering. If you get to the top of the hill with a sled and know a little something about steering, then you'll have a great ride. Basically, you have all the natural forces with you. What you are doing as a gardener is taking advantage of natural forces, of sunlight, of rainfall, of seed germination and plant growth. These things happen.

Around here we say that nature abhors a vacuum. Bare ground either gets covered up with plants--or weeds. The land carpets itself with greenery and the gardener simply determines the pattern.

How much fun is gardening?

One of the things that's important for me as a host is to show people that you're having a good time. I like gardening. I couldn't do the show if I didnt like gardening.

Has interest in gardening increased since the show's inception?

I certainly would like to claim credit for any such increase, but who could tell? We have been gardening now as a human species for 10,000 years, correlated with a very stable period of temperature. And that very good weather has made possible gardening. Whether you call it agriculture or gardening, it's the same thing.

What's the most valuable thing the show offers viewers?

Revealing to them that anyone can garden. It doesn't matter whether you have a single window box or a suburban backyard or a great estate. The process is the same. You dont have to have a yard, or own land, to be a gardener.

There is plenty of good land available. And anybody who wants to garden can garden. You are not limited by age or income or circumstance.

In fact, many people are trying to introduce gardens to the inner city. Gardening is the single greatest social service you can provide to a city population, because what gardens do is provide focal points of caring and affection where people of different nationalities, races, languages can share something. There is story after story of blighted neighborhoods being transformed by gardens in their midst, where people all of a sudden care about that land. Every culture understands that gardening is meaningful work.

We are a weekly reminder of what one can do in the garden and how easy it is to do it. We make it look easy because it is easy.

How did you get interested in gardening?

I started out as a food gardener. I was a teen-age food gardener. It was my form of adolescent rebellion, to do something no one else was doing. My parents had acquired a small farm, and so I was turned loose and let go, and I have been doing it ever since.

"The Victory Garden" airs Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. on KPBS and at 10:30 a.m. on KCET.

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