Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser have now written the book on organic gardening. | Feature Extras | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser have now written the book on organic gardening.

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Greener green thumbs Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser (photo by Andy Starnes) and their new book.
  • Greener green thumbs Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser (photo by Andy Starnes) and their new book.
This spring, says Doug Oster, his garden is "a shambles," and not just because the cold weather continued into April.

Oster and his family have lived on this four-acre wooded lot for eight years, uphill from a drowsy commercial stretch of Babcock Boulevard, in Ross Township. Normally the garden would be shaping up by now. But while he's got two rows of lettuce planted, plus peas, radishes, garlic, some grass cover crop, and a greenhouse populated by two-foot-tall tomato plants, Oster is behind. The main reason: He's too busy talking about organic gardening.

Oster is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's "Backyard Gardener" columnist, and for two years he's co-hosted, with Jessica Walliser, The Organic Gardeners, a popular Sunday-morning call-in show on KDKA radio. Recently the show went national, on Sirius Satellite Radio. Add that to Oster's frequent local TV appearances, speaking gigs and a nationally syndicated newspaper column.

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Then in March came Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More, written by Oster and Walliser. It's their first book. Grow Organic (printed in York, Pa., on recycled paper) has won positive notice in gardening bibles Horticulture Magazine and Organic Gardening magazine; weeks after its release, it's already the best-selling title for fledgling Pittsburgh-based St. Lynn's Press. For Oster and Walliser -- a Pittsburgh-based horticulturist, writer and educator who herself lectures nationally -- that has meant a bumper crop of personal appearances regionally. Seed in Oster's full-time P-G gig, and he's now on duty seven days a week.

Oster, 47, is a stocky, fair-haired and bearded Cleveland-area native, former news photographer and longtime avocational gardener. Organic gardening became his passion years ago, the instant he watched his 3-year-old son toddle down a row of vegetables that Oster -- panicked after spotting a green caterpillar on his cabbage -- had just dusted with insecticide. Suddenly realizing the health risks, he vowed he'd never use chemicals again.

But while Grow Organic highlights how herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers harm human health and the environment, it's mostly a practical guide, companionably written and filled with the authors' stories of the ups and downs of backyard horticulture.

Oster says a key to the 224-page book's appeal is that it tackles the little-discussed transition from a "conventional" chemical-laced pea patch to an organic one. The second a gardener stops spraying, "You're gonna have a lot of [insect] hatchout," Oster says. "It's gonna take a while for nature to balance itself out again."

But, he adds, "the real transition isn't the plants themselves. ... The transition is you."

Just as chemicals weaken plants' natural defenses, so the chemical industry has sold us an unnatural ideal -- a pure-green, dandelion-free lawn -- while keeping us from learning better ways to grow. Many of his radio callers are as panicky as Oster once was. "You'd be surprised how many people think because they see a bug in their garden, [that] they're being invaded," he says.

How does your garden grow? A Doug Oster photo from his own garden.
  • How does your garden grow? A Doug Oster photo from his own garden.
Oster encourages finding solutions that don't involve "nuking" your plants -- wiping out beneficial inspects along with pests. "You're trying to fight nature," Oster says. "You'll never win that battle." While organic approaches demand patience of gardeners conditioned to expect instant results, Grow Organic notes that organic methods are ultimately easier -- and cheaper. Like generations of organic gardeners, Oster and Walliser emphasize the primacy of healthy soil, the kind you get from mulching and other strategies. With good soil, plants survive pests and disease. Mostly.

"The other thing is, plants just die," Oster says. "It happens."

In mid-April, in his yard, Oster takes a visitor along trails, dense with fallen leaves, that loop across the wooded hillside, past a small fruit orchard, tulips in bloom, dead trees left standing for the woodpeckers, a trillium that's survived the deer. In season, the leaf cover is thick enough that Oster calls one copse his "Fortress of Solitude."

In one corner of the vegetable garden he fashioned years ago with his three now-adult kids, Oster keeps a padded lawn chair where he sits to watch birds and sunsets. When a high-pitched call sounds from the treetops, Oster pauses. "That's the one that follows me every spring," he says. "When I come out here and I hear the red-bellied woodpecker, I just love it."

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