Inheriting the ethic of organic; Gardening: Maria Rodale's grandfather pioneered organic farming in this country. She presides over a publishing company now known for hard-hitting environmentalism.; IN THE GARDEN


It's a dream many of us have had: to be at the helm of a multimillion dollar enterprise doing work we love. For Maria Rodale, it is no dream, it is her life. And her heritage.

Since taking over as editor of Organic Gardening magazine last year, Rodale is well on the way to becoming the voice of a new generation of organic gardeners.

But what she wants most, she says, "is to de-mystify organic gardening."

"It's fun, easy and safe," says Rodale, 38. "It's not complicated, there are no weird formulas, just common sense. It's not ugly -- you don't have to use black plastic mulch or hang pie plates from trees to scare birds."

Rodale is the granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, considered the pioneer of organic farming and horticulture in the United States. J.I. began Organic Gardening magazine in 1942 and Prevention magazine in 1950. Her father, Robert Rodale, started the Rodale Institute and was editor and head of OG until his death.

Though always a believer in the organic ethic, Maria Rodale wasn't always immersed in the family business herself. While her father encouraged her to participate, she says she didn't feel ready to become deeply involved until recently. A certain amount of normal youthful testing and independence had to be worked through first.

She majored in communication and art at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., graduating in 1985. After that, she held various jobs -- working in public relations in Washington, managing the circulation department for Backpacker magazine, before returning to the family business as a support person in marketing and circulation.

About five years ago, she felt the time was "right for me to come into place."

Rodale, who is vice chairman of the company's board, became instrumental in restructuring some of OG's operations and in finding the right staff to carry the magazine forward into the new century.

If organic gardening used to be seen as the province of eccentrics and overzealous tree huggers, it has become the sine qua non of mainstream environmentalists and many home gardeners in the 21st century.

From global warming to pesticide residues on our food to water quality, doing things organically is rapidly becoming a "hot button" issue, not only in gardening, but as a lifestyle choice.

The updated magazine has kept and enhanced its original core of articles for gardeners interested in how to beat bugs, grow great vegetables and care for their landscapes without toxic chemicals.

However, readers of recent issues will have noticed a change in attitude that gives OG a bold, fresh and thoroughly contemporary stance on environmental subjects ranging from genetically modified organisms to going head to head with Monsanto over the possible health risks associated with its widely used Roundup herbicide.

Rodale chuckles when told that OG has become a true "hard hitter" in the environmental world, that there is a sense that the gloves are off at last.

"I guess that's right. Certainly, that is where we want to be," she says. "It's our intention to be more vocal about environmental issues, more relevant, as well as more reader friendly. We want people to take notice, not just of us, but of what's going on around them, and how they can influence things themselves."

Under Rodale's guidance, OG is also planning new ventures. One is a magazine called Organic Living. A preview issue is due out next month.

"This will be a lifestyle publication, not focused on gardening," explains Rodale.

"Our aim is for it to be accessible and sophisticated, oriented to the green lifestyle which so many people are eager to embrace. It will suggest simple, basic steps and advice on the initial choices which readers can make in their everyday lives to enhance their own well-being."

Another project in the works is a computer-based program for teaching and certifying organic gardeners, much as state agricultural offices currently certify Master Gardeners.

Although Rodale is quick to give credit to a "great staff which handles day-to-day details and makes it all possible," it is easy to understand why she calls organic living and gardening "my refuge and vacation from the business world. It keeps me sane and gives me perspective."

As she says in her book, "Maria Rodale's Organic Gardening" (Rodale Press, 1998): "I simply and purely love to garden."

And when you talk to her, you immediately know how true this is -- and how deep her commitment to organics is.

"People are beginning to see that chemicals don't get you anywhere. They create a vicious cycle by disrupting the natural balance. And it's expensive, not only in ecological terms or health terms, but in dollars and cents," she says.

"Homeowners use 10 times the chemicals per acre that commercial farmers do, and the farmers have to make a living with their crops. As a matter of fact, there's a huge movement of wheat farmers going organic now because it's the only way they can remain economically viable."

Rodale, a mother of two girls, also describes the benefits of growing and eating organically at home. For example, she says, "The nutrient content of [chemically produced] food over the last 50 years has decreased constantly. This is not true of organic food."

Rodale's own gardens, occupying the one-acre plot around the 1938 house in Pennsylvania where she and her family live, are a beautiful example of putting her beliefs into action. The yard includes not only a compost heap and sheltered habit for wildlife, but many native and heirloom plants, plenty of vegetable beds, and quiet shady places for relaxing supplemented by a limited lawn area for children's games.

To those contemplating the move to organic growing, Rodale says, "Stop worrying about being perfect. Experiment and see what works for you. Keep a sense of humor and remember, the whole point of gardening is pleasure."

Maria Rodale's tips for starting an organic garden:

Stop using chemicals. Your lawn won't die, your flowers won't go on strike, your vegetables won't shrivel up. Instead, gardening will become easier, cheaper and less dangerous. Organic is like using your brain: the answer is not always simple. You have to look at your plants sometimes and figure out what's going on. Just throwing more pesticide and fertilizer at it isn't necessarily what's needed. Get involved.

Start a compost pile. Using compost is the single most important thing you can do to improve your soil. Good soil is dark, soft and fluffy, filled with vitamins, bugs, microbes and minerals. It cannot be achieved with chemicals. Composting also recycles valuable materials which would otherwise go to waste needlessly filling up landfills.

Use organic mulch. Mulching lessens the work for the gardener by preventing weed growth. It prevents soil erosion, moderates soil temperature, conserves moisture, keeps plants cleaner and healthier, and improves soil quality as it decays.

Choose plants appropriate for your area. Local or native plants will be more likely to thrive in your garden. Especially with fruit or other potentially finicky plants, buy locally grown stock that is well adapted to your area. Pay attention to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Another reason to buy local: Plants can't be transported without being fumigated.

Buy healthy plants. Some plants are bred to be chemically dependent; avoid them. Look for resistant varieties when choosing seeds. Always choose plants in vibrant good health; sickly plants are a drain on your time and energy, may bring disease or pests into your garden, and are a poor investment. Buy good quality things and then take care of them. When possible buy organically grown plants and seeds.

Attract birds and insects. Far from being the enemies of gardeners, birds and beneficial insects can be part of the garden's defense. Besides pollinating fruit and vegetables, many insects prey on "bad" bugs: For example, lady bugs eat aphids.

Be patient. We are the product of an "instant" society. Instant medicine, instant food, instant results. Nature works -- and grows -- at its own pace. Think long term.

Be tolerant of a little imperfection. A few bugs, holes in a few leaves or a weed or two in a lawn isn't the end of the world. Don't panic. A certain amount of damage is natural and OK.

Get information. Information is your best tool (or weapon). An encyclopedia of organic gardening and an insect, disease and weed identifier are essential basics to put you, the gardener, in control. Other good references are comprehensive flower, vegetable, shrub and tree books to help you choose the best plants. (You can also visit the OG website at

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