What Organic Gardening editor digs

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Which will it be: organic or nonorganic? Sooner or later, everyone with a lettuce patch or a vine of tomatoes has to face this decision. Except for Maria Rodale. As a third-generation organic gardener, whether to zap bugs with insecticides or pick them off by hand was never a question. At the farm where she grew up shucking homegrown peas alongside her mother, ladybugs were always welcome. DDT or Roundup was not. And improving the soil was a high priority.

Ms. Rodale's grandfather, J.I. Rodale, is legendary for pioneering the organic gardening movement in the US. He founded Organic Gardening magazine in 1942, and a few years later, started an experimental farm in rural Pennsylvania to test his ideas. Her father later established the Rodale Institute for research, education, and special projects on this same 333-acre property in Kutztown. And her mother is chairman of Rodale Press, the family publishing business. With such a legacy, it's no wonder that Maria Rodale has settled in so comfortably to her nearly one-year-old role as editor of Organic Gardening magazine.

In a recent interview, Rodale spoke effusively of the "lush, edible sanctuary" where she used to play after school, but also candidly of her efforts to shelter her teenage daughter from the teasing of her peers.

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She talked of topics dear to her heart such as her parent's influence, the magazine's loyal readership, and her first book, "Maria Rodale's Organic Gardening" (1998). She also touched on current issues, including the controvery about genetically engineered foods.

In a recent issue of the magazine, you write that your grandfather was "laughed at, ridiculed, and even sued by the Federal Drug Administration" for his then-revolutionary ideas. How did this public mocking affect you as a child?

It was very strange. On the one hand, I had this idyllic childhood, growing up on a farm with cows, pigs, and chickens. I could pick vegetables and fruits anytime I wanted. I'd only go back inside when I heard the car horn beep for dinnertime.

As a teenager, however, kids would make fun of me. They never wanted to eat dinner at my house. They thought we'd serve unseasoned tofu and raw carrots for dinner and brown rice for dessert.

Ironically, people still think that. They don't realize that organic gardening is not about doing without but about eating the freshest, cleanest foods possible.

How has your own experience helped make you more sensitive to that of your two daughters?

My three-year-old, Eve, is still too young to be aware of public perceptions. She is content to run and pick from the raspberry bushes and play with our rabbits. But my 18-year-old, Maya, had a hard time.

She felt discriminated against not only for her family's avid organic gardening, but also for its stature as owners of a large publishing company. I chose to move her to private school where there is more diversity. This has made a big difference in her life.

Was there a time when your teenager would rather eat a Big Mac than a tossed salad?

Not really. But when she eats doughnuts, I don't stop her. I'm strict about other things, such as driving and curfews. At the dinner table, we always try to talk about issues and important things ... she knows so much about organic gardening. And she's a total food snob.

Do they get involved in gardening at home?

The little one loves to dig. The older one always had her own plot when she was growing up. Now she'd rather sit in a chaise lounge, read a book, and sip lemonade. I don't believe in giving children their own garden plot until they are about 6. And even then, be sure to plant foods they like to eat at their level. Grapes, raspberries, cherry tomatoes, or strawberries are good starters. Also, it's important not fuss too much. Let them get dirty. When I was a kid, I always took my shoes off in the garden.

How did the opportunity to edit Organic Gardening come about?

Not the way you might expect. I had been working in the marketing department at Rodale Press, but wasn't happy there. I suggested several book ideas and was given the green light on writing my own book on organic gardening. I did this during my maternity leave, and then I returned to work as director of strategy for the family business. The idea for me to take over as editor just evolved. The whole family agreed to it, and I accepted.

How has it been so far, and how does the magazine reflect you?

Editing the magazine is very rewarding. I completely relate to the readers. I have met so many of them over the years. There has always been the assumption that organic gardeners are older, tomato-obsessed fuddy-duddies. Sure, there are people like that, but I see a whole new generation of organic gardeners out there. They are smart, sophisticated, creative, and adventuresome. I try to include both groups, assume the best about them, and create a magazine for the highest level with both style and substance. Neither one has to be given up for the other.

What do you enjoy most about gardening?

The connection with nature, the satisfaction of growing your own food, and the sensual taste of just-picked fruits or vegetables. It's a creative outlet that is much more fun than painting because you are putting something on the canvas and it's talking back. You are also surrounded by great textures and smells, crickets and lightning bugs at night ... not to mention that it's a terrific stress-reliever.

Is it possible to go halfway with the organic approach?

You won't ever catch me giving permission to a halfway approach! I have always been 100 percent organic.

When people tell you they don't have time to garden organically, how do you respond?

I don't understand that complaint. It doesn't take more time. It's really just a question of taking proper care of the soil. But it is definitely more labor-intensive. If you choose to use chemicals, however, you're not getting the full experience. You're just reading a box and dumping it into the garden. It's also a question of priorities. I'd rather weed for an hour than drive to a gym, get onto a treadmill, and look at myself in the mirror.

Do you see encouraging signs for the future of organic foods?

Definitely. It's one of the fastest-growing areas in supermarkets today. And farmers are switching over to an organic approach because it's now the only way they can survive. There's a higher demand for it. My father always said he wasn't interested in "taking money away from farmers, but in elevating them," so this is a bittersweet victory. The debate about genetically engineered foods is making people more aware of these issues. They are starting to understand that everything they do as individuals matters.

How would your grandfather react if he could walk into a Bread & Circus or Fresh Fields store and see the abundance of organic produce?

He would be absolutely amazed. He and my father would both be extremely worried, however, about genetically engineered foods. There's no time to rest on that one. We're not out of the woods yet.

What's ahead for you?

We're launching a new magazine called Organic Living in May. It'll recognize and celebrate lots of people who are making a difference in the world, not just organic gardeners. People like Yvon Chouinard, for example, head of Patagonia. He has recently made a commitment to sell only clothing that is 100 percent organic cotton. This decision is helping to bring positive change to the lives of thousands of people and hundreds of farmers.

And for your garden?

This year, I'll be planting a multilayered fruit system in the backyard. I've been planning it all winter. It'll include a dwarf sour-cherry tree, kiwi vines, blueberry bushes, strawberries, cranberries, and more. I can hardly wait.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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