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What Organic Gardening editor digs

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2000

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.

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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.

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?