Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a physician and editor-in-chief of Maine, Maine Home Design, Old Port, Ageless, and Moxie magazines. Love Maine Radio show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 344, airing for the first time on April 22nd, 2018. Today we speak with Eddie Woodin, the owner of Woodin & Company Store Fixtures in South Portland, and Steve Rodrigue the founder and owner of Maine Raised Gardens. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Eddie Woodin is the owner of Woodin & Company in South Portland. He is also a conservationist working with the Scarborough Land Trust, Maine Audubon, and Friends of Casco Bay and he helped to pass Scarborough’s pesticide ordinance last year. Thanks for coming in.
Eddie Woodin: Oh, pleased to be here. Thank you, Dr. Lisa.
Lisa Belisle: Well, let’s start with talking about the pesticide ordinance, tell me a little bit about that.
Eddie Woodin: Well, very interesting. I’m a lifelong nature birder was sitting out in the month of June at my home in Grondin Pond near the Scarborough Marsh. When I moved to Maine, Maine was known as the mosquito capital of the world, and had eight brown bats that had been historically in the yard. All of a sudden I noticed there were no brown bats and this was in the early evening, and I had noticed earlier that there were very few insects. It really caught my attention and probably two weeks later we had a nesting box of tree swallows, and they abandoned the nest with young because there were no insects, so we’ve gone from the mosquito capital of the world to no insects. I immediately became suspicious of is the state spraying as they do in Massachusetts.
I grew up in Concord, Mass and we had screech-owls nesting in an ash tree and in the mid ’50s polio was an issue so there was an overkill. We would hear in the summer the drone of this tank trunk and seated on top was a man with a spray hose with DDT and you ran for cover. You closed the window, no warning, and it was incredible the spray that was down the middle of the road killing the Baltimore orioles, eventually killed the screech-owls, so it made an impression on me and I was aware of Silent Spring in ’62 and having been involved in the bird world so I said, “Something’s wrong.” I was at a Land Trust meeting a few months later and there was Karen D’Andrea, a birding friend of mine. I said, “Karen, there’s something wrong,” and I said, “I think we really have to look at this pesticide, herbicide issue because it’s killing everything.”
She said, “Well, that’s interesting. Let me consider.” So she got back several weeks later and she said, “I think I want to go further” because she was involved with doctors and a holistic doctor group, so in the end she agreed that she would work on an ordinance. She was on the town council. She was on the ordinance committee and six months later a mother, Marla Zando, approached … So I’m from nature, but Marla said, “Gee, I have a young son now, Karen.” She had spoken to Karen. “I’m concerned about his future and about chemicals.” So off we went and by 2011 after a year and a half work an ordinance was created that was very effective and we passed and it was terrific.
We had a great group called Citizens for a Green Scarborough and it’s a great Margaret Mead example of a committee of passionate, committed, impassioned people can change a community. We had a lot of opposition, so it was quite a battle. We did win and that was only the beginning. We had a lot of press. My concept was if we could convince the town to go organic on their municipal property including the athletic fields they were the tip of the iceberg and all the press anything written is good, press is good. It would then start to influence the homeowners and that was our goal, and we’ve converted hundreds of homeowners from there, but in the process we compiled 700 pages of documents it was amazing.
We had a dream team. We had a gentleman, Mark, who works for the EPA. Elizabeth was a lawyer. Marla’s husband was in landscape, and she had been president of the Land Trust and the list went from there. We had a very flat horizontal organization no president. We all took ownership and share and we completed and went a long way. We had opposition. I had glass vases smashed in my driveway twice, so this is very contemptuous between the chemical industry and the people. They used the landscapers as their pawns, but in the end we were successful. Brought in Casco Bay they do a great job. Cathy Ramsdell and Mary Cerullo and we were great friends talking anyway and handed off a power PAC. In the power PAC were the key documents of our 700.
Mary had been very involved anyway as the field worker, and she ran with the packet and then she started South Portland working with the folks there. I did, I spoke, and I brought the power PAC and our ordinance so it’s easy now. We just want more and more groups that might be fired up and want to commit to this and run with it. I do have all the documentation is a starter kit, so we’re still in it. Portland just passed, which was terrific. Ours was an ordinance, but Portland is a policy, which is one step higher so kudos to them and they start now to say that homeowners even can, so the pesticide herbicides are killers and organics become the key on the bird side.
The insectivore birds have dropped by 70% in population. Beyond Pesticides is one of the groups involved in that movement, and they’re saying 75% of the insect biomass has been eliminated, died, and there are so many chemicals going into the air so there’s great concern there. Six pages were written on Long Island. The lobster industry if you’re a lobsterman or you’re in the fisheries you should be very concerned and jump into this fray. It’s reported that their lobster industry collapsed because of pesticides. They were spraying malathion. The federal government, finally, the EPA there are 800 toxins and in 20 years they have thoroughly investigated three, so the chemical companies still have too much influence. The fisheries Marine Fishery group, Institute produced 3,700 pages that just recently they’ve been fighting for 10 years, and finally the government is starting to take action on malathion, but this malathion on Long Island you spray mosquitoes in whatever purposes it washed into Long Island and six different studies have been produced that it killed the lobster industry, so we need to be careful in Maine too.
Malathion back in the ’70s, oh, this is the best, this breaks down quickly. It doesn’t, so organics is the key, and then on the health side I learned a good lesson. By the way, I just want to make the comment how important the women have been in this whole chase. We developed a group, Citizens for a Green Scarborough, there were seven of us, five of them were women, and they were great writing talents and great leadership. Karen D’Andrea and Portland Avery, so the women have been really key and important in this. So I’m in Augusta, Amy Volk and Mary Nelson from Falmouth introduced the schoolyard bill because we now in Scarborough on the athletic fields you have organics, or you have abstinence. The country of France, for example, has banned Roundup.
Roundup you’re starting to see on TV class action suits for a number of blood diseases, so Susie and Johnny slide into second base, and they’re ingesting Roundup. The human aspects go beyond that, so there was a schoolyard bill in which organics … The synthetics compared to organic are the killers. They last five times longer, they’re more toxic. In the organics you actually have a number of natural things that aren’t killers, but affect well, so I went to Augusta and I testified twice. I’ll never forget it we’re sitting there for four hours. We had to wait our turn, and a woman got up she was probably late 30s, and she said, “I’m here to tell you that organics are the way to go and that these pesticides and this bill should be passed.” She said, “We have an autistic son.” She said, “My husband and I decided we would buy local organic food only and then two years later you would not know that he was autistic.” She said, “He is, but marked improvement it’s tremendous.”
Then for women there was an article in 2011 that one of the three chemicals that now is being restricted by EPA, finally, after a 10 year battle is a derivative of a poison gas from World War I in between to World War II and they use a derivative of that in the apples, et cetera, and women with a child in the womb can be ingesting particularly from fruit. If you have lead paint exposure a child could lose two to three IQ points. With the pesticides it’s seven points it’s significant, so the idea of apple juice, and a number of these other things it’s just I think important for people with youth to be careful and consider that. The list of the human things goes on.
Lisa Belisle: You have a large and beautiful garden that I visited a few years ago.
Eddie Woodin: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: It’s been important to you over the years not because of the plants, but also because of the birds which you love and I guess the insects. I’m not sure if you love the insects.
Eddie Woodin: I do their role.
Lisa Belisle: So tell me how you keep that going because that is often one of the concerns people have about not using chemicals is how you are able to keep everything blooming and growing and happy and not be overrun by pests?
Eddie Woodin: Great question. I bought a home 20 years ago. There wasn’t a blade of grass it was all sand. A former sandpit overlooking a 30 acre pond and I said, “Wow, here’s an opportunity.” I’m spiritual and I said, “I want to plant one of everything God made” which would never happen, but I wanted a great variety. In my college days I had a lawn business which I started and I did some landscaping so I had a little bit of experience and I really enjoyed it. These are living things and I recently realized that the earth has a soul, everything does. I wanted to create habitat for birds, but interestingly I wanted to plant as much as I could on two acres because of the conversion of oxygen in taking carbon dioxide out and converting. A modest lawn, for example, in a home can produce enough oxygen for a family of four on a daily basis so I had this view that if I could do spruce trees and a number of other things, coniferous trees through the winter that I’m doing my part, and the National Audubon their theme this year is do something.
Take a piece of puzzle in your home, in your property plant something, do something for nature, so it’s a great concept one-by-one, so that was my concept. So I started planting and it got bigger and bigger and birdhouses and now nesting birds and bird feeders. I decided I was going to have a successful property with nothing but water. I was not going to put fertilizer on the grass. I was not going to use pesticides or herbicides. Dandelions I embraced. I enjoy them. It’s the first natural flower for the bees the bumblebees. I’m really into honeybees, so I embraced it and clover I love clover. All the greens it mixes in it’s green, so I developed this two acre property with simply water.
My message is abstinence. You don’t need the chemicals. If you work on your health and you take probiotics you take this little capsule and this is like 20 billion probiotics it’s like, wow, this is really mind-boggling. Well, your lawn is the same thing the microbes billions and billions and those are those you can’t see them living organisms that then build on a chain as the organisms become more sophisticated. When you stop all the chemicals they come back to life, and then there’s a wonderful ecosystem within that lawn and within your property that is self-maintaining.
I have garden beds, perennials. I use dehydrated compost and that’s it. That’s the only enhancement on the property. It’s a successful great property. We’re going to have an open house. If you are listening and you’re interested in abstinence and how to have a lawn where you’re not using the chemicals July 28 of ’18 we’re having an open house. We have hundreds of people. We’ve had 600 people at a time from 10 to two p.m. We will run ads, but everyone’s invited if you really want to see it. All you need is water. Just say no, abstinence is the key.
Lisa Belisle: You also have dogs. How do they react to your property?
Eddie Woodin: Well, that is a great question. We had a set of labs, chocolate labs, and back in 2011 there were some indigenous weeds in our 30 acre pond and two neighbors took it upon themselves to put 2,4-D herbicide which was Agent Orange the mainstay in the water pellets and the puppies got into the pond. I didn’t know what it was and I went in and pulled them out and then my skin started itching greatly so we got a hold of the state. They came down it was 2,4-D and on, believe it or not, 9/11 that very day these two were before the assistant attorney general for having broken the law and had to pay a fine. 2,4-D is that toxic and serious to the state. So the puppies were exposed and we decided not to breed because of that because it can create a lot of lymphomas, et cetera. So they did live a long life, but of course, they died of blood issues, which probably came from the 2,4-D.
Scottie dogs when you lay down your chemicals on your lawn Scottie dogs, for example, have seven times the liver cancer of normal dogs because they’re low to the ground and their hair is brushing. I mean, it’s an unseen thing and it’s time for people not to ignore it. 63% of all households have 2,4-D in it. It’s tracked in whether it’s from their property or not. We ran some ads we have a great marketing machine. I’m a marketing guy with CGS and ran some ads and one of them was of a little baby crawling on the lawn and it’s like how can you do this? I have two sons and it’s like how can you do this?
I just read another article out of the 700 pages where chemicals were applied on the lawn and shortly, thereafter, 15% of the children had ingested in their lungs the chemicals. MIT in ’14, ’15 and ’16 wrote articles regarding pesticides, herbicides and autism. Having listened to this lady in Augusta they were forced to withdraw them. I’m not sure what the science was or wasn’t, but they’re very bright people and I’m just concerned that this exposure is detrimental to kids particularly younger ones, and the athletic fields as well, just say no.
Lisa Belisle: Did you see the birds come back once you had started to create a natural habitat for them without chemicals?
Eddie Woodin: I did, and the birds, the robins when this whole thing started on night I’m thinking I thought of a robin eating a worm from the soil and I’m thinking, “What’s in that worm? It’s ingesting all this stuff.” That was a driving point for me and it’s rewarding now. We have robins galore feeding on the worms. We have worms galore that’s the other thing, I mean, we’ve always been natural, but the number of worms. Now I’m so proud when I drive by our baseball field up at the high school the herring gulls are there and they’re feeding on the worms and other organisms because everything isn’t being killed. I’ve seen the birds come back and I think the population is still on the decline, but I’ve had good success. However, the butterflies have declined and properly one of the big canaries in the mine for me are the moths.
If you go out at night if you have a garden it’s fun in perennials and I’ll go out with a flashlight at night around nine p.m. in the summer and you’re going to see a whole new living group flying around and pollinating at night. Those numbers are just down significantly so it’s a real issue. These pesticides, herbicides, honeybees, all the pollinators, boy, we need to wake up and just say no, so that’s a big concern. Monarchs did come back a little bit, but I’m creating a new Monarch garden, new concept. You take swamp milkweed, butterfly weed and I’m working with Broadway Gardens, Phil Roberts, the owner to bring in common milkweed. When you try and pull it from the side of the road the roots don’t fully develop, but it’s grown commercially so I cut two new beds in the lawn not much grass left now, and going to use those three items for Monarchs. We had great success last year with Monarchs and the swamp milkweed. We can all take a piece of the puzzle and create even if it’s one swamp milkweed you’re helping nature. You’re helping pollinators and that’s my current theme.
Lisa Belisle: So in addition to your swamp milkweed what is maybe the most important thing that you would suggest to someone who is trying to have a nice lawn but do it without the use of pesticides or herbicides?
Eddie Woodin: Boy, great question. I like the idea of a green lawn which is green because of nature and water. The dandelions I dig some of them, but they’re great for nature so plantings. I have over 260 species of trees, shrubs, et cetera. I think a combination and then perennial flowers and, of course, the crocuses, et cetera, but have fun with it. I mean, empower yourself and enjoy nature and we start with the crocuses. It’s like, oh, man, they’re coming up through that ice how can this be? Then there’s a process we actually have blooming flowering from April into October, but I think the shrubs in particular have great beauty.
We have coniferous trees and oak trees and a number of trees, but then you layer down and build a perimeter, if you will, but rhododendrons are beautiful the PJMs which are in the Rhodo family. Those are those pink ones that you see on all the commercial properties they come in early. Azaleas will work here and Boxwood. I’m out feeding the birds very icy right now, but here are these Boxwood plants that look so frail, but they’re pure green against the contrast and living things they’re a great item.
So my method was to go to Broadway Gardens and O’Donal’s. O’Donal’s, by the way, is all organic. A number of hardware stores will not sell synthetics anymore. There’s a real move and a real change. Eldredge Lumber, kudos to all of them. We the consumer drive that bus so ask for it, but I’d hang out. I go over I see Phil and I spend like an hour walking around saying, “Wow, this is great,” and then fill the car with perennials. It’s great fun. Go take a look. See what is in your pallet and what you like and crocosmia. We have open houses that we’ve had now for 15 years the favorite of everyone is the perennial called crocosmia. It’s a like a bird of paradise with red. Hummingbirds love it. So if you’re looking for some fun in April, May go to the nursery and look for crocosmia. I think it’s the most appreciated aesthetically from my experience so go find some crocosmia, plant one, enjoy it.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds like what you’re suggesting is to really focus on the reason why one would want to have a pesticide free lawn and home and do it by really engaging with nature and saying here’s some beautiful flowers, here’s some beautiful shrubs, and making this and the health of your children and the health of your pets the reason for doing it rather than having it be entirely sort of against.
Eddie Woodin: Absolutely, that’s a key point. It’s really interesting, I’m spiritual and born in ’88. I have a historic bird art collection, so I go to the Peabody Museum in Massachusetts there was an interest and we were discussing, so we went into the nature area and Eskimo curlew in their case and they have some good things. I thought, “I don’t know this is a little strange.” It was more geared for children than it was in my art collection type of thing so I’m embracing it and a gentleman had a display on trees. They had different activities for children regarding wood and trees and here was this main placard of information and it said, “Come and listen to the voice of the sound of the tree.”
I’m going, “No way, come on.” So Jerry a great nature friend a worldwide great warrior, so we go and we listen to this thing and it was like it just was pretty mind-boggling. It was this high-pitched, not eerie, but sound that was incredible. So I digest that and then I realized nature has a soul, the earth has a soul, living things have a soul. You think of it as dirt and this thing, no, it’s a living thing with soul. You see it through Psalms especially in the Bible, so I embrace nature as an appreciation for what it is, but also to inspire me to keep going and to be charged up and going and I think our soul it’s soothing to the soul and sitting out there in the evenings and seeing the leaves rustling and the birds and nature and the bats it’s enriching for the soul.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking to Eddie Woodin who is the owner of Woodin & Company in South Portland who is also a conservationist working with the Scarborough Land Trust, Maine Audubon and Friends of Casco Bay. Eddie helped pass Scarborough’s pesticide ordinance recently. Thank you so much for coming in.
Eddie Woodin: Thank you, pleasure, nice to see you, thank you.
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Lisa Belisle: Steve Rodrigue is the owner and founder of Maine Raised Gardens, a full-service vegetable garden company. He previously worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Thanks for coming in today.
Steve Rodrigue: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: I love this topic. I think more and more people are doing gardening in the state of Maine. I think it’s coming back again. We always did it. It’s coming back again, and the idea of raised gardens kind of creates a little bit more ease of use I think.
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, I started off the idea of just doing raised beds the first year. This coming year I will be offering in-ground gardens as well. I realize that raised gardens aren’t for everybody, so I want to target everybody.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up here in Augusta.
Steve Rodrigue: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: You have kind of an interesting background not everybody goes into horticulture.
Steve Rodrigue: No, let’s see where do I start? I think first off I’d say what kind of got me into I was first interested in trees. I thought I’d go to school for forestry and I can recall as a young child working with my dad and my grandfather doing firewood and both of them teaching me the different trees just from looking at the bark and sometimes even the smell. Then from there I remember one time actually being sick with a flu and after a few days of laying in bed, and I finally was up and my mother brought me to Longfellow’s Greenhouses, which I later did an internship during college. I just remember being around the plants and feeling really, really happy and healthy and uplifted. Then later on I worked for the City of Augusta planting trees and gardens around the city, and I worked with a man named Larry who had actually gone to school for landscape design. That’s when I finally realized that it wasn’t just a hobby I could actually go to school for this and here I am now.
Lisa Belisle: It’s interesting I didn’t realize that you could actually tell different trees by what they smell like.
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, some have distinctive smells, specifically, cherry you can smell the wood it has a slight smell of cherry. I even say that red oak kind of smells like ketchup, which I don’t know if everybody agrees with me on that.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds like this is the kind of thing that people know about, but it’s not necessarily common knowledge.
Steve Rodrigue: Right, yeah, I would say that for sure. I wouldn’t say there’s not a lot of people that have wood stoves in Maine, I mean, there are a lot, but at the same time there’s a lot of people that don’t rely on wood stoves. I remember we had a wood stove ever since my whole life actually.
Lisa Belisle: So that’s how you became involved with the smelling of the wood is it when things actually burn that you can smell this or is it when they’re being cut or?
Steve Rodrigue: It’s when you’re stacking it, when you’re splitting it, when you’re cutting it, all the above.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested, also, in this idea that you were not feeling well and your mom brought you to a place that had plants and somehow it kind of energized you. Is this something that you’ve noticed throughout your life?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, I mean, seeing green plants is uplifting I think to anybody whether they realize it or not.
Lisa Belisle: Maine Raised Gardens you’ve been doing this for the past year and the pamphlet that I have says that this is perfect for restaurants, inns, bed and breakfast, cafes, schools, assisted living and elderly care, community gardens, business parks, and anyone who needs just a little help. Do you find that people are responsive to this business?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, the first year, actually, most of my business was in the residential sector so had a lot of homeowners that actually wanted gardens at their house. Some just for themselves, some for their whole family, some for the kids. In reality, I think it’s a great fit for anybody because we all have to eat, right?
Lisa Belisle: Are more and more people asking you to do gardens for them for the eating or for just the enjoyment of the gardening itself?
Steve Rodrigue: I would say it’s both I guess, I mean, the end result is going to be eating, right? Because I’m just doing just edible gardens. I’m trying to differentiate from a regular landscape company that does ornamentals that’s where I first started and then I started working at Johnny’s to get more into edibles and vegetables and what-not so now that’s what I’m just targeting that’s trying to be very specific.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about your time at Johnny’s.
Steve Rodrigue: So I worked there for nearly six years as a vegetable research technician. My job was I was responsible for about a half a dozen crops, and I would solicit from different companies seed varieties working with different breeding companies throughout the world get the seeds back, design the trials, do the evaluations, and then ultimately pick and choose what went into our 200 plus page catalog.
Lisa Belisle: When you say design the trials you mean plant the seeds and see what happens or?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, we had a farm crew that would seed them in the greenhouse, and I was there to monitor germination and then we would have them planted out in the field. Then I would monitor them throughout the season make sure that they were getting the care that they needed, and then I would look at a wide range of criteria for those crops.
Lisa Belisle: What are the types of criteria that you used to determine whether they would be a good fit for the catalog?
Steve Rodrigue: It really differs from crop to crop, but some of the specifics we would look for disease, we would look for how long something would hold in the field. There’s a couple ideas of what we would look at. Flavor, that was really big. We would do taste trials so sometimes my carrot trial, or one of my crops. There might be 70 plus varieties and I’d have to go through and taste test.
Lisa Belisle: Wow, so trying to determine out of 70 types of carrots which one was the tastiest that’s quite something.
Steve Rodrigue: Yes. I didn’t have to taste all 75 because there were some that you would select out they weren’t uniform enough or they had bolted and gone to seed before they even produced a root so there were some eliminating factors in the beginning which made it a little bit easier but, yes, definitely, a tricky thing.
Lisa Belisle: Where did you get these seeds from?
Steve Rodrigue: They’re from companies throughout the world all over the world, so different breeding companies.
Lisa Belisle: Do they contact Johnny’s and say, hey, we have these seeds, or do you somehow find out about them?
Steve Rodrigue: There was some of that and also Johnny’s has been around they just had their 40 year anniversary just a few years ago so they had worked with a lot of these companies over those 40 years so they developed relations with them.
Lisa Belisle: What have you found to be your favorite edibles?
Steve Rodrigue: Let’s see here, yeah, that’s tricky. I think one crop that I think is very interesting is chicory. That’s the world of radicchio, Belgian endive, escarole. It’s a crop that nobody, I shouldn’t say nobody, but a lot of people don’t know about. It’s not very popular it the U.S. I think it’s getting there. I remember when I was applying to Johnny’s I was reading a book on root cellaring and one of the crops in there was Belgian endive. You grow the chicory outside, dig the roots up in the fall, and then you actually plant them inside through the winter and then you force them into the chicons. I thought, “Wow, that’s really neat I’d like to grow that some day.” Never knew if I’d really get around to it. Then I got the job at Johnny’s about a month later, and that was one of my crops and that same year I was growing Belgian endive under the counters in the dark. You have to grow it in the dark because you want to exclude the sunlight.
Lisa Belisle: Why isn’t that a popular food here in the United States?
Steve Rodrigue: I think mostly because it’s a bitter green and that’s kind of not really something that most Americans like is bitterness, although, they don’t realize it, but they do because they like coffee and they like IPA beer, right?
Lisa Belisle: Well, I have noticed that more and more people are aware of things like dandelion roots and dandelion leaves and other types of bitters. There are more people it seems to be this is more of a thing.
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, I think things are becoming more popular it’s what’s the next best thing? I mean years ago Brussels sprouts and cabbage that was what peasants ate, and now that’s like the number one thing sometimes in restaurants so we’re getting kind of bored with some of our regular things that we’ve eaten over the years and now it’s, yeah, what’s the next newest thing.
Lisa Belisle: Does that same sort of idea occur in horticulture where people get a little bored of the plants that they’re growing and they think, “Oh, I want to try something different.”
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, each year there’s new varieties coming out both in the ornamental and the edible industry, if you will. Yeah, it’s just let’s get rid of the old stuff and let’s come in with the new stuff.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that are on the horizon right now?
Steve Rodrigue: Really in the breeding industry, well, in the seed industry the breeding aspect is huge. There’s companies that have multi-million dollar breeding departments that are just working towards coming out with new varieties. Some of that is to combat disease issues that these varieties are seeing. There’s also cold hardiness that’s something people are looking at. Yeah, there’s a whole slew of reasons why these breeding companies are coming out with new varieties.
Lisa Belisle: When you study horticulture and you got your degree at the University of Maine what are the types of courses that you go through in order to get that degree?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, a lot of plant classes. I took a lot of woody ID, herbaceous ID those were some of my favorite classes. There’s soil science, and then I was in the design concentration so a lot of design classes where I was actually hand drawing doing residential designs.
Lisa Belisle: When you say design you mean designing what a landscape might look like?
Steve Rodrigue: Yes, exactly.
Lisa Belisle: So this has come in handy then as you’ve moved into your own company.
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, I think it’s kind of combining all of my interests into one. I really like building. I like hands-on. I love food. I want to grow my own food. I’ve kind of been working on that over the past few years. Long ways to go still. Yeah, so it’s combining all of my … It’s combing design, it’s combining construction, hands-on, food all into one.
Lisa Belisle: If I was a residential customer and contacted you is that something that you start the process in the spring and start having conversations about what that might look like and then you actually get into the sowing of the seeds in I don’t know May, something like that?
Steve Rodrigue: Ideally, we’d have the conversation in the winter. I think a lot of people start to think about gardening kind of towards the tail of winter as spring’s approaching, so in reality we can talk about it anytime, but ideally it would be in the winter.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me what that process looks like. Somebody finds out about Maine Raised Gardens and says, yeah, I want to do this and they get in touch with you and where do you go from there?
Steve Rodrigue: I set up a consultation. I do free consultations and then I meet with a customer. I look at where their ideas are or where they want the gardens, and really try to nail down their goals and expectations. What do they want to do? Do they want to grow all their own food? Do they want to be able to serve salads to their guests that come to their house all summer long? Really narrow that down so that I can give them exactly what they’re looking for.
Lisa Belisle: What do people tend to want you to grow for them? Is it more like I want to have some tomatoes and basil so I can have pesto or?
Steve Rodrigue: It really depends on the customer. I get all kinds of things, I mean, I get some of that. Sometimes, customers they say, “I don’t know. I don’t care just plant whatever.” Yeah, so it really, really varies. I’ve talked to some restaurant owners that are maybe just interested in growing some herbs like garnishes for their cocktails in their restaurant they could be as simple as that, or it could be a lot more elaborate than that too.
Lisa Belisle: So somebody says, all right, Steve, I’m going to have you come to my house and I’m going to let you do whatever you want. What do you suggest as far as the types of foods that you would plant?
Steve Rodrigue: First, it depends on how big the garden is going to be. Do they want one bed? Do they want three beds? Do they want six beds? It really depends. I would try to really narrow down at least what they like to eat I would ask them what do you really like and what do you really not like? A lot of people know what they don’t want. They might not always necessarily know what they do want, though.
Lisa Belisle: So if somebody said, okay, so I don’t want onions let’s say, but I do like broccoli and cauliflower. Are you able to balance out different things so that they’re not just getting broccoli and cauliflower?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, and there’s always different techniques, too, such as like succession plantings, so instead of planting a whole bed of broccoli I can plant a row of it and then plant a row of it a week later so then they’re getting a harvest at multiple times throughout the season to stagger it out.
Lisa Belisle: Do you also try to grow plants together that seem to be symbiotic?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, that’s a whole other world. It’s an interesting idea. I haven’t done that yet. I need to look into that more. There are things where you don’t plant all the same crops together and that’s for pest and disease issues.
Lisa Belisle: What about some of the soil issues because some plants I would think would offer different nutrients back into the soil than others?
Steve Rodrigue: That’s another thing I need to look into. There’s definitely something to that, but I don’t think it shouldn’t hinder somebody from trying gardening. You’re going to succeed, you’re going fail. It’s just you have to try different things each year.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the plants that you had a lot of success with last year for your residential customers?
Steve Rodrigue: I’d say lettuce was a really good one, and I think it also comes down to watering, too. If you water correctly plants will, you know, they’ll thrive. A lot of times people tend to overwater, or they water too frequently, and really the idea is you want to water infrequently, but deeply so then you get those roots established, you get the roots deep, and then the plants will be a little bit more resilient, but I would say lettuce and another one was pumpkins. I had one customer they grew just a few pumpkin plants in one of the beds that I installed for them and they had produced 18 pumpkins out of that one bed. I was pretty amazed at that.
Lisa Belisle: Does that have anything to do with where they live, where their gardens are located?
Steve Rodrigue: Potentially. It was in a full sun area. They had a good soil and compost mix that I had brought in. They had one of their little boys attended it everyday watering it I think it got a lot of care.
Lisa Belisle: If you come in and you notice that somebody does not have good soil is that how you deal with it is to bring in some soil yourself or bring in compost for them to use?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, I recommend raised beds if you have really poor soil. You can amend soil that’s in the ground it just might take a little bit longer to really get that garden going, and I think to get people really engaged it’s nice to have kind of a good impact the first year and make them want to the next year but, yeah, there’s ways around it. You just have to kind of think outside of the box no pun intended.
Lisa Belisle: If somebody comes along and says I would like to have this garden in the ground here near my house, and you notice that the soil is just not going to be that great for that particular year will you help them amend that soil and maybe suggest a raised bed?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, that’s part of the consultation phase, so if somebody if they say I want a garden in-ground here part of my job is to start digging around seeing how that soil is, feeling it for texture, even smelling it. There’s a lot of different things you can do to really see how that soil is there, and then the education comes in where you may have to kind of sway the customer one way, but ultimately it is their choice in the end.
Lisa Belisle: Do you notice a lot of difference between people who are trying to put gardens in on the coast versus more inland?
Steve Rodrigue: That’s a good question. I did install a few gardens down in let’s see down in Lincolnville this year and I did one in Rockland, but most of my work this summer was actually more inland. I did a big job in Jefferson which I was not expecting that. I’ve got some pretty neat photos on that that will be displayed on my website along with some of the other works I’ve done. That’s what I was expecting, but it wasn’t necessarily the case this year.
Lisa Belisle: When you’re working on the coast versus inland are there different things that you have to think about for your clients?
Steve Rodrigue: Not too much. I’d say there’s probably less frost on the coast or the frost is usually later in the season so there’s just kind of some minor like microclimate issues that I’d have to … I shouldn’t say issues, but microclimate challenges and opportunities I should say that I have to be aware of.
Lisa Belisle: Speaking of challenges and opportunities what have you noticed in your own life as you’ve decided what path you wanted to travel with regard to your career?
Steve Rodrigue: The biggest thing has been the first year when I would get maybe a little slow with work I would pick up a little side job and then all of a sudden I’d get really busy again with my work so that was kind of tricky trying to balance that so I think it’s basically just a work-life balance which can kind of be tricky. This year I plan on just working for myself having a few little side projects that I’ll work on. I grow pea shoots on the side I’ve done that in the past so I think I’ll do that this year, so then if I need to slow down with one thing I can because it will be my own thing rather than an obligation working for somebody else.
Lisa Belisle: So having I guess a little more faith in the process with regard to your own business and your own clients?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that this year is going to be better than last year and the year after that is going to be even better than this year, so I just have to buckle down and go for it.
Lisa Belisle: What types of things are you hearing about in your industry with regard to gardening?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, when I first started in horticulture I think it was still more of an ornamental basis. There wasn’t a whole lot being done with like environmentally friendly gardening companies. There was still a lot of pesticides being used. I think the movement is more towards environmentally sound use of more natives less pesticides all that, but I still think we have a lot of work to do in the landscape and gardening industry to change that. I think going forward you’re going to see more of that. You can see more of it in the news, people talking about it, consumers are more aware of it, so I think things will improve.
Lisa Belisle: We’ve had several referendums down in this neck of the woods and perhaps you’ve also had it up where you live that have to do with residential pesticide application. I’m a big fan of not using pesticides whenever possible, but there’s still then you end up with pests so how do you deal with that type of thing naturally?
Steve Rodrigue: There’s a number of ways. Sometimes, it can be just the timing of when you plant something. I really like the method of exclusion. For instance, flea beetles they love brassicas they put little holes in brassica leaves and also cabbage moths you can take a row fabric and you cover those crops until they’re ready to harvest and it excludes the insects, so no pesticides.
Lisa Belisle: So there are tricks that are out there that you could use if you wanted to have a garden not using pesticides.
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the biggest advantages of having a small garden. You can really manage it. You can take care of it. It’s harder on a farm scale, but on a smaller scale it’s definitely doable. Gardens I’ve had for the past 10, 12 years I’ve never used a pesticide on any of them.
Lisa Belisle: How about weeds what about herbicides and use of chemicals for weeds?
Steve Rodrigue: Well, I think weeds are kind of like there’s a saying a weed is just a plant that maybe you don’t know what it is yet or you don’t have a purpose for it. It’s kind of like dirt and soil. Soil is outside and dirt is underneath your fingernails and in the corner of your kitchen floor or something, so a lot of these plants that we call weeds, actually, have a lot of uses. For instance, you mentioned the dandelion greens. You can use both the greens and the root. I think we have to change kind of our viewpoint on some of these topics that have been ingrained in our mind since children from our grandparents and what-not. I think in a small garden there’s ways around that too. There’s mulching. A small garden is easier to tend to. Raised beds are great because the soil is not compacted. You’re never walking on it so it’s really easy to weed. I think weeds are one of the things I worry about the least, actually.
Lisa Belisle: Do you ever have clients ask you about things like GMOs?
Steve Rodrigue: No, I haven’t yet, but I definitely know I will. It first started off know your farmer. Then where’s our food coming from, and now it’s even getting deeper than that where do our seeds come from? You see that some seed companies are being more and more transparent where their seeds are being bred, where they’re coming from so I think I’ll definitely have that question.
Lisa Belisle: When you do plantings do you try to avoid seeds that you know have genetically modified organisms?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, that’s one of my goals, too. I shouldn’t say goals that’s just what I’m going to be doing, no GMOs. I also want to be really picky about where my seeds are coming from like the companies that are breeding them so there’s kind of behind the scenes with that as well.
Lisa Belisle: What about compost?
Steve Rodrigue: Compost, yeah, I’ve used some of Coast of Maine I’ve used that. I’ve used a couple different sources. I also have a friend that does his own composting. He uses leaves and grass clippings, and he’s also using a byproduct seaweed. He actually has a mussel farm in Maine so he’s putting that in the compost as well so I have some pretty good sources for compost.
Lisa Belisle: So if somebody needed you to provide compost you’d already have it available to use on their beds?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, just a call away.
Lisa Belisle: What are you noticing about restaurants and the types of herbs that they want you to grow what types of things are they asking about?
Steve Rodrigue: I haven’t had a lot of work with restaurants yet. I’ve been meeting with some and talking with them. They’re definitely, definitely interested. I think this year there will be more of the commercial side than last year which was more residential business for me, but I think it will be mostly things that they use on a regular basis probably some of the more common ones, but maybe some herbs that they can’t get at the grocery store or from the farmers’ market.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that in general people are more aware about herbs and their use for cooking?
Steve Rodrigue: I think so, yeah, I definitely think so.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of your favorite herbs to use and you said that you like to cook so what do you like to cook?
Steve Rodrigue: My favorite herbs to start with sage I love sage. I love rosemary. I love thyme, so I guess some of the more common ones, but those are kind of my go-tos I would say.
Lisa Belisle: Do those find your way into your cooking?
Steve Rodrigue: Yeah, sometimes, I might not pair the herbs with the correct dish I just kind of mix them in, but it works the end result is great.
Lisa Belisle: Are you growing things year-round you talked about some of the lettuces that you had worked on in the past?
Steve Rodrigue: Let’s see where do I start with that? One of my focuses actually at Johnny’s was winter growing, and I was fascinated with growing through the winter in unheated passive tunnels so there’s no electricity, nothing, I would go out and manually roll up the sides, everything, and I was amazed at what you could grow late into the season. I was growing stuff into Christmastime. Some things into January and this was all with no heat whatsoever. Spinach, chicory, even parsley and cilantro can make it through the winter. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. A lot of people ask me what are you going to do in the winter and there’s a lot of work that can be done in the winter as well.
Lisa Belisle: What about growing things inside do you have clients that start growing things inside that they can then put into their gardens when the spring comes?
Steve Rodrigue: I would imagine I will have that. I haven’t encountered that yet, though.
Lisa Belisle: Where would you like to see your business go over the next five years?
Steve Rodrigue: Good question, yeah. Really I’d like to, I mean, I want to tap into the commercial market. I think it will really take off with restaurants and bed and breakfasts and inns, so I really want that. I want to develop an education portion to my business where we can go into schools. We can educate children. If a residential customer wants us to come there and do an hour long session every month or every two weeks with them and their family, their kids we can do that. I have a lot of ideas for the next five years. I’m trying to stay focused right now with the few ideas and a few different options than just each year kind of coming out with new options to keep people engaged.
This coming year you’ll see I’ll offer mushroom logs that I actually do right at my house. They’ll be oysters this year. Also, onsite and offsite composting. Potentially, even donations to food banks when a garden is producing way too much and the people can’t keep up with it I can do a donation in their name to local food banks. I have a lot of ideas, but trying to stay focused and not weigh myself down too much with too many different options.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Steve Rodrigue who is the owner and founder of Maine Raised Gardens a full-service vegetable garden company. He previously worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’m really glad that you took the time to come in and talk with me today.
Steve Rodrigue: Great, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 344. Our guests have included Eddie Woodin and Steve Rodrigue. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are pleased that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, Art Collector Maine, and by grownupgirl.com. Our editorial producer is Kate Gardner, our Assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Andrea King, Kevin Thomas, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.