If you are an avid gardener and not living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of garden expert Nick Federoff. Besides having an unforgettable beard and huge personality to match, Nick has been hosting a call-in gardening advice radio show for almost three decades and has a show on PBS called ‘Things Green.’ He lives in Southern California on a quarter-acre of gardens with his wife, who he lovingly refers to as “Mrs. Things Green.”
Nick was gracious enough to chat with us about his favorite things to grow, how a fresh tomato sandwich can be an orgasmic experience, the one gardening question he gets asked the most, and much more. We know you’ll love this interview as much as we do!
On How Gardening Became Nick’s Life-Long Passion
It’s really in my DNA because my grandparents were farmers and my father was a farmer. Farming, agriculture, and horticulture, they all tie into each other. My mother lived in Central California on a farm and so when she got married she thought she was going to be a city slicker and move to the big town of Los Angeles. But my dad said, ‘Hey, I’m growing strawberries and I’m going to be a logger up in Oregon, so let’s go there.’ It’s literally in my blood.
On Nick’s Different Gardens
I am really fortunate to live on a quarter-acre in the city. That’s pretty amazing — you just don’t have that kind of footprint here. But what I’ve done is I have two different gardens that I maintain.
One of my gardens is the Things Green Botanical Gardens, which is my office and it’s also the garden that I use quite often for filming my television show. Sometimes — if it's a super nice day out and I know it’s going to be quiet — I’ll also do my radio show out there. So we have raised planter beds outside and we’ve got pots and what we like to call our Plant Hospital. We don’t like when people do it but sometimes they do anyway — I have people that bring their sick plants and put them on our doorstep. People will find plants that we may use, so in our plant hospital we nurse these plants back to good health, take cuttings of them, and give a lot of them away to the community. We do a lot of community outreach. We're involved with sustainable environmental education and they have programs they do with schools and with the community. So a lot of our donations go out there.
For my other gardens at the house, they are broken up into two very distinct categories, ornamental horticulture and the gardening/ag side of it. I have a small orchard that has several trees in there and then I have 3 4’x12’ planting areas that I keep my main vegetable crops in. What I did was instead of pulling out the grass and working the soil — I have the most horrible caliche soil — I created the beds on top of it. I took some treated wood and made some frames, then I took some repurposed pavers and lined them with them and they were absolutely perfect — I laid them right on the grass. My wife likes to call these beds my gravesites, because with the stones they kind of look like it. But what all this did was give me 1.5” of space above ground from the wood and 2” of space above ground from the pavers, so I ended up gaining about 3.5 solid inches above my grass.Then, I just put brand-new soil right on top. As far as what I grow there, we do lettuce, foo-foo kale because it tastes horrible but it’s supposed to be good for you, and of course the classic tomatoes. But you really have to be careful when you plant tomatoes because if you do it right, one tomato plant can yield anywhere between 40-70 pounds of tomatoes. And who wants to eat that many tomatoes? You have to make sure that you don’t over-plant. Then, what I do is I intersperse plantings in the shrubbery in the other parts of the backyard. I like to grow a lot of different things.
All of my vegetables are either organically grown or very natural — the reason why I do that is if you’ve ever seen a picture of me you’ve seen I have a big old bush on my chin and I don’t want to eat something and then defoliate. So I make sure the veggies are all organic and everywhere else I take the approach of doing everything as organically and naturally as possible before I bring out any kind of nuclear warfare.
On Why Nick Is An Advocate Of Lawns
I’m a big proponent of lawns because if it’s done right, they don’t need much water. People water their lawns way too much in the first place and of course here, in Southern California and in the Western states, we always have drought problems. I’m a big fan of lawns but hate with a passion — can’t stand — artificial turf because it kills soil and soil is a living, breathing, organism. If you’re doing your lawn correctly, you’re not going to use that much water in the first place. The truth is, you’re going to use less than you would on an artificial lawn because artificial lawns have to be cleaned and tended to.
Nick’s Favorite Plant To Grow
I’m pretty wishy-washy on this because there is so much that I like, but you can't really get any better than the perfect tomato — I don’t care what variety it is. I don’t care if it’s a whacked-out looking heirloom tomato or a beefsteak. If you get a tomato straight from the garden you can make a perfect tomato sandwich. Mrs. Things Green is my bread baker (I’m so spoiled), so if you get a fresh piece of bread, smather some mayonnaise on both sides of it, cut a nice slab of tomatoes and put it inside and maybe add just a tiny pinch of salt, a little bit of pepper, and then you eat it — oh my goodness it’s almost an orgasmic experience. I absolutely love my tomatoes.
Also, even though I made fun of my foo-foo kale, I actually do like kale. You can do so many things with it: you can cut it up, cook it, fry it, boil it, dehydrate, and make chips out of it.
Lastly, I would have to say something that is really kind of cool that I grow is this one grapevine at my Things Green gardens in a huge pot. It’s in its third year and it’s like a fountain out the center of the support and oozing out the side. Every day this week I’ve been going out and feeding myself Concord grapes. Oh my goodness! They are just glistening on the vine — 100% organic and even if you swallow a spider with one of them who cares, they’re delicious. The fun thing is I won’t even pick them; I’ll just eat them right out in the garden.
Nick’s Biggest Garden Mess-Up Throughout The Years
I’ve done what every beginning gardener has ever done that I’ve always told them not to do: plant too much. I think me [and most beginner gardeners] get this itch to get out in the garden and we get all excited and plant 10 tomato plants and then you do that and — just like I said earlier — if you do it right, you’re going to get 30-70 pounds of tomatoes off of one plant. Overplanting is the zealous mistake that even a seasoned person like myself can get into. You realize that you have to get out there and harvest all that stuff and hopefully you can get out there fast enough and give them away to people who need it.
Nick’s Most Frequently Asked Question
Hands down, the question I get asked most is: ‘Am I watering my plants too much?’ I could tell people how to water their plants 10,000 different ways — I’ve made a career out of it — but when they ask me that question, they’ve already told me they’re watering their plants too much. They’ve answered it with their question! That’s the biggest question that comes around and I chuckle every single time I hear it. I’m not at their house! I can’t see what they’re doing, but if they’re asking me that question chances are they are. But it’s justifiable, because you see a plant that’s stressed out for one reason or another and the natural instinct is to water the plant and then it starts to get worse. Then you feed the plant. So now you’re overfeeding and overwatering your plant. An acute state of rigor mortis may set in and then you cry and head out to nursery to buy another plant and you feel better. I mean, it’s great for stimulating the economy.
Nick’s Advice For New Gardeners
First thing’s first: they should keep my 1-800 number near and dear to their heart while they’re in the garden. I’m very serious about this — while they’re in the garden and they see something or there’s a problem, call my number, which is 1-800-405-NICK. While they’re in the garden they can leave me a message 24/7, 365 days per year. I will get back to them within the week. It’s what we do; we try to get back to people as quickly as possible.
The second [piece of advice] is, if you’re going to grow vegetables, make sure that you have at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. But that’s not going to do you as much good as fortifying the soil. As I said earlier, soil is a living breathing organism and there’s a lot of sexy stuff going on down there that we can’t see. There’s microbial things going on, there’s beneficial bugs, insects, worm activity, all things that are gold for growing. So fortify your soil — get yourself some compost or make it yourself and incorporate it into the soil. Don’t go down digging into the other side of the world; just dig it in 2-3 inches, that’s all you need for growing vegetables. Once you have that strong soil base, mixed with 8 or more hours of sunshine, that is a winning combination for just about anything that you want to grow.
Gardening Tools Nick Can’t Live Without
Oh, I love this question! I would never, ever, ever be without a cultivator. But not just any kind of cultivator, I have a 6” personal rototiller, one of those real small ones. The reason why I like this so much is because not only does it work when you’re preparing something new, but it’s also good for just working in your planter beds for weed control. I use a propane one, so I don’t have to worry about gas spilling or anything like that — I fire that puppy up and what it does is it works so quickly it actually pulverizes the soil. That’s probably my #1 tool I use in the garden.
I also talk about this on my TV show all the time: if you’re going to be planting a number of plants, like 4” pots, you need an auger that goes on the end of your drill. I’ve had augers that are as big as can be put on a 5 horse-power engine, and you need two people for that, but what I use is something that you clip onto a battery-operated drill. In fact I just bought another one the other day — I love these things! I prefer the aluminum ones and boy, if you don’t have that rototiller you can actually use that little auger to till the soil and create a hole so you can just plop your 4” pot right in there. You can plant so quickly with something like that.
Nick’s Current Projects
Last year, because of COVID, we filmed and broadcasted the awards ceremony for the Green Industry Hall of Fame. We were the first people ever to bring something like this to consumers and they absolutely loved it, so we’re going to do it again this year. We’re the only people ever, in the history of the green industry, to broadcast on television. I’ll also do a simulcast on my YouTube channel and Facebook.
You can catch the Green Industry Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony on November 20, 2021 and learn more about it here.
What Would Nick Be Doing If He Weren’t A Garden Guru?
I know exactly what I would have been — I would have been a professional musician. I play saxophone, clarinet, and flute. I used to have my own jazz band and I have a passion for music beyond belief. I love it. In fact I’m writing a book about gardening but it’s all about the music. It dates all the way back to Junior High School, we had an award-winning band that was just amazing. You learn discipline in a band and that discipline is what helped me to be successful on the radio, because if you’re late for a gig playing music, you’re not going to get hired the next time. Well, radio and television work the exact same way — you have to be a respecter of time, and music gave me that discipline. The best part is, you don’t even have to count higher than four! We
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