Meet Your Neighbors
A Radio Voice in the Wilderness
Photo courtesy of Mike Nowak
Mike Nowak hosts the weekly WGN radio program Let’s Talk Gardening. It’s a show consisting mostly of easy, over-the-back-fence conversations with landscapers, and callers seeking tips for keeping weeds out of the lawn. From these mainstream topics, though, Nowak’s sense of humor and interest in green gardening take the whole affair in surprising directions.
He once led a campaign to elect the plant known as prairie smoke as the city flower by openly asking callers to “stuff the ballot box” in the Chicago Tribune’s online poll. “Chicago’s flower was the chrysanthemum, but it’s not native,” he says. “Prairie smoke is a lovely little native plant that I grow. Others nominated alliums, a crabapple, even a daffodil, which makes no sense to me.” One listener told him she voted 45 times. Prairie smoke, not exactly a household word before Nowak’s campaign, won a narrow victory.
Nowak uses his own background to soothe the pesticidal urges of his listeners. “I had a problem in my yard once,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t want to learn. I just bought a can of pesticide.” When he got home and read the directions, they were “terrifying,” and he wasn’t even sure they would solve his problem. “The average gardener doesn’t want to ask questions,” he says. “They want easy answers — ‘spray first, ask questions later.’ If I throw ideas out there, like whether to disrupt the soil food web with commercial fertilizers and pesticides or improve it with compost tea, it gets my listeners thinking.”
Nowak says that even when the show’s original host, Kathy O’Malley, asked him to join her ten years ago, he didn’t foresee that he would move the show and its listeners toward native plants and environmentally sound gardening strategies. “I wasn’t a ‘hort’ expert,” Nowak says. “I’m in show business.” He acted, co-founded a small theater company, and worked as an engineer, writer, and voice-actor at WGN. “We were just amateurs passionate about gardening. Someone would call in with a question, and we’d discuss it and try to figure out an answer.”
His environmental leanings developed gradually from his interest in the temperate rainforest around a vacation home he owned in Washington state with his partner Kathleen Thompson. Back in Chicago, Nowak filled in once for a friend at a master gardening class at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he learned more about local ecology, soil, and prairie plants that thrive in local conditions.
The expert guests on Let’s Talk Gardening pushed him further toward a green philosophy. One frequent guest was Connie Cunningham, a landscape designer. Their conversations prompted them to found the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association (MELA), a horticulture trade organization devoted to educating landscapers about environmentally friendly practices. “The old techniques grabbed such a stranglehold,” Nowak says. “The plants that are native to this region are wonderful and we should be encouraged to grow them. Once you start down that path, buying a plant because it’s a native, you start thinking about soils, and that leads you to think about chemical use, water use. All aspects of environmentalism start to tie in.” Nowak says the “$64,000 question” is what impact environmental gardening may have on the broad ecology of the region, and he’s always seeking more answers.
“I live smack dab in the middle of Chicago, in Logan Square. I put up a bird feeder, and I get hundreds of house sparrows and two cardinals. So my goal was to attract a hummingbird to the garden.” To that end, he put in a number of native flowering trees — cherry, prairie crabapple, and serviceberry. When he finally got a hummingbird last fall, it went not to his prized natives, but flew first to a red balloon hanging from a powerline, then to a nonnative heptacodium. Nowak reacts with amusement when things don’t go quite as planned. His enthusiasm and sense of humor about the unpredictable pursuit of gardening are contagious. “I retain the common person’s sense of wonderment,” he says. “I think people respond to that.”
— Ryan Chew
Let’s Talk Gardening airs from noon to 2 p.m. Sundays on WGN Radio 720 AM when sports programming doesn’t bump it to another slot. To hear archived shows, click here.