What gardeners need is basically the same the world over: just enough sun, not too much rain, and, from time to time, some kindly good advice.
In North Carolina, that last need is met by “The Weekend Gardener,” a call-in show on WPTF 680 AM that is celebrating 30 years on the air.
From 8 to 11 a.m. every Saturday – even in winter – hosts Mike Raley and Anne Clapp chat about plants and pests and take calls from folks looking for practical answers to their gardening problems.
I’m always surprised by the number of people who listen to us who wouldn’t know a rose from a petunia.
Frequently, they take the show on the road, visiting garden shops and events around the area to get some facetime with listeners. When they visited Big Bloomers Flower Farm, a garden shop near Sanford, a couple of weeks ago, Nancy Kilpatrick was ready with some questions – and evidence.
While the hosts paused for a station break, Kilpatrick, who lives in Pinehurst, showed them the contents of some plastic bags she’d stashed in a pocket. One contained the remains of some shelled insects that stumped the hosts, but other baggies contained something they recognized right away. The spotted tomato plant leaves she showed were suffering from simple wilt, they told her. The zelkova leaves in another bag had a tougher problem: bacterial blight. So Kilpatrick, an organic gardener, had some work cut out for her, but still she walked away smiling.
She’s listened to Raley and Clapp on “Weekend Gardener” for the last five years, she said, to get answers for her own problems as well as to benefit from the advice the hosts give others.
“I say ‘Oh yeah, I had that problem,’ so I’m all ears just to listen to what their solution is,” Kilpatrick said. “They’re very knowledgeable. They’ve been dealing with this for a long time. They’re the experts! So that’s the answers I want to get.”
Throughout the morning, Raley and Clapp – joined by frequent guest Rufus Edmisten (yes, THAT Rufus Edmisten, the one who served the subpoena to the White House for the Watergate tapes, then returned to North Carolina for a political career that included serving as attorney general and secretary of state and running for governor in 1984) – took calls and interviewed guests at the store, including owner Gail Foushee and visiting hummingbird expert Susan Campbell. Their interactions with guests and listeners were warm and informal, with Raley asking most of the questions, Clapp providing facts and recommendations, and Edmisten peppering his advice with stories and humor. In between some serious gardening talk, they laughed with each other and chatted about family, food and vacations. Three hours passed as quickly as a breeze when you’re planting bulbs.
That ease, rooted in an uncomplicated premise of helpful advice, interesting facts and gentle admonitions to gardeners to be patient, is the show’s strength, according to its hosts.
“It’s like going to visit family, like a reunion every weekend,” said Raley, who was tapped to take over the long-running “Tar Heel Gardener” show when N.C. State University professor John H. Harris retired in 1985. He described the show as a throwback to a previous era in radio, when listening was an escape from the world’s problems.
Plenty of people come along for that escape, and over the years the show has expanded from 15 minutes, when Raley first took over, to its current three-hour slot. Now, it’s one of WPTF’s most popular shows, with an average 5,000 listeners per quarter hour and an average time spent listening at around 90 minutes.
Not all of the listeners are avid gardeners; in fact, some aren’t gardeners at all.
“I’m always surprised by the number of people who listen to us who wouldn’t know a rose from a petunia,” said Clapp, a master gardener. “They say it’s because we’re nice and we’re calm and it’s just pleasant to listen to.”
Annette Rivera of Sanford has been listening to the show a couple of years, she said. But it’s only been recently, when she became a vegetarian, that she’s become more serious about gardening. She’s always found the show useful and entertaining, she said at last month’s Big Bloomers appearance, when she stopped by to ask the hosts about the lifespan of vegetable seed packets. And now she’s listening more closely.
“They explain things so well that they make it easy for you,” she said.
On the day of the Big Bloomers broadcast, Raley, Clapp and Edmisten took calls from all over the Triangle about topics timely to the season – crape myrtles that refuse to bloom, brown spots in the lawn, mildewing garden vegetables, branch-trimming worries. Sometimes they knew the answer right away, nodding knowingly as the caller unfolded the question, and other times they pressed for details as Clapp consulted well-worn reference books from a well-worn tote bag she carried to the broadcast.
“There’s a lot of variety in what we do,” Clapp said, “but it’s not at all unusual for us on one Saturday morning to have five or six people call and ask the same question.”
That’s a situation they don’t mind at all, Clapp insisted, and, as Raley pointed out, it highlights the show’s power to remind gardeners they’re all in this together.
“Many people are having the same problems with black spot on their rose, or their hydrangeas aren’t blooming … or why this is happening to the vegetable garden,” Raley said. “It just depends on what’s blooming or what’s growing, and a lot of people might be having the same problem.”
Sustaining the show’s longevity (70 years, if you count from the beginning of “Tar Heel Gardener” in 1945) is the tenacity of gardening as a hobby from generation to generation.
Gardening is still one of the top hobbies in the U.S., Edmisten pointed out, and specialties like rooftop gardening and beekeeping help draw new gardeners and keep more experienced ones interested. That ensures a steady stream of listeners who want advice and commiseration.
“You can garden anywhere,” Edmisten said, “and they’re going to have the same problems.”
Raley sees no limit to the show’s popularity, and no reason to change what has long been a successful formula.
“As long as WPTF is on the air, I think there will be a ‘Weekend Gardener,’” he said. “I hope and pray there is, and I hope the three of us are around to do it for many more years.”
What’s in Anne’s bag?
During “Weekend Gardener” broadcasts, Anne Clapp dips into a tote bag of reference books to help answer callers’ questions. Here are some of her favorite resources:
1. “The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists,” by Lois Trigg Chaplin (Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994).
This book lists plants in categories such as fast-growing trees, best peonies and plants for various soil types. “A lot of people borrow my copy,” Clapp said, “and end up buying their own.”
2. “Carolina Lawns” (N.C. Cooperative Extension, 2009).
3. “Southern Living Garden Problem Solver,” edited by Steve Bender (Oxmoor, 1999).
Clapp calls this book her favorite reference.
4. “Carolinas Getting Started Garden Guide,” by Toby Bost (Cool Springs Press, 2015).
“It’s for people who really don’t know anything about various types of plants,” said Clapp, who’s been giving this newly published book as a wedding shower gift. “It’s a simple way for new gardeners to learn some things.”
5. “Practical Rose Gardening,” by Inger Palmstierna (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015).