“Talking Dirt” with Gardening Guru Annie Spiegelman

Dirt. It’s everywhere. It supports us as we go about our daily lives, and is the medium that produces much of our food source. But not all dirt is created equal. When it comes to growing food, the dirt you use and how you prepare it makes a big difference in the results you reap.

I have a fickle relationship with my garden. It’s like a dysfunctional on-again-off-again love affair: I love it, but it doesn’t always return my affection. In fairness, I would have to say I love the idea of gardening but without the right foundation, no amount of begging and pleading will coax those plants to grow!

Until recently, my gardening M.O. consisted of digging a hole, throwing in a little potting soil followed by some water, and concluding the ritual with a muttered prayer along the lines of, “Now GROW #@%* it!”

Plants that survived my style of gardening had to be HARDY; otherwise they didn’t make it.

Thankfully, I’ve seen the light. My saving grace turns out to be Novato resident Annie Spiegelman (aka the “Dirt Diva”). A Master Gardener, Pacific Sun columnist, and sustainable garden advocate, Spiegelman recently authored Talking Dirt, a fun-to-read collection of down-to-earth organic gardening wisdom. I happened upon her book recently as I strolled through Whole Foods. The title instantly called out to me. Perhaps this informative read would provide some answers to my gardening dilemmas.

In Talking Dirt, Spiegelman lays the foundation for creating a thriving sustainable organic garden. The secret for success, she shares, is focusing on “feeding the soil instead of feeding the plant,”–a mantra she learned from soil scientist and UC Berkeley professor Stephen Andrews, her dirt mentor.

“Soil is the backbone of your garden,” she writes, “Nothing else really matters.” Following this basic premise, Annie assures, will promote stronger plants that are less susceptible to insects and disease. “When in doubt,” she emphasizes, “the answer is always compost and mulch.”

Both novice and experienced gardeners will appreciate Spiegelman’s down-to-earth approach, laced with the perfect dose of humor. I particularly love her “Universal Botanical Whaaa-Whaa” system that rates plants based on the level of care & attention they need: a #1 rating for those that thrive easily, bloom profusely, and require little care, verses a #10 rating for needy plants requiring lots of attention. She is clearly in the trenches with her readers, and we sense a kindred spirit who has experienced the joys and frustrations inherent in learning the art of cultivation. Her tell-it-like-it-is enthusiasm for her topic is infectious!

Shortly after reading Talking Dirt, I found myself face-to-face with the Diva herself while researching a story on the school garden at Marin Oaks, one of Spiegelman’s pet projects. A week later, her named popped up again, this time as coordinator of the revived garden club at Novato High School. Here is a woman who is not afraid to get down and dirty, so to speak, using her considerable humor and expertise to turn our local “junk-food eating, smartphone obsessed” youth into savvy organic gardeners and real food eaters.

Spiegelman wasn’t always so enlightened. Born in Manhattan she describes herself as a “city girl” who grew up surrounded by concrete without a garden in sight. It wasn’t until she moved to San Francisco in her twenties and met soon-to-be husband Bill that her interest in gardening took hold. “He was living in Santa Cruz and composting and growing veggies in his apartment,” she laughs. Smitten, she tried starting a garden at their first home in the foggy Sunset district–with disastrous results. In hind-sight, she knew her efforts were doomed. “I bought sun-loving plants and they all died!” she remembers.

The couple later moved to Marin to start their family. Undaunted by her first garden flop, Spiegelman pressed on–adding commercial fertilizers to the soil in her yard and spraying chemicals on the greenery while praying for growth. Then one day she noticed her young son putting leaves from the yard in his mouth. It was a wake-up call.

She went online to Pesticide Action Network and began researching the chemicals contained in the garden products she was using. “It was REALLY scary,” she recalls now. Knowing there had to be a better more nature-friendly path to a thriving garden, Spiegelman enrolled in Novato’s Master Gardener program where she learned to “nix the chemicals and compost, compost, COMPOST.”

That was ten years ago. Today this self-professed “compost queen” (and proud of it!) is on a mission to educate youth about sustainable gardening and eating real food. Inspired to action by the devastating statistics on childhood obesity in this country, Spiegelman believes the key to instilling healthy eating habits is getting kids excited about growing their food. To that end, she has become a big proponent for school garden programs.

With school budgets tight and funding at an all time low, Spiegelman is sending out a call to action for other “dirt divas” to join her and take up the cause. Her dream of having an organic garden in every school is well within reach, and the time is now. “We Moms need to speak out for nature, for the earth, and for the health of our children,” she tells me with conviction. “We can’t afford to look the other way.”

To raise money, Spiegelman has launched a fundraiser selling her “Dirt Diva” organic cotton Trucker Hats at cost, with a percentage of each sale going to promote Bay Area school garden projects. You can support this effort by purchasing your hat at her website, www.dirtdiva.com.

Turns out Annie has inspired more than just our youth. Because of her, I am now the proud owner of a dual compost bin, a worm box, and assorted garden tools. I wear my “Dirt Diva” trucker hat with pride. Armed with knowledge I gleaned from Talking Dirt, I am embarking on my own garden renovation, hoping to transform my yard with edible organic plots that will sustain my family! Stay tuned and follow my progress as my new “edible yard” unfolds in the weeks ahead. Perhaps one day, with enough compost and mulch, my garden will resemble Annie’s.

For now, I’ve gotta give the Diva her do: when it comes to dirt, I worship the ground she walks on.

Categories: Authors, Organic GardeningTags: , , , ,


  1. Karen, great article, will your husband get involved in the back yard gardening? I here he has quite the green thumb and loves to get his hands dirty!

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