'You Bet Your Garden' host Mike McGrath shoots the compost

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mike McGrath in the WHYY booth at 6th and Arch streets, where he produces his one-hour live show, "You Bet Your Garden," heard in 23 states on NPR.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mike McGrath in the WHYY booth at 6th and Arch streets, where he produces his one-hour live show, "You Bet Your Garden," heard in 23 states on NPR.
Posted: March 03, 2014

IT'S A WONDERFUL STORY: A youngster from the decidedly non-botanical Frankford neighborhood around Bridge Street and Torresdale Avenue grows up to be a nationally acclaimed expert in all things planting and growing. That's Mike McGrath's story, but it doesn't start with a Frankford kid potting marigolds in a Dixie cup for Mother's Day and finding his niche for life. It starts with a foxy lady at a party, with a thing for raspberries.

McGrath is host of NPR's popular, Philly-based "You Bet Your Garden" program. Each Saturday at 11 a.m., broadcasting live from the studios at WHYY-FM (90.9), he doles out organic advice to the green-thumb crowd, as well as those who are simply entertained by his high-energy broadcasting style.

The Saturday morning broadcast has come to be one of WHYY's signature shows, offering listeners a wiseguy yang to Terry Gross's wise-woman ying. It's heard on stations in 23 states, and nationwide on Sirius satellite radio, so listeners from as far afield as Talkeetna, Alaska, regularly start their weekends with an hour of "chemical-free horticultural hijinks" laced with attytood straight outta' Bridge and Torresdale.

His achievements in the gardening realm have been "unexpected," to say the least, McGrath says. Had someone 40 years ago suggested he was destined to become a public-radio gardening guru, "I would have said, 'I'd like some of what you're smoking, sir.' "

The station brass seconds that notion: "Who would have thought it could be fun to brew compost tea, squash bugs or eat bugs and disperse organic fertilizer?" says Christine Dempsey, WHYY's chief content officer. But the Frankford wiseacre was a radio natural, hitting his stride as a gardening host during his second show of a tryout, in August 1998. And it's been nonstop hijinks for the "cats and kittens" in his listening audience ever since.

His first audition, a month earlier, "seemed to go well," he remembers. But that August, "something very different happened. About 10 minutes into the show, all of a sudden, I'm gone, I'm not there anymore. I'm someplace else. They're waving me down to take the breaks.

"At the end of the show, I literally can't remember any of the calls or anything I said. I'm wondering, 'What just happened? Did I have a stoke or something?' I had entered the zone."

Now, about those raspberries

The girl and the raspberries come into the picture some 20 years earlier, when McGrath - at the time known mostly for his work as an editor at the alternative newspaper "The Drummer" - had yet to grow much of anything beyond his hair and beard.

"I met a beautiful woman at a party. Just drop-dead gorgeous," recalls McGrath, 62.

That beautiful woman spoke of how, as a child, she would pick and eat the wild raspberries growing near her grandparents' home in the Northeast. "All she wanted in life was a guy who could grow raspberries for her," McGrath says. "She wanted to leave the city and go back to the land and have somebody grow peaches and raspberries for her. I said, 'I can do that!' "

He offered, lucking out because - as he quickly learned - raspberries "grow themselves."

The young lady who launched McGrath into the botanical universe was Kathy, now his wife of 33 years. It was she who insisted the couple rent space during the late 1970s in a castle-like estate in Bristol, Bucks County, that had been part of the Wistar Institute early in the 20th century. It was there that McGrath got into gardening in earnest.

In return for providing his landlord free corn and tomatoes, McGrath got the go-ahead to create a 1,000-square-foot garden. "I lived there for five years," he said. "That's where I learned to garden."

You bet your typewriter

During his time at the Bristol "castle," McGrath was a prominent - and busy - freelance writer and media jack-of-all-trades. He wrote weekend entertainment stories for both the Daily News and the Inquirer, wrote and consulted for Marvel Comics, did marketing for comic-book conventions, was chief medical writer for the Temple University Alumni Review (he's an alum) and switch-hit as a writer and marketer for the "Phillies Report."

Ultimately, McGrath got tired of wearing so many hats on a single head. "I woke up one morning and decided I wanted a real job. Like on 'Taxi' or 'Barney Miller,' where you see the same people all the time," he explained.

"Kathy thought I was insane. She actually wanted to have me committed. She said, 'Everyone who has a full-time job would kill to do what you're doing. You're gonna get paid next week to ride every roller coaster within a 50-mile radius. They send you out to play pinball and go drinking. They pay you to go drinking!' "

But McGrath wouldn't be dissuaded. In 1982, he applied for a full-time job with Organic Gardening, part of the Rodale magazine family in Emmaus, Lehigh County. He didn't get that job, but was hired to work for the company's book division.

From there it was on to some Rodale newsletters. (The first one focused on allergy relief.) In 1985, his bosses asked McGrath to help guide a "struggling newsletter they [thought had] a lot of potential, called 'Men's Health.' "

Condomonium

The modest publication's strategy was to play up "the three P's: the penis, the pump [heart] and the prostate." Its modest editor was uncomfortable dealing with some of the more personal topics. McGrath was not.

"I hadn't been personally embarrassed since 1965, so I took it over," he says. "On the cover of my first issue was King Kong Condoms, about a condom company that was beginning to make them in different sizes.

"They had to mail it out with a wrapper around it so people wouldn't complain. But subscriptions soared."

As Men's Health was finding its footing, Organic Gardening was losing it, McGrath says. "They were putting Meryl Streep on the cover, humpback whales." He'd impressed his superiors with the quality of his home-grown produce and once again found himself with a fixer-upper to call his own, becoming that magazine's editor for seven years.

McGrath stayed with Rodale until the early 2000s, when the radio show and his line of organic gardening books - like the cheeky You Bet Your Tomatoes - became his main gig.

A show is born

At Rodale, McGrath had made a habit of jotting down ideas while idling in his car at red lights, and putting them in the glove box. When he decided to buy a new car and went to clean it, he found several pieces of paper with "You Bet Your Garden" written on them.

"I don't know what it's the title of, but it's a great title," he thought at the time. "It tells you right away it's going to be about gardening, but you're going to have a good time."

His was offered the 1998 tryout at WHYY after multiple guest appearances on the station's weekday-morning call-in show "Radio Times," and for the past decade and a half has been entertaining his listeners and their questions about "magnificent mulch" (he prefers shredded leaves), "terrific tomatoes" (cage them) and problematic "deer destroying your tender trees."

McGrath's Philly shtick connects with listeners in some very un-Philly-like places, including Maryville and Chillicothe in northwestern Missouri. One reason for its success there is that a lot of amateur gardeners live in the heartland, says Patty Holley, program director for KXCV-FM and KRNW-FM. The other big draw: "his personality."

"His show is fun to listen to. He is so excited about gardening," she says. "We probably have a more laid-back lifestyle here, but we have the same concerns."

McGrath says garlic is his all-time favorite thing to grow. Roses and birds of paradise are his favorite flowers. And to him the main reward of gardening is that it serves as counterweight to our modern, hyper-wired world.

"I find technology overwhelming," says the father of Amanda, 25, and Max, 23. "We're all spending so much time staring into these screens. We get pulled into these worlds of unreality and time-wasting.

"The antidote to that, more than it ever was, is to get outside and touch something real. To do something real."

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