Gardening guru proves expert in growing field
By Andrew Nemethy
In This State | May 11,2014
Andrew Nemethy Photo
Vermonters who garden often face marauding critters, from mice to skunks, woodchucks and deer. Horticulturalist Charlie Nardozzi is no exception. Above, he tends to one of the trees in his new orchard, all of them encircled by protective fencing.
Spring is busting out all over, and so is Charlie Nardozzi, as a go-to garden guy.
Remember “Where’s Waldo,” the series of illustrated English children’s books where you had to search for Waldo? Charlie Nardozzi’s full, frenetic life is a real-life Waldo version, except in Charlie’s case, he plays all the characters — well, except Woof, Waldo’s dog. (His own little pooch, Rosie, plays that role.)
He’s a gardening consultant and coach. Ebullient radio and TV personality and media maven. Vermont Public Radio tour guide. Blogger. Horticultural advisor. Book author. Flower show and gardening club speaker. Urban gardening expert. Gardening website publisher. Even yoga teacher (a natural fit for an activity that often aligns with stiffness, aching backs and limbs, he says).
Not least, he’s a home gardener, tending an acre’s worth of fruit trees, berries, grapevines, vegetable gardens and flowers at his lovely spread in North Ferrisburgh, not far from Mount Philo.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that his extensive website (http://gardeningwithcharlie.com) actually has a “Where’s Charlie” link that tracks his comings, goings and doings: Rochester and Woodstock, Shelburne and Arlington in Vermont. Michigan State University, the Hudson River Valley and Gloucester, Mass.
His appearances at flower shows, master gardening conferences and speaking engagements have taken him to many of the 50 states to deliver his gospel of hands-in-the-earth good news.
“I’m waiting for the call from Hawaii,” he jokes.
If he were an insect, likely he’d be a busy bee, buzzing through the field of gardening dawn to dusk, winging it on a career whose roots are in his Italian upbringing on a now-vanished farm in the heart of Connecticut.
“I think it got in my blood,” he explains. “Not so much the horticultural side, but the busy, bringing in the food, being outside, being part of the rural lifestyle...”
His grandparents, Rocco and Lucia Gagliardi, came to America from Italy in the great migration after World War I in the 1920s and bought land on the outskirts of Waterbury, Conn.
“We would call him now a diversified farmer,” he says of his grandfather. With cattle and goats, horses, pigs and chickens, and a huge garden, his childhood was a bucolic cornucopia that now provides lasting memories, from picking cherries while standing in a bucketloader to riding high on teetering stacks of hay bales (neither OSHA-approved activities).
As part of a big Italian family, relatives would visit from New York City for gatherings, and he fondly remembers the atmosphere and how the gardens fed the extended family. And no doubt a mental seed was planted.
“That’s kind of how I grew up until probably high school,” says Nardozzi. “My backyard was basically the farm.”
The connection to Vermont came with college in 1977. He was interested in environmental programs and the University of Vermont was one of the few places to offer them at the time. Moving away from his tight-knit family in Connecticut to go to UVM was a leap of faith from “kind of an insular life” on the farm. “It was a big step for me to go this far away to school,” he says, adding, especially for his parents.
After a couple of years, in the argot of the 1970s, he freaked his parents out even more. Looking at his job prospects, he decided he’d have a better shot with a horticultural than an environmental degree. That was an exciting time when Vermont was in the throes of the back-to-the-land movement.
“They thought I was crazy” and “throwing my education away,” he says, arguing with him that the whole purpose of school was to get away from the hard manual labor that farming represented.
But Nardozzi, as it turned out, was no dummy (though he has authored “Urban Gardening for Dummies”). His idea of gardening involves planting ideas in people’s minds, and using his fertile experiences and extensive horticultural knowledge to advocate for the joys and benefits of gardening – from A (asparagus and achillea) to Z (zucchini and zinnias), and all the letters in between.
Blessed with an easy manner, upbeat mellifluous voice and honed writing skills, after 25 years he’s become a well-known name, a dirt Dear Abby/Dr. Phil dispensing fix-it advice and grow-it pep talks. He does this on the Vermont Garden Journal on Vermont Public Radio, his weekly call-in radio show on WJOY and appearances as co-host of In The Garden on WCAX. He also writes extensively for publications, consults for companies that hire him and keeps up a steady barrage of how-to advice on his website.
He got his start, as many do, somewhat by accident. After a three-year stint working on agricultural issues in the Peace Corps in Thailand and then getting a master’s degree in adult education at UVM in the late 1980s, he was married with a daughter and looking for a job. He got an offer to work for National Gardening magazine, even though he says he didn’t think of himself as a writer.
“That kind of launched me into really doing something with gardening,” he explains. His stint with the magazine “fell apart” when the magazine was sold, and in 2001 he went to work for the National Gardening Association in Burlington as a horticulturist. In 2009, he went out on his own, and he’s been a multi-tasking dynamo ever since.
The person behind that recognizable voice is tall, 55, and has a smile and laugh that bubbles up quickly. He’s also balding, which is how he came to wear his signature straw hat — actually he has nine broad-brimmed hats in his mud room, for various times of the year. He started wearing them to protect his head from sunburn in Thailand. “It’s kind of become a signature look, and I wear it everywhere,” he explains.
Giving a tour around his homestead, Nardozzi displays his breadth of knowledge and his passion for growing, evident in his extensive plantings: apricot, pear, cherry and peach trees, semi-hardy paw paws (that might make it or not), blueberries, different grape varieties on a double trellis, flowering shrubs and trees. His big vegetable garden is a mini-Alcatraz in reverse, a fenced-in island designed to keep deer out.
His career has planted him in the midst of several seismic upheavals, from the hippie back-to-the-land era, which faded and then re-blossomed into the localvore, fresh-food, organic iteration Vermont is experiencing today. It’s a perspective that offers him hope that a more sustainable food-raising ethic has sunk lasting roots in the state — he’s a fan of the Legislature’s decision to pass a GMO labeling bill — and perhaps across the U.S. for the future.
“I think Vermont is more in tune with what is happening in Europe,” he says. “France, Italy, Spain, the food and agriculture and the gardening. … It’s all part of the culture.
“It’s just what people do. I kind of see Vermont like that, unfortunately, more than the rest of the country.”
But there’s no doubt he’s doing his part to spread the good gardening word, and he counts himself lucky to have a career he feels strongly connected to.
“I feel very fortunate,” he says.
Andrew Nemethy is a longtime journalist, editor and writer. He can be reached at Andrewnemethy@gmail.com