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Charlie Nardozzi spreads the gardening gospel

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Charlie Nardozzi with client Sarah Judd - JORDAN SILVERMAN

You’ve probably heard him on the radio or seen him on TV. Perhaps you’ve watched his how-to videos online, attended one of his talks, read his books, subscribed to his e-newsletter or even employed him in your own backyard. There are so many options — Charlie Nardozzi seems to be everywhere.

But not everywhere like, say, purple loosestrife. No, this gardening guru is a welcome species, and people can’t seem to get enough of him. It’s no wonder. According to employers and clients alike, there is little that Nardozzi, 52, doesn’t know about plants and how to grow them, the conditions they like and don’t, and the challenges that threaten their survival. Besides, the lean fellow with the signature straw hat is as cheery as sunshine.

“From my perspective, it’s Charlie’s personality that comes across,” says Tony Vargo, vice president and CFO of the National Gardening Association. “People really like to listen to him. He’s the go-to person for all things plant related.”

That’s why Nardozzi, formerly the senior on-staff horticulturist at South Burlington-based NGA, is still creating instructional videos for the organization as a freelancer. Currently NGA’s home page is showing “Making a Raised Bed Garden.” NGA’s subscriber-based e-newsletter dispenses advice on everything from container gardening to vanquishing slugs to dividing perennials.

On Vermont Public Radio, Nardozzi presides over weekly episodes of “Vermont Garden Journal.” The audio files are archived on the station’s website, and fans can friend the journal’s Facebook page — so far, 310 “like” it. Nardozzi also has appeared as a guest several times each summer on VPR’s “Vermont Edition” since the call-in program went daily in 2007. In fact, he’ll be on this Thursday, May 12, to offer spring gardening advice. “As soon as people know Charlie’s going to be on, we get questions weeks in advance,” says “Vermont Edition” host Jane Lindholm. “If you’re trying to get the aphids off the tomatoes, he’s going to have an organic answer.”

Nardozzi’s words of wisdom appear in print, as well. His written works are showcased on his website, including books, Vegetable Gardening for Dummies and The Ultimate Gardener, and an e-newsletter about edible landscaping. Recent spots include “The Scoop on Poop” (aka compost); “Edible of the Month: Marigold and Calendula”; and “How to: Espalier an Apple Tree.” Seriously, whatever grows on this green Earth, it seems that Nardozzi can tell you about it.

And he’ll tell you to your face. In the last year, Nardozzi says, he’s added personal gardening consultant and coach to his résumé. As a consultant, he’ll spend an hour or two answering gardeners’ questions about their current or potential plants, their invasive insects, etc. As a coach, he gets his hands dirty — literally. “A coach assesses what needs to be done, and comes back and does some of the work [with the client],” Nardozzi says. “It’s becoming more popular in gardening circles.”

Recipients of his personal attention are enthusiastic. “It’s so great to have someone look at your specific garden and talk to you about it,” says Burlington resident Joan Robinson. “Things like ‘Why isn’t this clematis growing’ or tips for apple-tree maintenance or pruning well-established blueberries. We were delighted to have him coaching us to serve our needs,” says Robinson, who was given a session with Nardozzi for her birthday. “He’s really a very special person,” she adds. “I had a sense of him really knowing everything.”

The No. 1 mistake a novice gardener makes is “trying to do too much,” Nardozzi counsels. “I advise [starting with] a small, raised bed; do good soil, and learn from that.”

How does a guy get to be a gardening guru? Nardozzi started young. “I grew up in Connecticut in the shadow of my Italian grandfather’s garden,” he says. But he had yet to grasp the extent of that influence. Nardozzi came to the University of Vermont for environmental studies — and then switched to horticulture.

During and just after college, he interned for Gardens for All. That was the nonprofit arm of Garden Way, a company cofounded by the visionary Lyman Wood that built and sold the Troy-Bilt Rototiller, garden carts and other gear. Just as importantly, Garden Way helped launch the idea of gardening as a lifestyle.

After a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, Nardozzi returned to Vermont, worked for local garden centers and went back to UVM to earn a master’s in education. It’s impossible to say whether that training shaped Nardozzi’s ability to teach fellow gardeners — sharing his knowledge seems to come naturally.

By the mid-’80s, Garden Way had left Vermont for Troy, N.Y., but its offshoots, the National Gardening Association and Gardener’s Supply, were blooming. Nardozzi worked for the NGA as a writer and educator for years — until he decided to go independent last winter. He also served on the board of Burlington’s community-gardening association; during his tenure the program was integrated into the city’s parks-and-rec department, an achievement he notes with satisfaction.

For more than two decades, Nardozzi has maintained a meditation practice and takes time to travel to India “every two or three years,” he says. That may explain his calm and grounded demeanor. And perhaps it helps him focus on the many jobs he modestly calls “a number of things.”

Nardozzi’s newest role as a gardening consultant and coach is, of course, “very seasonal,” but he keeps busy year round giving talks to garden geeks around the country. A feature on his website called “Where’s Charlie??” lets readers know where and when he’ll be speaking. “I also do special events,” he notes. For example, for Stonyfield Organic, Nardozzi worked on a promotional education project for Vermont kids about consuming a variety of vegetables. “We went to area schools and did this whole act, you might say, encouraging them to ‘eat a rainbow,’” he explains. He also represented Cabot Creamery at flower shows out of state over the winter, “talking about gardening on their behalf.”

Next winter, Nardozzi will spend some quality time with his computer: He’s writing a new book about fruit and vegetable gardening in the Northeast for Cool Springs Press and recently contributed to a volume called Vegetables From an Italian Garden, due out this month from Phaidon Press. Talk about going back to your roots.

No doubt Nardozzi will also be planning his own garden — a brand-new one. He and his wife, Wendy Rowe, are relocating from Shelburne to North Ferrisburgh. “We’ll miss this season because we’re just moving in,” he laments. “I’ve never had a blank slate before!”

Nardozzi says he’ll plant a cover crop this year, but it’s just a matter of time before his new landscape is filled with veggies, fruit bushes and trees, and flowers. What does he wish he could grow in Vermont? “It would be nice to grow figs in the ground,” he says, “but that won’t happen.” Doesn’t mean he can’t grow them in containers, though. He also fantasizes about growing fruits such as persimmons and Native American pawpaws — and, if global warming persists, perhaps he will someday. “I have noticed the season is a little longer,” Nardozzi says.

He’s observed something else, too: Gardening, which used to be almost exclusively an older person’s pastime, has caught on with younger generations. “Now there are a lot more twenty- and thirtysomethings gardening who don’t really have a family connection with it,” Nardozzi says. Newer trends include container and vertical gardening — necessary for apartment dwellers — and permaculture, for those who can create a sustainable, edible landscape. And “organic is big,” he adds, though Nardozzi says he’s still shocked, when he leaves Vermont, to meet gardeners and farmers who apply nasty chemicals to their crops.

If Nardozzi’s gardening ethos is organic, his remarkable career has been, too, sprouting one healthy branch after another. “I really enjoy passing on the skill,” he says. “The more gardeners in the world, the better.”

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