One of Doug Oster’s earliest memories involves hanging upside down from the maple tree in his grandmother’s front yard in Ohio, watching her tend to tomato plants.
“I can remember exactly what she was wearing,” he recalls. “I came out of that tree and went over to see what she was doing. I became fascinated. When I went back home, I begged my mother to plant a vegetable garden. That’s how it all began.”
That fascination grew into a career as a gardening columnist, educator, TV talking head, author, travel guide, and radio host, providing his own seeds of inspiration to green thumbs in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. He also created Cultivating Success, a garden program for foster and adoptive children. We spoke with Oster about his favorite flower — it’s a springtime classic — the thrill of seasons changing, and his advice to newbie gardeners.
What excited you so much about gardening at such a young age?
I’m not sure, but it just captivated me. My grandparents were eventually buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland. They have this thing there called Daffodil Hill, which was planted starting in the 1940s. I was there by the grave, I’m seven years old, I looked behind me and there it was. That profoundly affected me. I don’t know why. In my Pennsylvania garden, I pledged to make my own Daffodil Hill in memory of my grandparents. I try to add at least 1000 bulbs a year. I love my daffodils.
What brought you to Pennsylvania?
I worked in newspapers my whole life. I got a job here at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I was working as a photojournalist, but I’d also been writing garden columns at every newspaper I worked at. When I came to Pittsburgh, I became more and more interested in gardening. I’ve got a radio show and I was writing so much about gardening that I basically worked my way out of photo and became full-time on the gardening beat — I couldn’t be happier.
When you were looking for a place to live in the Pittsburgh region, was it important to you to have a place that would be good for a garden?
The last place that we looked at had a big greenhouse. I was like, “I don’t care what else is in the house.” Back in the ’50s and ’60s, every garden magazine had an ad for a kit greenhouse. They would ship these things flat and you, as a homeowner, would put it up. It’s one of my very, very special places. This time of the year, it’s just amazing in there — all my seedlings, tomatoes, peppers and perennials.
Why is it exciting, interesting, challenging, or fun to be a gardener in Pennsylvania?
Seasonality is what makes it so special here in Pennsylvania. No matter how easy or hard the winter is, there’s nothing like spring. I have a friend who moved to Florida. He said, “You know what I really miss? That first day when you step out and the air smells different and you know that spring is here or on the way.”
For me, of course, it’s daffodil season. Once those daffodils start, there’s no turning back for us. There might be some snow, there’ll be some cold, but winter is over and that’s such a special feeling. When I talk to novice gardeners in Pennsylvania — and my son is one of them — and he’s like, “Why are you so excited about something that’s only around for a short time?” I say, “That’s why I’m excited.”
It’s ephemeral. I think the older you get, the more dedicated you get to observing the seasons. Right now, with daffodils, I’ve got a few of the late ones coming and then we’re getting into tulip season. I’m a little sad about that, but it also fills you with such joy. Everybody has a different favorite season. I’m a spring lover. Some people don’t like the rainy spring, they want summer and there are people for whom fall is their favorite. These changes, they’re part of our core, they’re part of what we love. I can’t really see myself moving further south.
So let’s talk a little bit about gardening culture in PA. Do you have a community of fellow gardeners?
Where I’m at in Pittsburgh, basically everybody gardens in some way or another, whether it’s tomatoes next to the garage or pots on the porch. So I have a huge community. That’s my whole thing — my community of just regular gardeners through social media. That’s how we’re all connecting with each other. I learn a lot from them, and I hope that I can teach them a little bit. Nowadays, you can post on social media and you’re always going to have some kind of troll, but you don’t get that much in gardening. It’s all pretty positive.
I just posted about how important our wild violets are as a host plant for butterflies. I got an overwhelming response from people saying, for example, “When I was a kid, I loved my violets” or “the white ones bring you good luck.” That’s the whole thing for me.
Whenever I encounter somebody, the first thing I always ask is, “How is your season going? What are you successful with?” It’s purely positive. Gardeners always want to share their secrets. And gardeners not only want to share information, they want to share plants. We have a plant swap every year.
Gardeners in PA are dedicated. For most of them, it goes back, like me, to parents and grandparents. We’re seeing a resurgence of gardening like never before coming out of COVID. I meet with lots of first-time or second-time homeowners. They don’t have a mentor, so to them it’s almost like black magic. They worry about everything. Part of my job is answering all these gardening questions. Some people are just so afraid. It’s true for everybody — when you first start to garden, you do worry a lot. Hey, plants die. That’s part of it.
Are there any sites or gardens nearby that really inspire you?
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is phenomenal. There’s a very, very special place south of Pittsburgh in Washington County. Joseph Hamm’s Daffodil Hortus is free and it’s the greatest collection I’ve ever seen of blooming daffodils. There are arboretums throughout the city. There’s a really weird, cool place in Pittsburgh called Randyland. The National Aviary has a beautiful little rock garden. There’s lots of places to visit as far as gardening.
Say someone in Pennsylvania has bought a house and they have a little plot of land. They ask, “How do I even start?” where would you point them?
Head to your closest family-run nursery. They have more incredible information than you can believe and they want to share it. My whole life revolves around gardening but these people work with these plants every day. Secondly, it’s about deciding what you’re interested in growing, whether it’s trees, shrubs, vegetables, annual flowers, perennial flowers. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
For beginners, I actually boil it down to three things: Improve the soil. Know when certain plants go in the ground. Don’t let them dry out. Gardening is a lifelong pursuit, but start with those three things and you won’t be overwhelmed.
Oster hosts The Organic Gardener Radio Show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on Pittsburgh’s KDKA Radio; you can read his feature articles in the Pittsburgh Earth Day’s Green Voice e-newsletter.
Lee Stabert is a writer and podcaster with an expertise on all things Pennsylvania. For over a decade, she has served as chief editor of Keystone Edge, an online magazine about what’s next and best in PA, while also creating content about local wine, gardening, culture, and community development. In addition, she knows where to find the best tacos in Philly. Just ask.