Share the world: Condon's continuing crusade


Winter will pass soon enough, but before you start limbering up your green thumb, make sure you get the thumbs up from Marlene Condon. The Nature Friendly Garden, her illustrated guide to ecologically sound horticulture, is tentatively slated for a March release, but her gardening revolution is scheduled to continue for quite a while after that.

This might come as news, but it's possible the rows of flowers and luxurious green pastures of many novice gardeners are doing Mother Nature more harm than good.

Take, for example, pesticides: "It's important to have as many kinds of animals as you can," says Condon. "There are all these predator-prey relationships that take place, and if you have different kinds of animals around the house, they just naturally keep each other in check."

In other words, you wouldn't need to fend off hordes of ravenous rodents with chemical WMD's every year if you'd just take care not to upset the delicate natural balance in the first place.

It may seem counterintuitive in a culture where we medicate anything that exhibits so much as a basic metabolic response, but Condon insists that's not necessary, proposing chapter after chapter of therapeutic alternatives.

"A lot of people don't like to let their plants go to seed– they remove them over the winter, because they think dried plants look ugly," she says. "But when people clean up their yards, they're actually making it very sterile and hard for wildlife to survive. These things aren't actually ugly."

How's that for Zen?

That's a recurring theme in her book, which also encompasses philosophy, aesthetics, and the emotional benefits of gardening. For those looking for a little physical rehab to go with the spiritual enlightenment, there's also a chapter about gardening techniques for the handicapped: "Of course, this is helpful even if you're not handicapped," she laughs.

Though this is Condon's first book, it's certainly not her first foray into eco-journalism: she's currently a field editor for Birds and Blooms magazine, has been published in a number of environmental periodicals, and wrote a nature column for the Daily Progress until around 2002.

And although she's also known for letters she occasionally pens to The Hook, Condon insists that she isn't an environmental activist.

"I picture myself more of an educator," she says. "The reason that people tend to do things that are harmful to the environment is that they don't know better. I see myself as trying to get people to understand the natural world, to deal with it in a natural way, and to be accepting of the fact that we need to share the world with these other organisms. With understanding, acceptance comes more easily."

There she goes with the enlightenment again.

Age: 53

What brought you here? I had been a summer research assistant at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville.

What's worst about living here? The unnecessarily rampant development that has been taking place and is continuing Favorite hangout? My yard is definitely my favorite hangout. There is absolutely no other!

Most overrated virtue? People always comment on how clean I keep my house.

People would be surprised to know: I love cats even though I tell folks to round up strays and to restrict the wandering of their pets so they won't have the opportunity to kill lots of wildlife.

What would you change about yourself? I wish I could better speak out in public for the good of the environment.

Proudest accomplishment? I graduated from college with a degree in physics after having had to work for five years as a cashier, waitress, and department manager in a store.

People find most annoying about you: I have strong convictions regarding what's best for the environment.

Whom do you admire? Carl Sagan, a brilliant astrophysicist, because he served as a public ambassador for astronomy.

Favorite book? Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Subject that causes you to rant? I don't like that some developers want to disregard the detrimental environmental consequences of their projects.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? That my book is being published by Stackpole Books.

Biggest 21st-century creep-out? I worry that the novel 1984 is becoming reality because of the ubiquitous cameras.

What do you drive? I drive a Toyota.

In your car CD player right now? I don't have a CD player, but I listen to folk music on a tape player.

Next journey? I'll be traveling around to help people implement the message of my book.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I skipped my advanced-math final exam my senior year of high school because it was just too nice a day to be indoors.

Regret? I regret having given away a great deal of money to people with the intention of helping them, only to discover that they then came to expect more money to be forthcoming.

Favorite comfort food? I don't eat to make myself feel better, but if I did, almost any unadulterated chocolate dessert would be great.

Always in your refrigerator? I always have skim milk and camera film in the fridge.

Must-see TV? I don't watch much TV, but I love The Office.


Favorite cartoon? "Ziggy" because I want to squeeze him!

Describe a perfect day. Any warm day spent observing the natural world is a perfect day for me.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I always wished I could live in James Hilton's Shangri-la, where time is almost unlimited for obtaining knowledge (a real hunger of mine).

Who'd play you in the movie? If it were a movie about me as a young girl, it would have to magically be a young Shirley Temple, whose hair style I shared.

Most embarrassing moment? Thirty-five years ago, the meter reader unexpectedly came by on a hot summer day and saw me through the bedroom window reading– in my birthday suit! This was in California, and the house had no air conditioning.

Best advice you ever got? Carl Sagan told me to get a degree in physics, not astronomy.

Favorite bumper sticker? Without a doubt, "Virginia is for lovers."


Marlene Condon