Meet ‘Dirt Diva’ Adrianne Picciano
“I want to be able to design something that functions like a web, in that everything is connected, so I am not fighting nature and forcing something to be.”
OCH: What are the rewards I can expect to find in growing a garden?
WC: Challenges can be hard, but the rewards sublime. Mostly, the best reward is found in the time you spend in your garden reclaiming an organic connection with the rhythms of the earth. Sweet scents and tastes pull at the senses. Visually, a garden rewards you with slow motion explosions of shapes and blooming colors. A few moments with a hummingbird can brighten one’s whole day.
OCH: Do you have any other suggestions?
WC: Enjoy your beginning garden successes and failures. There is always more to learn no matter how long you are at it. Because they turn tons of soil, worms are essential helpers in the garden. Cultivate them by keeping an ongoing compost pile. Always strive to add nutrition to your soil, in the form of compost or aged manures. Mulch is a good moderator of soil surface microclimate, keeping sun, wind and rain in check. Many weeds are edible. I recommend the use of flowering bulbs, like daffodils, for their ease and reliability. Keep fragrance, shape and height in mind when choosing blooming shrubs and flowers.
OCH: You grew up in the Italian enclave of Endicott, NY. What was your experience like there growing up, and how did it lead you to gardening?
AP: The North side of Endicott was where most of the Italian immigrants settled, so there were lots of grapevines, fruit trees, vegetable gardens and rabbit hutches. My best friend’s family made their own wine, sausage and proscuitto. When I was a teenager, our elderly landlady who spoke little English had a huge garden that took up most of our yard. She would leave buckets of tomatoes and jugs of homemade wine on our stoop, and she convinced my parents to work the gardens and grow our own produce, which they did for a couple of years.
OCH: When did you arrive in Sullivan County, and how did you happen to move to this area?
AP: I moved here in 2003 from the Adirondacks, where I was assisting with outdoor education programs for the Adirondack Mountain Club. I had my first garden there, and it was a hit. I decided I wanted to learn the skill of growing food, so I looked for farming internships closer to where my family is, but still in the mountains, and found a three-month assistant gardener/educator position at Horizon Farm in Livingston Manor, which is no longer there.
OCH: What parts of your interning experience were valuable in creating the degree of expertise you have today?
AP: The vegetable gardens at Horizon Farm were the most abundant and well tended I’d ever seen. The head gardener there was religious about composting all the barnyard manure and everything, and the plants really thrived. I soaked everything up like a sponge, and was simultaneously teaching kids and their families about the marvels of growing food and raising livestock, so I learned very fast. It was the first time I’d eaten only what the garden and animals offered, so everything was extremely fresh. I went on to work for other small farms in the area where the work was intensive and done by hand, and the repetition reinforced what I was learning about crop planting, rotation, soil building, irrigation and pest and disease control.
OCH: You received your Permaculture Design certificate from the Hancock Permaculture Center in 2010.
What is permaculture, and what attracted you
to the study?
AP: I really like knowing how things work, and what makes them work efficiently. Permaculture is a broad concept that is really difficult to define, but it is a way of thinking about entire systems, and understanding how one system affects another, so when you set out to create or alter something, you are not creating a problem somewhere down the line. It relates to garden design because ultimately you are changing something about the environment to create a garden. I want to be able to design something that functions like a web, in that everything is connected, so I am not fighting nature and forcing something to be. Jeff Lawton and Bill Mollison are most often credited with coining the term and they both write and teach extensively about it.
OCH: What services do you offer to clients as the Dirt Diva?
AP: I do the physical part of gardening, such as installation and maintenance, with a focus on edible plants and building soil. I also consult with people who’d like design guidance in starting a new or renovating an existing garden, be it edible or not. The quality of my work depends largely on the quality of materials I have available to work with. I am grateful for the local nurseries who supply healthy plants suitable for our short season, and to the local farmers who supply me with the most fundamental elements, such as manure, compost and hay.