Picking the brain of how-to guru and longtime island summer resident Russ Morash
Russ Morash is the granddaddy of how-to television. Before there were Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, and networks devoted entirely to do-it-yourselfers, there was Russ Morash’s The French Chef with Julia Child, This Old House, The New Yankee Workshop, and The Victory Garden. “Nobody told you how to fix anything years ago,” Morash says in his greenhouse overlooking Nantucket Harbor. “Nobody taught you how to cook, nobody taught you how to hammer a nail or square a board—certainly nobody taught you how to garden. So I just stumbled on a vein of ignorance that I could excite with my offerings and it worked.” Thirteen Emmys later, Morash was the man with the golden touch in public television. His legacy of how-to programming went on to spawn a whole new dimension of television. In recognition of his remarkable career redefining the industry, Morash received a lifetime-achievement award at this year’s Annual Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards held in California last month.
“People have always respected what public television has done,” Morash says. “We made a difference and I’m happy about the difference that we made.” Morash proudly displays an old photo snapped at the former parking lot at WGBH. His eyes are smiling. The photo is of the first garden he planted and filmed for The Victory Garden back in 1975. Morash and his show soon left that lot, and took his faithful viewers around the globe. From Holland to France to Australia and beyond, Morash documented and shared the world’s finest gardens through a seasoned eye. Today, this same seasoned eye is showing me around his home garden on Nantucket. As we pass through a deer fence he recently crafted together using bamboo reeds, there’s no question Morash is still the master of how-to.
N Magazine: Of all your shows, which was your favorite?
Morash: I would have to say The Victory Garden. Julia [Child] was of course great fun, but as far a show is concerned, it was The Victory Garden. The reason for it was it was the hardest show to do, extremely hard to do. We went all around the world to find great gardens, but they are few and far between to be honest with you.
N Magazine: What makes for a great garden?
Morash: It has to be difficult. It has to be challenging from a gardening perspective. You can’t just have a bed full of tulips.
N Magazine: Today there are entire networks devoted to how to do it yourself. What are your thoughts on the shows your programs inspired?
Morash: I would much rather have people watching copycat programs on how to fix a house than I would on something really profoundly stupid like golf. [Laughs] Even though it’s the competition in some ways, it’s building my base. That’s how I used to feel, when I was in it.
N Magazine: Do you miss it?
Morash: Not at all. I did it for so many years. Did everything twice.
N Magazine: How would you improve the how-to shows that are out there today?
Morash: Martha Stewart would say you better make sure the camera is shooting me at all times. That really is a disservice to her viewers. The viewer could care less about a picture of Martha. They want to see the plant. That mistake is made again, again, and again in programs that emulate ours. Go beyond the face—it’s not about the face.
N Magazine: Tell me, what have you copied from the world’s finest gardens?
Morash: I use a lot of white in the garden. You see, white is a universal color. It blends well with everything, and marries well with the blue of the sky. White leads the eye, allowing it to travel. Yellow and gold are difficult. They make a full-stop statement.
N Magazine: What are you planting this July?
Morash: Seed potatoes, red gold in particular. Another good one is Bintje, a Dutch heirloom.
N Magazine: Are they really that much better than store-bought?
Morash: Like night and day! And they’re easy. Children love to dig them. I start them in July and harvest them all the way through November. There’s nothing like potatoes and eggs.
N Magazine: How about tomatoes—any favorites?
Morash: For cherry tomatoes, I’d say Sun Gold. They ripen early, which is nice. I don’t love heirloom varieties because they are low-yield. Celebrity is the perfect size. It’s disease-free and delicious. It’s also determinate, which means it stops growing at about five feet tall. That means it can be grown in a container if you don’t have a garden. Jet Star comes in second to Celebrity. And Big Boy is pretty good, too.
N Magazine: What about flower beds—any tips?
Morash: I’m a big fan of raised beds. First of all, it gets you closer to the material. The other thing it does is dry out the soil, which is useful because we can control the water but we can’t control the sun. So at some point you want to dry out the soil.
N Magazine: What do you recommend for combatting Nantucket’s sandy soil?
Morash: I recommend you go to the dump and get some of the compost that they virtually give away for a small fee. That stuff is fantastic. It doesn’t have any particular nutrients in it, but what it does is binds the soil together, and it’s pretty much weed-free. It’s a neutral thing that helps improve the texture of the soil. You add the nutrients with fertilizers. The key ingredient to a good garden is the right soil.
N Magazine: What are you harvesting this July?
Morash: Sugar snap peas, naturally. You know, like peas and salmon on the Fourth? Delicious.
N MagaziNe: What graces the Morash home vases in July?
Morash: Most definitely large, white Casablanca lilies. They are glorious flowers. Extremely fragrant. I plant them every fall. They put on a big show for little money. Be careful to replace the ones you cut, because they won’t bloom the following year. Another flower we love is the peacock lily. It’s inexpensive and beautiful. Remember, you are talking to an old Yankee here.