Smile Politely

Tinisha Spain nerds out about all things gardening

You could say gardening is in Tinisha Spain’s DNA. Raised in a family of avid gardeners, the former WCIA anchor and reporter jumped at the chance to produce and host WILL-TV’s Mid American Gardener in 2018. She also reports the news for the network and produces State of Change, an annual special highlighting the effects of climate change in Illinois. But Spain doesn’t mind being recognized as the gardening lady. 

Smile Politely: Tell me about your background in gardening.

Tinisha Spain: Growing up in Vermillion County, a lot of my family all lived on one street. It was this amazing thing where everybody gardened. It was really cool. That big garden is part of my earliest memories. I’ve always had a garden in some form or fashion. I think back on my early 20s and it was just disastrous, but every place I’ve lived, there’s been a garden. 

So when the opportunity came up to host Mid American Gardener, it was just going to be for fun, something to do once a week on a Thursday night. But it turned into this thing I love. It was just a creative outlet, but now if I’m out somewhere, people will stop me and be like, “How are your tomatoes?” It’s my identity now. 

SP: For those that don’t know, Mid American Gardener features a rotating panel of gardening, landscaping, and plant experts, answering viewer questions and sharing their own experiences and gardening best practices. What do you love about it, and why should people tune in?

Spain: The panelists are like rockstars to me. As the host, I represent the backyard gardener, so I get to nerd out and ask all my idols questions. Our panelists are mostly University of Illinois Extension specialists, but we have some private business owners, too. 

We try to help viewers steer clear of pitfalls in the garden. Folks will send in pictures of their failing broccoli or cauliflower, and the panelists will diagnose it and give feedback in real time. We also take you to the experts’ homes, so you can see the things they’re dealing with too. I really love how they’re relatable characters who will tell you, “My garden is full of weeds and I can’t find a single thing,” or, “I overwatered.” They’re approachable, but they can also help you. 

The biggest thing I noticed when I came on board was how seriously viewers take the advice of the panelists, and on the flip side of that, how seriously the panelists take that responsibility. They really want to make sure they’re helping people not give up, because gardening can be frustrating sometimes. 

SP: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about gardening from the show? 

Spain: When you’re dealing with nature, all bets are off. The seed packet might give you certain expectations, but once that plant starts to grow, you don’t always know what you’re going to get.

Nature will do what it wants. That’s probably one of my biggest lessons. And then sometimes plants die. That’s a hard lesson; we don’t like that one. And patience. Plants will grow on their own time; they have taught me to slow down.

SP: Mid American Gardener has been on the air for 30 years, one of the longest-running shows on WILL-TV. As the third host in 30 years and the first person of color to host the show, how significant is that for you? 

Spain: It’s definitely huge, because you don’t see a lot of people of color in this field. I love being the person that can look back and say, “That door’s open.” That’s big to me. Because who’s to say there aren’t kids out there who are into gardening, but just didn’t see themselves in it? Sometimes that can be the only barrier; you don’t feel like something is for you. I can tell you there have been times where I felt like that. It’s just a very white-centered field, so it’s nice to be able to build that bridge. 

SP: But gardening and growing food hasn’t always been so white, right? 

Spain: Yeah, exactly. Black people were agriculture for a long time. We talked about disparities with minority-owned farms for State of Change last year. But yeah, how do we get back to that? How do we make everyone feel comfortable, like they have a place here?

As far as the show, we want to create an environment where everyone feels like they are welcome. Getting into gardening can be intimidating. You might get a pack of seeds and they might die, you might kill them. But you know what? That doesn’t mean give up. I think that can be applicable to anybody. So don’t let gardening intimidate you, from the cultural perspective or otherwise. There’s room at the table for everybody.

SP: How are you passing the gardening tradition on with your sons?

Spain: My oldest is a teenager, so sports and friends are the center of his universe, not being in the garden with his mom. But my greatest hope is that once he reaches adulthood and he’s out shopping one day, he’ll pass the seed display and it’ll all come back. I know it’s in there. I just hope when he’s an adult, he’ll actually apply it. Now my youngest, he’s six, he’s right by my side out there. In fact, a lot of the sugar snap peas, they don’t even make it in the house. He’s just yanking them off the plants and down the hatch they go.

Another thing we do as a family every year is collect monarch caterpillars. Everybody helps to get fresh leaves and clean the poop out. We also tap maple trees to make our own syrup and make snow ice cream in the winter. I really do try to do something in every season to connect them with nature. Just remind them where things come from. Because it’s too important not to.

SP: I love that. Speaking of changing seasons, we’re heading into fall. What should readers be doing to make the most of our gardens right now?

Spain: Our panelists have been sharing a lot about fall gardening, including container gardening, growing lettuces and kale. We’ve got folks that are still digging up potatoes. For me, I want to go get some mums and just sort of transition into fall. I’ve been doing a lot of seed collecting, like from my lilies, milkweed, and poppies.

SP: Before we wrap up, tell us more about State of Change, your climate change special. Seems like a very different feel from Mid American Gardener.

Spain: Right. As a journalist, it’s a really pivotal time to ask tough questions. Everything just feels so much more intense and like there’s more on the line.

Last year, we really wanted to focus on the changes we’re seeing locally in Illinois. We talked to some folks along the Illinois River about changing ecosystems there. We talked to some African American farmers in the northern part of the state about unfair or racist lending practices in agriculture, and how people of color in farming are trying to catch up.

This year, we’re focusing on carbon. That’s the new buzzword. Everyone wants to talk about lowering their carbon footprint or their carbon emissions. Well, what does that mean in application? How can I, as just a regular person, offset my carbon? Does that mean solar panels on our home? Are we talking electric cars? How do I do that? What does that look like moving forward? We’re going to introduce people to terms and concepts around what carbon is and how you can work to reduce it in your own life.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Spain: I’m just really lucky. I come from a corporate fast-paced, high-stress life. To now have this opportunity where I get to wake up and go outside and take a 30-second video of bees buzzing, that’s awesome. My goal is to continue to grow our audience, because there’s truly room for everyone. As we try to bring in a newer audience and blend that with our established audience, we’ll keep creating really good content where people can learn and have fun and just be in that space where everybody likes to grow things.

Mid American Gardener airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. Thursdays on WILL-TV.

State of Change will air in November; date TBA. You can watch last year’s special here.

Top photo from Mid American Gardener Facebook page.

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