Interviews | Television

Think Spring

1 Mar , 2008  

Written by Ellen Mills | Posted by:

Patti Moreno has another persona as “Garden Girl” on her website devoted to urban sustainable living.  Now she has two seasons to look forward to -- spring in the garden and hosting Farmer’s Almanac TV.

The frozen ground is crackling under our feet and the raised beds are sleeping under a light blanket of snow as Patti Moreno shows me around her garden.  She lifts the plastic dome (actually a recycled skylight) on top of one of the beds and vibrant green leaves greet the eye.  “We had some greens from here last night,” she says casually, as if everyone’s lawn contains such a treasure during the winter in New England.  The area we are standing in is on the side of Moreno’s house in the city of Boston.  It contains four raised beds for planting, a mini pond and a trellis in a space that seems only slightly larger that a studio apartment further downtown. “Now this is what you can do with 500 square feet!” she says enthusiastically.  “It’s all about creating micro-climates.”  

It’s not the sort of phrase that one familiar with Moreno’s professional life as a producer expects to hear.  She and her husband Robert Patton Spruill run FilmShack, a multi-media production company in Boston.  They are well-known in the film community in New England as well as the larger independent film world.   However, these days when Moreno talks about “shoots” and “cuttings” she is more likely to be referring to plants rather than film or video.  Moreno’s professional life and her passion in life have melded on her website (Garden which features Moreno demonstrating her knowledge of gardening and explaining the elements of urban sustainable living.  

It all started with Moreno’s resolution to lose weight after the birth of her daughter nine years ago.  Instead of joining a gym she set out to transform her yard into useable space and to grow a few things.  Gardening and landscaping were new pursuits for this native of New York City, but from the beginning her project vision extended well beyond a patch of tomato plants with a border of flowers.  “I started with a mini-orchard of dwarf fruit trees, then we built a patio and a trellis.  The fruit trees are super easy to do.”  In response to her visitor’s skeptical look Moreno slips easily into her role as teacher.  “First, start with native stuff.  The dwarf trees come with a tag.  If you can read and follow directions, you’ll get fruit.” 

“With that first mini-orchard, I picked a bowl of apples and put it on my desk.  People would take one and eat it.  I was literally sharing the fruit of my labors.  It was super-inspirational.” 

Five years ago, Moreno and her family moved to their current residence, previously owned by the late filmmaker Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize).  In addition to an elegant historic house, the property offers an ample yard and many former garage buildings to house the FilmShack offices as well as the gardening equipment and animals.  “We moved to our present location and I thought ‘now I have space, I can really do something,” says Moreno.   

“Something” is a pond, many raised beds, some with mini-greenhouses, trees, a seasonal farm stand, group visits, and animals.  Moreno keeps Pygora goats, chickens, and rabbits.  She does not milk the goats, but she does shear them in the spring and spin the wool to use for knitting.  You can watch a shearing session on her website.  You can also watch her spin the goat hair into wool on her wooden spinning wheel.  In another video series on the site called Rabbit to Hat she spins the long fur from her rabbits into wool and then knits it into a cap for a baby.  “Oh, I’ve always been crafty,” she notes.  “I’m really into handmade gifts.”  The chickens contribute their eggs, of course.  She has raised “meat birds” in the past, although she left the butchering chores to someone else.           

As her garden and commitment to sustainable living grew, more and more people visited and watched Moreno demonstrate and describe what she had done.  “People kept telling me, ‘You should tape this’ or ‘you should have a website.’  Now, being BU trained, [Moreno graduated from Boston University’s College of Communication] I couldn’t just run out there with a video camera,” she laughs.  “Rob and I said, ‘Are we gonna do this?  We didn’t want to mount a huge production so we decided to shoot as much as possible for a month.  We cut together an eight-minute video — it’s me feeding the animals — me doing a little bit of everything.  We put it up on the website and 40,000 people saw it.” 

Moreno hosts onsite youth visits, too.

Among those who viewed the video were the producers of Farmer’s Almanac TV.  “We had seen her website,” says Renee Bishop, vice president and executive producer of Buy The Farm LLC, which produces Farmer’s Almanac TV.  “We originally planned to do a feature story about her.  The way the show is structured, we have three feature stories and several vignettes or interstitials.” 

Moreno says they spent a week shooting with her and shot enough footage for 11 or 12 segments.  When the crew returned to their headquarters in Savannah, GA, the host of the program had to resign for health reasons.  “We had just finished shooting with Patti and now we needed a new host,” says Bishop.  “Everybody just looked at each other and said ‘Patti!’”  

“FATV is so awesome,” Moreno says.  “They’ve really connected with sustainable living.  We’re focusing a lot on food and eating locally.” 

Moreno headed to Savannah every month to shoot the episodes.  “We’ll be wrapping in March and the episodes begin airing in April and May,” she says.  Unfortunately, the show, which is aired on PBS stations, is not shown by Moreno’s local station, Boston’s WGBH-TV. 

What’s it like being the on-camera talent?  “It’s not the same as being the boss.  I don’t have to worry about all the details, I don’t have to micro-manage and now people want to know what I have to say.”

“She’s an incredible talent,” Bishop says.  “Everything about her is great — she’s drop dead gorgeous, she is so smart and she knows so much about sustainability.”  Moreno’s experience as a producer only adds to her appeal according to Bishop.  “We don’t have to teach her anything,” she says.  “Patti’s completely professional.” 

Moreno’s goals go beyond just crafting and gardening.  “I want this ideal society,” she says.  “People in cities have this mindset ‘my food comes from the supermarket and that’s it.’  Well, we are not going to evolve unless we get beyond that.”  She is optimistic about her own generation and what she says is its “open mind” that comes from “being the product of the hippie generation.”  She is also clearly committed to doing her part to change the mindset, starting with her website.  “People need information to change, and I’m hopeful they’ll keep coming to my website.” 

Moreno clearly relishes her role as a guide.  As she leads visitors through the garden, she is energetic and full of the zeal of the converted.  She opens her garden frequently for instruction and tours, especially for schoolchildren.  She plans to open to the public for several dates in May and June this year. 

When we enter one of the outbuildings she shows me her new experiments with aquaponic and hydroponic gardening.  In another building we stop into the FilmShack offices and find Patton Spruill and two staff members editing Garden Girl segments for the website.  Moreno says they have shot more than 100 hours of footage so far and produce one to three new pieces for the website each week. 

There is still FilmShack’s other work as well.  “We shot a film in 2004 called Turntable, and we’re looking for distribution.  We have a documentary on Public Enemy and their 20-year history.  That’s on the festival circuit now and we’re doing marketing for that.” 

In fact, it was during the premiere of the documentary in Los Angeles when Moreno’s past film life met her present TV life.  “Rob and I went to AFI (American Film Institute) for the premier of the Public Enemy doc and we had a bunch of meetings set up.  It was weird for me personally because it’s the height of my producing career — talking to Paramount Pictures!  I’m thinking — yeah, we’re here — and everyone wanted to talk about Garden Girl.      

“The goal was never to move to LA and work on the Paramount lot.  When I check the stats for [the] Garden Girl [website] it continues to motivate me.  It’s the perfect format because people can watch whenever they want.  I love producing; I love making films, but I’m psyched to bring media to people who want to know this stuff.” 

Moreno has many ideas to pursue.  “I want to fill out the website and finish what we started.  I want to get into more alternative energy.  I have tons of ideas for small scale windmills and small scale solar energy.” 

Asked if she might like to retire to the country someday she says, “I can’t think about that right now.  Maybe I’d like to live there at some point, but I’m really a city person.”  She adds that her husband’s family has a place in rural New Hampshire.  “We do some gardening there, too.  I get my country doses there.”  

Moreno’s assertion is that anyone can practice sustainable living anywhere, even in the middle of the city.  “There are no limits for urban gardeners.  We work together to not have limits.”   

For now, there is the new season of Farmer’s Almanac TV to look forward to and in Moreno’s home garden, all the promise of new seeds planted in fresh soil.  

For more information visit Patti Moreno’s website,