A Local Rock Star: HQ&A with John Marra

An entertaining interview with local television's Guru of Gardening

By Jack Houvouras

John Marra

He may well be the most-watched person on local television. No, we're not talking about a local news anchor, weatherman or sportscaster. We're referring to lawn and garden expert John Marra. In the 25 years that John Marra has been working with WSAZ NewsChannel 3, first as a County Extension Agent for WVU and now as a WSAZ employee, John Marra has developed more than just a cult following; his ratings prove that people do indeed tune in just to hear the guru of gardening and heed his words of wisdom. Just ask fellow coworker Tim Irr, the station's tenured news anchor.

"We used to do WSAZ bus tours throughout the state," Irr explains. "All of us would pile into a charter bus early in the morning and spend the day touring towns across the region. I remember getting off the bus in Williamson and watching a crowd gather like a mob when we arrived. There were smatterings of applause when I stepped off the bus, then Tony Cavalier, then Keith Morehouse, but when John Marra appeared, the fans went nuts. He was high-fiving people, signing autographs for kids and kissing the women. He truly is a rock star."

We sat down with the former Cabell County extension agent to pick his brain about gardening, family, fame and how his life has changed since stepping in front of the camera.

HQ: How did you develop your love for gardening?

Marra: My grandfather had a garden, and I spent a lot of time with him in Morgantown, W.Va., helping him raise his vegetables and my grandma raise her flowers. They both instilled that love of gardening into me at a very young age.

HQ: You have two daughters and a son. Do they share your love for the outdoors?

Marra: They do. All three of them love to get outside and work. They love to raise herbs, and they love to cook, so they use all the herbs in their cooking. They all have children of their own, and they make it a point to plant trees and shrubs and flowers. It's what I did with them, so this love for gardening has been passed down from my grandfather to me, my kids and now my grandkids.

HQ: Some of your coworkers informed us that all three of your children could be professional models. Is that from all the fresh produce they ate growing up?

Marra: That's probably hereditary on my wife's side, but they definitely did eat well as children.

HQ: We heard your son Kevin once entertained a crowd of 100 people at a baseball game in Hurricane with a spot-on impersonation of you. What did you think of it?

Marra: (Laughs) I actually want to forget about that; the most unfortunate part was how good he actually was. My kids enjoy making fun of Dad. We are all a loving and close family, and we certainly have fun at times.

HQ: What was your biggest gardening disaster?

Marra: I planted some tomatoes and used some grass clippings from my next-door neighbors, and I failed to ask whether or not they had used any weed control on the grass. Of course they had, and my tomatoes took a hit. That was my biggest disaster, primarily because I should have known better. I should know to ask those kinds of questions.

HQ: Tim Irr told us to ask you this next question What is the best grass seed to use on lawns in our region?

Marra: (Laughs) Tim Irr repeats the answer to this question in his dreams. My answer is always "turf-type tall fescue." He especially enjoys saying that on air. Every time he intros my home & garden segment, he says, "John Marra is going to talk to us about turf type tall fescue!"

HQ: What's the biggest blunder you've ever made on air?

Marra: Probably the time I called these wee little ants a bad word. I said the "p" word, which is very common, but some viewers were probably offended by that. I was called upstairs for that one.

HQ: Was that the only time you were ever called upstairs?

Marra: Oh, no. As an outdoors person, I love ramps. So one day I decided I was going to bring my cast-iron skillet in to cook up some potatoes and ramps. I did that, and WSAZ General Manager Don Ray summoned me upstairs. He said people were complaining about the horrible smell. He said, "I don't think we're going to be cooking ramps next year, are we, John?" That was the last time ramps were cooked in the studio.

HQ: You have been described as WSAZ's "rock star." How do you feel about that title?

Marra: Honestly, I get kind of embarrassed when people recognize me. There are two John Marras: there's a John Marra that lives in Hurricane, and there's a John Marra that works at WSAZ. Unfortunately, the two can't be separated. When my wife was living, she wouldn't go to the grocery store with me; I could never get through the aisles. It is a little fun to be recognized, though.

HQ: Weren't you propositioned once on air by a female caller?

Marra: Yes, I was. Here again, that's kind of embarrassing. I'm just not used to that; I'm used to working with farmers. She wanted to know if I would be available to go out. I was trying to be very nice; I said, "I don't think so, not right now."

HQ: What is the strangest question you've ever been asked on your call-in show?

Marra: Once, this person saw what he thought was manure on a stump and wanted to know not only if it was snake manure, but also whether or not it was poisonous. I thought that one was pretty good. I obviously didn't have an answer for that one.

HQ: You're a diehard WVU fan in the middle of Herd country. Does that stir up some controversy?

Marra: Being a WVU fan in the middle of Huntington takes a lot of diplomacy; people tend to jab me a lot, and, well, I tend to jab them right back, particularly if we're winning. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who go a step beyond that and criticize the university itself. When that happens, I have to stop them and say, "Hey, we've got two great universities in this state, Marshall and WVU. You can poke fun at me about their sports, but don't poke fun at me about their academics."

HQ: What are some things new gardeners should watch out for this summer?

Marra: With all the rain we've been having, gardeners should watch out for wet soil. A lot of people tend to walk in the soil when it's wet, but when you do that it compacts the soil, and then your roots can't grow because the air can't get to them. I'm also getting a lot of calls right now about seeds that aren't germinating. Sometimes, seeds will get so wet that they rot before they ever come out of the ground.

HQ: Are there really any deer-resistant plants?

Marra: Not really. If deer are hungry enough, they will eat anything and everything that's a plant. The only definitive way of protecting your plants is to put up a fence. It doesn't have to be electric; it can be a physical fence made of fishing line. The deer won't be able to see the fishing line at night, and when they bump up against it, it will frighten them away. They won't come near it again.

HQ: This issue of HQ features an article on alternative medicine. What do you think about the use of medicinal plants and herbs to improve a person's well-being?

Marra: Most of the medicines we use today are actually derivatives of plants. There are plants people have been using for years and years that cure very effectively. In Appalachia, people use a lot of medicinal herbs, and, you know, it really works. I'm the kind of person who feels that there are plants out there that can do some real good in curing a physical problem.

HQ: What are your Top 3 favorite things about Huntington?

Marra: Number one, I love the trees and the way the town is laid out. Number two, I really enjoy the camaraderie people have. Huntington is a very relaxed town. It's not a fast-moving town, and the people are extremely nice. Number three, I love the restaurants. Being Italian, my favorite restaurant is Rocco's. So, I love the beauty of Huntington, I love the people of Huntington and, of course, the thing closest to my heart is food.

HQ: What do you do when you're not answering the gardening questions of WSAZ's viewers?

Marra: I go fly fishing, I garden, I play golf I like to get the heck out of Dodge. I thought I was going to retire after 36 years of being a county extension agent, but I like working with WSAZ; it's too much fun.

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