As spring turns into summer, many prospective gardeners are getting their hands dirty for the first time. If you’re new to the art of gardening and still working on your green thumb, it’s best to start with some expert advice. And who better to ask than a Master Gardener?
I interviewed Carl Redmon, a Master Gardener from Missouri, about his own gardening experiences. Take a break from the weeds and the dirt, and check out his advice.
Q: What is the Master Gardener program, and how can people get involved?
A: Master Gardener programs are open to anyone desiring to learn more about gardening in general or in depth who wants to show and teach others the joy of growing things and to make the world a more beautiful place in which to live.
Q: What are the requirements for becoming a Master Gardener? Can you tell me a little bit about your personal experience becoming one?
A: Currently, requirements in Missouri include 30 hours of classroom study, 30 hours of volunteer service the first year, then 20 hours each year thereafter. To see your state’s Master Gardener requirements, you can start by selecting your state here and reaching out to your Master Gardener Coordinator.
After over 60 years of gardening and ready to retire, I thought it might be good to find out if I had actually been doing it right. I saw a news story on the Master Gardener program, made the call and took the training. What a mind-expanding five weeks it turned out to be! My classes were taught by experienced professionals who were able to explain what plants need to grow, how insects and diseases can be controlled, what plant varieties are best for our zone and the zones themselves.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the program is the association with other Master Gardeners, learning from them, discussing what works and what does not and how to do the whole gardening thing better.
Q: Why do you garden?
A: I like to grow things! Not much in life gives more pleasure than preparing the soil, planting the seeds and seeing life explode all over the garden. There is joy in eating produce fresh from the garden and sharing with family and friends, contributing food where it is needed by the hungry and preserving what’s left for later consumption.
Life’s problems seem to diminish after just sitting for a while in the garden and letting the beauty of the growing things wash over you. It’s pretty cheap therapy!
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to start gardening for the first time?
A: Do it! If formal training is not your thing, go online and look up the basics. Ask gardening friends (Master Gardeners, even) how to get started. Visit the gardens of folks you know or public demonstration gardens. Find out what a garden requires (location, soil, sunlight, water accessibility), and how many hours to prepare, plant, weed, harvest, and clean up for next season. Dedicate yourself to see it through from the beginning to the end. Don’t be discouraged when weeds try to take over, insects want your plants, the summer sun gets hot and the mature produce does not look exactly like what was in the catalog. What you harvest is what you grew, and it will taste great!
Q: What if you don’t have a green thumb? What’s the hardest plant to kill?
A: If you don’t have a “green thumb,” you can still get great pleasure in growing some of the basics. Who can’t plant simple stuff like green beans, lettuce, radishes, onions, potatoes, even sweet corn? You don’t even need a big garden area to start out. A small raised bed or even containers on your patio will get you started and will plant that desire in you to go on to greater accomplishments.
Q: What are you growing in your own garden right now?
A: This year I have scaled back because I’m overseeing a large community garden. But I have planted green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, zucchini, okra, sweet potatoes and cantaloupes. And, of course, tomatoes!
Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to garden but live in cities? What sorts of things should they be growing?
A: Gardening in cities depends on how much open land you have access to. Apartment dwellers can use balconies to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce, spinach – anything that doesn’t need lots of space. These folks could also look into the availability of community gardens, which often rent raised beds.
Q: What’s the best way for someone to start a community garden in their town or city?
A: Starting a community garden begins with a community – a neighborhood association, church, an organization dedicated to helping feed hungry people, or just some folks wanting to offer gardening to their friends and acquaintances.
Sometimes, larger cities will have a community garden organization which helps promote and even fund the cost of building a garden. It will take land, money and a dedicated core of people to oversee the building and administration of the garden. A call to the local extension service or city officials might be a good place to start. But mostly, it takes people determined to make it happen.
Q: I hate pulling weeds. Do you have any advice for speeding up the process?
A: Weeding is one of the joys of gardening! It usually does not take long and looks so great after it’s done!
But if you want to forgo this great joy, you can almost eliminate the problem through proper mulching. Laying down weed barrier cloth, newspapers or cardboard and then covering with mulch (wood chips, straw, etc.) will pretty much prevent the weeds from being a problem.
Q: I’ve always heard that Master Gardeners spend a lot of time serving their communities. What sorts of things do you do?
A: Master Gardeners serve the community in many ways. In Missouri, the most visible are the two demonstration gardens at Nathanael Greene and Phelps Grove parks in Springfield. Both gardens provide examples of what grows well in the area and also include some of the latest varieties of plants available.
A lot of information is shared through the hotline and in seminars taught by Master Gardeners. Master Gardeners have headed up projects in the community, at schools and many other places!
Q: What are some of the most common hurdles that gardeners face, and how do you deal with them?
A: Probably the greatest hurdle facing a gardener is knowing how to deal with the insects and diseases of plants. Again, going online with the problem may be the simplest. The main thing is to be proactive and find out and be prepared ahead of time on how to handle these sure-to-happen situations. Nothing discourages us more than to have a beautiful crop of “fill in the blank” and lose it all to a garden pest.
Q: In your garden, do you plant for decorative reasons or for food?
A: I plant mostly for food production. Oftentimes, garden space is at a premium, and a well-laid-out garden is a thing of beauty in itself. I’m not above putting in some companion flowers, trellises, arbors, etc., but even those features serve to produce a better crop.
Q: Do you have any secrets for making your garden grow?
A: I don’t believe there are a lot of secrets in having a successful vegetable garden. Get the basics right, (soil, water, sunlight, quality seeds/plants) and give the garden the attention it needs, and it will produce.
Besides, if I had secrets (which I don’t) and shared them (which I won’t), they wouldn’t be secrets anymore!
Where Do I Grow from Here?
Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been a gardener for many years, use the information above to reap the rewards! If you’re looking for more great tips, check out the Zing podcast on gardening prep.
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