Roots and Shoots: You Know You’re a Plant Nerd When….

By Pamela Doan

I came home from my last day of garden school, aka Master Gardener Training, with the following items: three voodoo lily bulbs, giant sequoia seeds, a bag of horse manure, a packet of native wildflower seeds, a bulb of homegrown garlic, and a soil pH test kit. And I was delighted. I also had my official name badge and enough handouts, notes, and manuals to fill a bookshelf. If all of these things sound exciting to you, then hurry and sign up for the upcoming Master Gardener Training with the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) in Putnam County now. The next class begins Wednesday, Sept. 3.

Essential garden tools (Photo by P. Doan)
Essential garden tools (Photo by P. Doan)

The 15-week training provides Master Gardeners with basic knowledge about horticulture, botany and a range of subjects to equip them to volunteer in the community and be a resource and educator. Among other things, Master Gardeners help families learn to grow their own food, answer questions on the Diagnostic Hotline, teach classes on a range of subjects, including composting, veggies, planting for bees, reducing chemical use, and so much more. After the training, Master Gardeners are expected to contribute 30 hours per year to CCE projects.

In the two years since I completed the class, I’ve taught workshops on gardening in a changing climate and edible landscaping and answered questions at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market, as well as helped with the annual Plant Sale, a major fundraiser. I also participated in a statewide committee on climate change in New York and attended a conference on the same subject at Cornell University, thoughtful learning experiences and occasions to engage with researchers and other Master Gardeners who are working on this critical issue.

One of my main motivations for becoming a Master Gardener was to find a local way to be active around global warming and the research and materials coming from Cornell create opportunities to share information that is useful to anyone with a lawn or interest in gardening. I believe that every action counts and whatever small changes we make — composting, eliminating lawn fertilizers, planting perennials that attract birds and bees — all of it matters.

When people realize how simple adjustments can tip the balance for more sustainable environments, then we all have a change for the better. Master Gardeners are in the unique position to carry this message to a wide range of people.

While my gardening and landscaping experience was limited to container gardening in Brooklyn before the training, it didn’t matter. The classes cover everything you need to know and the backgrounds of the other volunteers are diverse. Part of the fun is learning from each other and sharing tips and of course, plants. Join our Facebook page to get a sense of the many different interests and ideas that come up:

The section on soil was particularly enlightening to me. I didn’t know anything about this most essential component of gardening, but after a three-hour class on soil composition, purpose, and amendments, now I can improve my own growing material and advise others on how to do it. Soil, It’s What’s in the Dirt, that was the headline of my first column for Roots and Shoots, too. What can I say, once you can see the soil in the dirt, you become an evangelist. Organic matter is free and available right out there in the yard and it makes a huge difference to your plants. Brilliant.

There are nearly 100 Master Gardeners in Putnam County. It says a lot about the program that one of the volunteers has been involved for 30 years. It’s a rewarding program and a chance to contribute to a healthy community. Getting to know the CCE staff is another bonus. They’re knowledgeable, helpful, and super cool to hang out with.

The point of everyone’s effort is to take the research coming from Cornell, one of the top universities in the country, and make it available on a local level. Getting advice that’s backed by science, you can’t beat that. There isn’t a commercial interest behind it and not to knock Great-Aunt Gertie’s strategy for sprinkling salt on the tomatoes to ward off pests, but research methods are more strenuous at Cornell.

Plant nerds unite. For a memorable and lasting experience, get involved in the Master Gardener program. For more information and to apply, check out the website.