Gardening program offers much more than vegetables
Georgia Fleming shows off some fresh-picked beans from her garden plot at the Neighborhood Garden in downtown Washington.
Jacob Fleming, 11, helps his grandmother, Georgia Fleming, pick produce from her garden plot in the Neighborhood Garden in downtown Washington.
Gene Willis grows cucumbers and tomatoes in his plot at the Neighborhood Garden in downtown Washington.
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Whether you were born with a green thumb or just want to feed your family healthy and cheap vegetables, Penn State University's cooperative extension offices have something to fit the bill.
Extension offices in the Pittsburgh region are looking for new recruits to become Master Gardeners, a program that's offered every fall for those who want to learn more about gardening and then help plant gardens and educate consumers in their communities.
Registration is limited and generally required by the end of August, along with a fee that varies by county. Candidates often receive a partial refund upon completing community service projects.
The initial training is about 30 hours spread over several months. To remain certified as a master gardener, each gardener must serve 50 hours in the community during the first year and 20 hours every subsequent year. Service activities vary around the state but usually include work in community gardens, public speaking and answering inquiries from the public.
The extension offices this year also are promoting programs aimed at teaching folks how to grow their own backyard foods, whether it be container gardening or -- as first lady Michelle Obama has been doing at the White House Kitchen Garden -- maximizing space in a small garden plot.
There are even projects designed to help honey bees repopulate through the use of pollinator gardens, and gardens designed to teach economically distressed communities ways to provide healthy foods with a little sweat equity.
One such community garden is in Washington, Pa., and is part of that county's Penn State Master Gardener program.
Nestled in an area that used to host drug dealers, the Highland Ridge Neighborhood Garden contains 24 individual plots in a 60-foot by 80-foot space near the entrance to the Lincoln Terrace low-income housing development.
Started this summer, the garden has begun producing tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and zucchini, which are being harvested by residents who each care for a plot.
Georgia Fleming has a plot with several varieties of tomatoes, lima beans, okra, celery and more. She also has a small garden at her home on nearby Poplar Street but said she thought it was important to also support the community garden.
"I just wanted to be part of the program," she said, standing near her lush plot, brimming with healthy plants and pride. "It really brought people together."
It's clear residents have taken an ownership stake in the garden, which was expanded to include a flower bed that is partly being taken care of by residents of the housing development.
"This makes me feel good," said Gene Willis, a plot owner who noted that the area had been a hotbed of drug and gang activity until the Master Gardeners showed up and lured people out of their homes.
The $6,000 garden was funded through a grant received by the Highland Ridge Community Development Corp., a nonprofit agency devoted to improving the neighborhood and decreasing crime.
The agency first came up with the idea for a community garden, then enlisted local Master Gardeners and others. The county's redevelopment authority loaned the land for the project.
East Washington resident and local activist Ada Griffin believes the garden has improved community relations, and she would like to see similar projects, such as public art displays.
"This is one of the things that I definitely wanted," she said of the garden. "This could be a hub of the movement."
"It's a great success story," said Washington Mayor L. Anthony Spossey. "I'm really proud of it."
There hasn't been any vandalism at the site, largely due to the efforts of retired school teacher and Master Gardener Kathleen Madigan.
Ms. Madigan was in the garden working one evening when a group of boys sneaked up to the garden's water troughs and tried to push them over. Rather than scolding them, she asked if they wanted jobs as guards at the garden.
She also gave the boys their own "pizza plot," where they could grow tomatoes, onions, parsley, basil and other pizza ingredients.
The plan worked, and the "Garden Guards" as she calls them, wear uniforms and keep an eye on the garden, while chasing away rabbits and other pests.
Lee Young, Washington County extension director and horticulture agent, said many children are active in the garden, which doubles as a food source and an educational program, teaching kids where food comes from and how to grow it.
"This exposes these kids to gardening and growing food," Ms. Young said. "Kids are also more likely to try new foods and vegetables when they've been a part of it."
The trend toward "environmental gardening" and the appeal of more economical and healthy produce also is driving programs at other cooperative extension offices, including those in Butler, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.
And, it isn't just local.
The nationwide surge in edible landscaping has boosted sales of gardening products, and the number of vegetable gardens increased by 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the National Gardening Association.
The organization expects a 20 percent increase this year, translating into about 7 million new gardeners.
"This year, we've focused many of our programs on vegetable gardens due to the economy," said Susan Struthers, coordinator of the Penn State Master Gardener program in Butler County. "We've been getting a lot of questions about vegetables, so that's why we decided to focus on them this year."
To that end, the Butler extension office sponsored vegetable garden demonstrations this year at its Spring Garden Market in Penn, including container gardens for vegetables.
Master gardeners also will offer expertise during the Butler Farm Show, Aug. 10-15, and the extension office has a "Greenline" that home gardeners can call for advice and help.
"We have a booth at the farm show that will be focusing on tomatoes," Ms. Struthers said.
The group also has a combination pollinator/vegetable demonstration garden set up this year at the Butler Community Garden in Butler. Volunteers take turns observing visits by pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
The garden is populated with native flowers, such as daisies, milkweed and coneflowers, which attract pollinators.
"Mostly, we are concerned about honey bees," said the garden's co-coordinator Chris Symons.
Honey bees began vanishing and dying several years ago in unusually high numbers. Scientists are still unsure of the underlying cause of the problem, which has been called "colony collapse disorder."
To enjoy the fruits of labor year-round, the Westmoreland County extension office is offering a workshop Tuesday demonstrating techniques and recommendations for preserving food at home.
Designed for experienced canners and beginners, the program will outline the basic principles behind preservation, including tips on freezing and canning foods for those who want to save money, eat healthier or are concerned about the safety of purchased foods.
The cost is $25; deadline to register is Monday. For more information, visit http://westmoreland.extension.psu.edu.
For traditional gardeners who also love flowers, the Beaver County extension office has taken over two large traffic circles along Route 18 near the Beaver Valley Mall in Center, where more than 5,000 plants are on display.
"We have a real variety of things," said Peggy Adams, coordinator of the Penn State Master Gardener program in Beaver County.
The program also sponsors a vegetable garden near the Beaver Medical Center in Brighton, and another aimed at the local senior population near Friendship Ridge in Brighton, where 16 seniors have individual plots.
"Our focus is on education," Ms. Adams said. "There's more of an interest today in vegetable gardening."
Seniors, college students and other groups helped plant the community garden in Washington.
Local groups representing at-risk youth, people with mental retardation and those with cerebral palsy also have plots -- and a stake in the outcome, Ms. Madigan said.
"This would never have happened with just one person," she said. "It takes a community."
To sign up for a Master Gardener program or for more information, visit Penn State's Master Gardener program Web Site at: http://horticulture.psu.edu/extension/mg.
n Teens in Duquesne spend their summer beautifying the city, Page S-7.
First Published July 30, 2009 6:18 am