Doing things properly: Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association’s local projects and new training program

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Nobody gardens alone, is something many gardeners know.

Whether a novice or an expert, most gardeners need advice and support at some time.

They need help identifying pests. They need information on the best variety of cucumber or aster. They need another strong back to divide a daylily or ornamental grass.

Members of the volunteer Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association learn together and garden together in pairs and in small and large groups. They offer advice to the public via email and phone help lines, test soil at farmers markets, organize symposia and maintain demonstration gardens. There are more than 220 trained master gardeners working in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties.

A new training program starts in January and applications are due Oct. 1. Information and applications are available at www.wmmga.org. About 40 to 45 people are usually accepted from an applicant pool of more than 80 people. The fee for the intensive course is $300.

“We are looking for applicants who are committed to supporting the growing gardening community of western Massachusetts,” said Amherst resident Kent Faerber, vice president of WMMGA, who is in charge of the training. The basic concept of WMMGA is to educate avid gardeners in all aspects of horticulture so they can then share their knowledge with other gardeners.

“We have a terrific lineup of professors at local colleges, recognized experts, and experienced practitioners who, in 13 day-long, once-a-week classes, will provide an intensive exposure to the full range of gardening and horticultural subjects. These include basic botany, nutrition and soils, plant propagation, trees and shrubs, perennials, backyard fruit, and lawn care, as well as many others,” Faerber explained. The training is held at Holyoke Community College.

“I thought the training was invaluable,” said Kerry Lake of South Hadley, a member of the Class of 2013, who said she was already an experienced gardener. “It is just a wonderful chance to learn and to share. It also created a community of gardeners,” she added.

“I was a very new gardener and I wanted to learn how to do things properly,” said Gina Chaplain of Amherst. “I saw an article in the newspaper and applied. It was wonderful meeting people in different areas of gardening.”

At the end of the course, each trainee or intern is required to complete 60 hours of volunteer work in order to receive certification as a master gardener. In addition to the phone hotlines at the Berkshire Botanical Garden and in the spring at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the email hotlines on the organization’s website, volunteers organize three public spring symposia that attract more than 600 gardeners each year.

Special projects are also undertaken by master gardeners including demonstration plots at the Northampton and South Hadley community gardens, tours at the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, workshops for community groups and assisting other non-profit organizations such as the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Fisher Home

Lake and Chaplain along with Christine Bergquist and Marina Templeton of Amherst volunteered for a new project developed last year.

Staff at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst asked the master gardener group to design, install and maintain two pocket gardens that are viewed from patients’ windows.

“The master gardeners were sensitive and thoughtful about the garden design,” said Maxine Stein, executive director of the hospice home. “They were thinking about what would be soothing to the families and the patients and what colors would be best. They took unlikely corners and turned them into places of beauty. It was a sheer joy,” she said.

The view from one patient’s room was simply a blank white exterior wall. The master gardeners installed two trellises on which clematis now climb. They planted spring-flowering bulbs, a rose bush, perennials to bloom at different times, and a fall-blooming chrysanthemum. On a double shepherd’s crook holder they placed a bird feeder and, for the winter, an evergreen kissing ball.

The view from the other patient’s room was quite dire. A maze of gas pipes decorated the exterior wall and visitors looked out upon huge air conditioning units. Chaplain, an artist as well as a master gardener, painted a vision of cherry blossoms on a removable panel to camouflage the pipes. She and her colleagues chose a Japanese maple tree as an accent along with serene hosta plants. The bird feeder is a Japanese temple design to augment the Oriental theme.

Community Gardens

Sporadically for more than a decade, master gardeners have maintained a demonstration plot at the Northampton Community Gardens off Burt’s Pit Road. A year ago the project was revived under the leadership of Elaine Hyde of Williamsburg, a member of the Class of 2011. Raised beds built in 2009 were buckling and were renovated by a group of master gardener interns, led by Rick Tufts of Easthampton who also crafted a new WMMGA sign. The beds were filled with good compost and planted with vegetables, herbs, strawberries and flowers. This year some of the produce is donated to the Northampton Survival Center.

“When we go there to drop off vegetables they are so enthusiastic about whatever you bring,” said Deb Jacobs of Leeds who has worked for several years on the plot. “You feel you are doing something you love to do and have people appreciate it.”

Last year Hyde entered some of the vegetables in the Cummington Fair. She won a blue ribbon for ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes and another prize for enormous kale.

A core group of a dozen master gardeners works on the demonstration plots. They hold soil-testing workshops in the spring and fall and answer questions from other gardeners at the site. Carol Wasserloos of Hatfield recalled talking at length in the spring with new gardeners who had loads of basic questions.

Wasserloos said she was initially drawn to the project because of her interest in raised beds. “They make gardening accessible as we all age.” Soon, however, she worked on the project because “it’s just good fun to be gardening with somebody else.”

The group enjoys trying out new varieties and methods of gardening. Lois Zissell of South Hadley, Class of 2003, offered to demonstrate “upside-down tomato growing.” She brought an elaborate sturdy structure to hold a ‘Celebrity’ tomato plant upside down in its pot. The vine grows downward and produces quite well, she said.

Another experiment this year is growing ‘Strawberry Spinach,’ an heirloom variety of greens that produce curious strawberry-like fruits as well as a mild spinach leaf.

Joanne Turcotte of Florence brought Puerto Rican lentils to try. And Pasek brought a packet of seeds for pollinator plants. They produced a long row of pale yellow sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias and hollyhocks, carrying on the tradition of the community gardens of combining flowers with vegetables.

The raised beds contain several varieties of tomatoes: ‘Honeygold,’ ‘Juliet,’ ‘Golden Peach’ and ‘Green Zebra’. There are several kinds of kale, various herbs, fava beans, red noodle beans.

While the master gardeners, who meet at the demonstration garden every Monday morning and Thursday evening, enjoy each other’s company, they said they also feel good about sharing their experience with others at the community gardens. “There are people looking at the plot even when we aren’t working there,” said Jean O’Neil of Hatfield who is president of WMMGA. Mimi Teghtsoonian, president of the Northampton Community Garden, said she makes a habit of checking out their raised beds a couple of times a month and has taken away some good ideas. “I assume other gardeners do the same,” she said. 

Franklin County Fair

When Jane Markoski of Greenfield was an intern in 2003, she proposed having a booth at the Franklin County Fair. In August master gardeners plant a colorful garden at the fair to attract visitors.

The booth’s centerpiece is a “Wheel of Fortune” for visitors to spin for a number that corresponds to a gardening question. There are separate questions for pre-schoolers, elementary school children and adults in many categories from vegetables to turf to trees. Children who answer correctly get an instant prize like a pencil or a piece of candy. Adults with correct answers may compete in a drawing for one of a dozen gift certificates to area nurseries, which are donated by the businesses.

Most of the more than 220 members of the WMMGA were trained locally. However, O’Neil is a transplant from Mississippi. Another transplant is Frank Hurley of Florence, who moved here from Brookline last spring. He trained in eastern Massachusetts where he organized the telephone Help Line in that area. Now a volunteer each week at the Northampton Community Gardens, he said he likes the hands-on aspects of the project.

I trained as a master gardener in 1986 and remain active in the organization. Many of my best friends are WMMGA members; working with them is a delight.

“This is a highly effective way to take one’s gardening skills to the master level, and then make use of those skills to help the burgeoning interest in growing things,” said Faerber, WMMGA vice president.

As Maria Rivers, nursing manager at Hospice of the Fisher Home, sums up the program: “The world should have more master gardeners.”

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

Master gardeners will be on hand to answer questions every Saturday morning in September at the Amherst Farmers Market; Sept. 5-7, at the Franklin County Fair; and Sept. 12-28, at the Big E in West Springfield.