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Chautauqua County may very well be a gardener’s paradise. It is home to miles of vineyards, where grapes hang heavy from vines; acres of farmland, neatly striped with corn and hay; and endless forests, huddling green and thick around the lake.
With all the right natural resources and institutions for agriculture, it is no wonder that the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) decided to implement a Master Gardener Program in Chautauqua County eight years ago. The program was intended to bring localized gardening information directly to the public. Today, the program is comprised of volunteers who undergo a rigorous certification in horticulture and then then use their knowledge and skills to help local farmers, homesteaders, and community gardeners.
As part of the program’s ongoing quest to benefit the area’s planters, the Master Gardeners will be hosting their annual spring sale fundraiser this weekend, just in time for Mother’s Day. The sale will feature a variety of plants, yard art, and gently used gardening tools, clothing and books. It will take place this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at the Frank W. Bratt Agricultural Center, located at 3542 Turner Rd. in Jamestown.
Although Chautauqua County’s Master Gardener Program is run under the administrative oversight of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University itself is unable to provide funding to support the program. As a result, the Master Gardeners have developed creative ways to fundraise that are relevant to their gardening mission.
“The Cooperative Extension is our lifeline, but the Master Gardeners are self-sustaining in terms of keeping volunteers and maintaining the program,” said Mark Sullenberger, Master Gardener and program volunteer. “This will be the seventh year that we’ve put on our spring sale.”
The sale, simply put, is a gardening extravaganza. First off, there are the plants for sale: perennial and annual flowers, grasses, shrubs, vegetables grown from seed, and even bare root tree seedlings provided by the Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District. Nearly all of the plants cost $5 or less, with payment by cash or personal check only.
“Most of these plants are actually donated from Master Gardeners or friends of volunteers whose gardens have overgrown,” Sullenberger said. “They say, ‘Come dig up my garden and take these plants.’ Then we’re able to sell them, so it really helps both parties.”
Emily Reynolds, Executive Director of the Chautauqua County CCE, said that there are other benefits to buying plants from their local sale besides just the affordable cost. In contrast to more commercial vendors, the Master Gardeners try to sell native and sustainable plants instead of invasive species. Also, since the plants at the spring sale have been harvested from local gardens, they will thrive in Chautauqua County’s climate.
“It’s nice because the plants we sell are already hardy for our environment,” Reynolds said. “If you get plants from stores or greenhouses that ship in, the plants may not be acclimated to our environment.”
Besides donating plants, volunteers have also donated lawn art and gardening books, tools, and clothing to the spring sale. All the proceeds will go to the Master Gardener Program to help cover its yearly expenses, such as the cost of supplies used in education and outreach, printing fees, and the charge for operating the phone line at their help desk in the Agricultural Center.
Also featured at this Saturday’s sale will be a composting demonstration from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., as well as soil pH testing at no cost. Simply bring a soil sample from your garden in a small plastic bag and Master Gardener volunteers will test and identify its pH – a valuable piece of knowledge to have in order to cultivate a successful garden.
“The pH of soil is very important because plants, like all living things, have optimum ranges for absorbing nutrients,” Sullenberger said. “The pH is the number one key indicator for how well your plant can absorb nutrients. So if the pH level is incorrect, the plant simply won’t grow.”
Free soil pH testing will be available all day.
The Master Gardener Program
The Master Gardener Program was first established in Washington State in 1972. It quickly spread across the country, with programs now established in 46 states. It first came to Chautauqua in 2009, when educators in the Chautauqua County CCE office decided the area was ripe for a research-based gardening program. They offered the first Master Gardener training session, it was met with resounding success, and the program grew from there. Today, the program has nearly 50 volunteers of all genders, ages, and occupational backgrounds.
“All the Master Gardeners go through a 40-hour training program which covers the basics of horticulture: botany, soils, fertilization, composting, plant varieties, sustainable gardening, and integrated pest management,” Sullenberger said. “After you get the training and become a Master Gardener, you have to complete 50 hours of volunteer work during your first year.”
“In order to maintain your status after that, you must complete 35 volunteer hours a year,” Reynolds said. “And we request that eight of those hours be in the field of continuing education.”
Continuing education is one of the most important aspects of Master Gardener Program’s mission, and as such, it has been incorporated into several different services offered by volunteers. First is the Master Gardener Help Desk, which is located at the Agricultural Center. It is staffed every Wednesday from noon until 2 p.m. from April through September. Community members are welcome to drop by in person or call the desk at 716-664-9502 ext. 224 for gardening advice.
Next is the program’s “Evening in the Garden” series. From May to September, on the third Wednesday of each month, the Master Gardeners invite the public to their demonstration garden at the Agricultural Center. Volunteers walk visitors through the garden, explain what is happening with the plants, and demonstrate various gardening techniques.
“It’s nice because if you come each month, you can really see the garden develop throughout the year,” Reynolds said. “We also explain different techniques and let visitors try them. We have raised beds in the garden, each numbered, and we’ll try a different technique in each bed, so we can monitor what works best.”
Yet another educational service provided by the Master Gardeners is the Trowel Talk series. Trowel Talks are lectures hosted at libraries across Chautauqua County where Master Gardeners speak on various gardening topics. Most recently, the Master Gardeners have been working to develop Trowel Talk webinars that would be hosted within the Chautauqua County library system. The webinars are expected to be up and running this summer.
“We are looking to develop webinars,” said Cheryl Wahlstrom, President of the Master Gardener Program. “That way people would be able to access our lectures and revisit them at any time or place, as opposed to me having to travel to 12 libraries to discuss garden basics.”
To learn more about other services offered by the Master Gardener Program, including this weekend’s spring sale, call the Help Desk at 716-665-9502 ext. 224, email a volunteer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website at www.Chautauqua.CCE.Cornell.edu. For more information on joining the Master Gardener Program, contact Emily Reynolds at 716-664-9502 ext. 201.