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First-Time Veggie Growers Can Learn From The Masters

By Adrian Higgins
Wednesday, July 1, 2009 9:02 AM

As a horticultural extension agent, Bobby Wilson is often approached by beginner vegetable gardeners who want to know if they should water every day.

"You don't need to water every day," he says. "I tell them to water Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

What he's really telling them is that they should soak the soil and water again only when the top three inches has dried out, determined by using that most accurate of probes, your finger. "That's the proper way to do it, but people need a number," said Wilson, who works in Atlanta and is also president of the American Community Gardening Association.

Like a lot of us in the gardening world, Wilson has been astonished and thrilled by the sudden interest in vegetable gardening, particularly among younger adults.

Seed producers have reported sales increases in the range of 30 percent over last year, itself a banner year. In an April survey by the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of those polled said they were planning to grow their own vegetables this year because of the recession.

At a day-long workshop on vegetable gardening in Loudoun County this spring, 90 percent of the participants were novice gardeners, said Debbie Dillion, the county's horticultural extension agent.

When I started beekeeping a few years ago, I was lucky to have a mentor who guided me through the inscrutable business of husbanding honeybees. At first, every aspect of it was mysterious, from assembling the frames for honeycomb to checking to see whether the queen was laying eggs. The manuals contained too much information. It was my mentor Pat's practical guidance and chirpy demeanor that made the difference.

Where does a new gardener find guidance? The optimum scenario would be to find a plot in an established community garden surrounded by old hands who could offer practical advice. The problem is that established community gardens are tough to get into these days, with long waiting lists.

Fortunately, there is an infrastructure to help. Most jurisdictions have extension agents such as Wilson who work with a cadre of trained volunteers called Master Gardeners.

In Loudoun County, the Master Gardeners this year began a project called Garden to Table, which included the seminar in April and a visit in June to their demonstration vegetable garden at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg. A third session is planned for late summer.

"We have really been swamped with people wanting information and eager to learn," said coordinator Irene Mandracchia, who lives in Purcellville. The sessions have included such basic information as what varieties to grow, how to sow and thin seeds, and when to harvest.

Loudoun saw only its second community garden start this year. Three more are in the works.

When you think of that other period when people had to grow food to feed themselves, World War II and the preceding Great Depression, the need may have been much greater, but at least there was broad knowledge of how to do it.

"I guess people have not been gardening as religiously as they used to, and people feel there's kind of a gap in knowledge," Mandracchia said.

Reaching new vegetable gardeners has become a priority in the extension agent community, said Rick Gibson, an extension agent in Casa Grande, Ariz., and president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents. "It's perplexing also," he said, "because at a time when the needs are growing we are in the midst of budget cuts that are limiting in many states the resources to develop programs to disseminate that information."

The other, longer-term issue is that "there are a lot of people out there who don't know who we are," Gibson said.

At this point in the season, new gardeners will have a sense of just how much work growing vegetables can be, and should be. It's a hobby and needs commitment. There are periods of intense labor but long interludes in which you are watering, weeding, harvesting, watching for problems and planning new crops.

It's rewarding when you pick your first lettuce and frustrating when the bugs devour your kale, but the accumulation of knowledge and skills transcends the ups and downs. After a couple of years, you become versed in growing your own food. What could be more empowering?

And as Mandracchia points out, "the best way to learn is by doing it."

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