The Linn and Benton Master Gardener Class of 2013 was photographed the other week. Take a look at the faces that make up our class of trainees in each county. This is one dedicated group.
The Linn and Benton Master Gardener Class of 2013 was photographed the other week. Take a look at the faces that make up our class of trainees in each county. This is one dedicated group.
We’re now more than half way through our 11-week Master Gardener training course, so I thought I’d check in with some of my classmates and get their thoughts. Here’s what they said:
“Just sitting in the class makes me itch,” said Karen Waterson, in reference to the lessons on creepy-crawly insects.
But she also appreciates the importance of entomology. “It’s really going to help in identifying problems on a plant, whether it’s caused by a chewing or sucking insect,” she said.
Waterson has already signed up for several volunteer projects. Master Gardeners must complete 66 hours of volunteer service to become certified. She will help build a garden at Calapooia Middle School in Albany, work in the Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden in Linn County, and answer plant questions at the Master Gardeners’ booth at the farmers market in Albany this summer.
“I still have a long, long ways to go but I know a lot more than I did when we first started,” she said. “It’s unbelievable what we’ve learned so far.”
Trainee Elly Love, a retired high school teacher, has been impressed with the instructors.
“There’s so much. It’s so jam-packed every week,” she said. “I look forward to doing our volunteer hours, certainly, but I also look forward to this spring and summer in my own vegetable garden as well as my own property. I’m going to get down on my hands and knees and look for bugs in the grass and take my [10x hand lens] in there. I’ve got my llama and chicken poop in my compost pile with straw and all the alfalfa my llamas left. I bought a pound of worms last week and have a worm bin.”
Love lives in rural Corvallis and has three llamas and seven chickens. She has never composted before.
Toward the end of class, I heard a comment that rang true for me.
“If anything, this class really humbles you,” Connie Lepin said. “You learn how much you don’t know.”
Spiders are ‘freaking cool’
Gail Langellotto’s eyes lit up and excitement rose in her voice as she introduced the 50 people in my Master Gardener class to the world of arthropods.
Spiders are her favorite. She’s well aware that not everybody loves them with her level of fervor.
“They’re just so freaking cool,” said Langellotto, who is an entomologist and the coordinator of the statewide Master Gardener program.
Some, such as jumping spiders, have arguably the best vision of all invertebrates. Most spiders will gobble up almost anything – even their own kind, until they need to mate with them.
“Imagine that if you are a cannibal, you eventually reach a point in your life where you have to stop seeing other members of your species as meals and instead look at them as mates,” Langellotto said.
Besides being fascinating to watch, spiders and other natural predators of pests are one strategy in an integrated approach to pest management, which is often referred to as IPM. IPM is an approach to pest control that involves managing the harmful bugs in your garden using many different methods, ranging from making the habitat unfavorable to pests to monitoring the infestation level, rather than simply reaching for a pesticide.
Langellotto’s particular pleasure is walking through her garden and squishing aphids between her thumb and forefinger.
Other bugs that are natural enemies of harmful insects include assassin bugs, parasitoid wasps and ladybugs.
“Try to make your garden a happy home for beneficial insects,” Langellotto advised.
Lawns in the grass seed capital of the world
Barb Fick, a horticulturist with the OSU Extension Service, held white and black bags of turf grass seed in her hands. She handed the bags of creeping fescue and bentgrass to my classmates to inspect.
Lawns, she said, are one of the most important things you study as a Master Gardener. It seemed fitting given that Oregon is the grass seed capital of the world. Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces almost two-thirds of the cool-season grasses in the United States, according to this OSU website.
So Fick offered the following pointers on lawns:
For more information, Extension offers the following guides on lawns:
Rose-colored glasses for … nematodes?
Jay Pscheidt, a plant pathology specialist with the OSU Extension Service, passed around a pair of thick-rimmed, black glasses with purple lenses.
The glasses, he told our master gardener class, were made by a company that claims they can tell you if your plants are stressed. Maybe even what diseases or pests are infecting them. Pscheidt was skeptical.
Some trainees donned the glasses, eliciting smiles from their friends nearby. When my turn came around, I squinted through the lenses. Even to my untrained eye, a troubled plant looked the same; it was just filtered through vivid Andy Warhol-esque colors.
It would be cool if you could slip on a pair of glasses to immediately spot the microorganism that is affecting your plant. But most microorganisms are so tiny that you can’t see them without the help of a microscope, Pscheidt said.
So, like a doctor investigating what’s wrong with a patient, gardeners use symptoms and signs as clues. Symptoms are the visible effects of disease on plants, like changes in color or shape. Signs are physical evidence of the pathogen, like bacterial ooze or nematode cysts.
I learned about several other techniques in a plant pathologist’s toolbox. But there is no one key set of questions or techniques for diagnosing plant diseases. Experience and practice are the best teachers, Pscheidt said.
To learn more, see the OSU Extension guide, Preventing Plant Disease in Your Garden and Landscape.
(Not) taking sides on pesticides
Our instructor, Dan McGrath, had a confession to make.
“I’m a recovering nozzlehead,” admitted the vegetable crops specialist for the OSU Extension Service.
And so began our afternoon class on the ethics behind pesticide use and safety precautions. As master gardeners, the public will ask us questions about chemicals, regardless of how we personally feel about them. We must be prepared to answer with impartial, research-based information.
My fellow trainees and I talked in a small group about how we would feel if a client asked us about using pesticides. Some of us believed pesticides should be used only as a last resort to control stubborn pests and diseases.
“At my age, all we used to have was pesticides,” said a fellow trainee when we gathered in a big group again. “Organic stuff has only come on the market in the last few years and has been made more affordable.”
“I think one of the reasons that commercial growers use it is that when people go into the store we expect perfect fruit and perfect vegetables,” said another student. “Until we change our standards, you’re going to have to deal with some level of pesticides.”
“Would you say it is a safe assumption that commercial growers are using pesticides safely?” another trainee asked.
“I would say it is probably very high, not 100 percent,” McGrath said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with three generation of farmers. Working with a new generation of farmers in their 30s, I see they are very responsible because they grew up and came of age in the ’70s and ’80s.”
An image came to my mind that McGrath had brought up previously. He has seen homeowners spray pesticides wearing T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. At a minimum, people should wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and shoes with socks, he said. If they’re mixing a more dangerous concentrated pesticide, they must also wear a Tyvek suit, safety goggles and gloves.
McGrath left us with these words: “You all can play an important role in educating the public about responsible use.”
The OSU Extension Service has several guides on pesticide safety:
On these cold winter days I’m dreaming of raspberries. I want tarts, ice cream, jam and smoothies.
So my mouth watered as my Master Gardener class learned about them from Bernadine Strik, a berry crops specialist with the OSU Extension Service.
There are two types of raspberries: The ever-bearing variety produces fruit twice – once in summer and again in the fall – and grows berries every year from the first year. The summer-bearing variety produces fruit only once, in early summer. Fruit does not show up until the second year on a new summer-bearing plant.
The summer-bearing raspberry’s canes are biennial. During the first year, all of its canes produce only leaves. These are called primocanes. They become dormant and overwinter.
In their second year, the canes shed the primocane moniker and become known as floricanes, which produce flowers and fruit in the second season of the plant. As the floricanes are fruiting that second year, new primocane shoots emerge from the perennial root system. The cycle begins again.
In the third year, those primocanes grow anew as floricanes, produce fruit and then die. In the fourth year, a different mix of primocanes grows anew as a different mix of floricanes fruits and dies off. The plant will produce fruit every year.
Raspberry plants can bear fruit for up to 20 years.
To get started with raspberries in your garden, well-drained soil and full sun are musts. In the spring when you can till the ground, form dirt into a free-standing raised bed and plant raspberries two to three feet apart. A trellis helps support the plants. Don’t over-irrigate or water late in the day. Rely on drip irrigation. Prune and remove dead floricanes in July or August after the fruit is harvested.
Pick frequently. Don’t store berries for a long time in the refrigerator because they bruise easily. An OSU Extension Service guide tells you how to freeze them.
5 rules for fighting weeds
Dan McGrath, a vegetable crops specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, offered our Master Gardener class the following pointers for dealing with weeds:
No. 1: Have a Plan B … and C … and D …
Whatever strategy you use to combat weeds, he says, will work for a while until something finds a way to beat your plan. This “weed shift” happens when a species becomes highly dominant. Sometimes it’s because of the environment, but often it’s because gardeners use the same strategy over and over again. Never assume you have everything under control.
No. 2: Know your enemy.
In what season is the weed growing? Is its root system fibrous or creeping? Is it an annual or creeping perennial weed? If it’s an annual, is it a summer or winter one? An annual grows for one year, spreads lots of seeds and grows fibrous roots. Perennials have creeping roots and they’re tough to kill and impossible to mulch.
No. 3: Make weeds unhappy.
Weeds grow in conditions that make them happy. When you till or break up soil, that disturbed soil then offers all the goodies a weed needs: nutrients, moisture, light and space. Any of those factors will attract certain types of weeds.
No. 4: Know your weapons.
The trowel and hoe are a gardener’s go-to tools. But if you only weed by hand, weeds will become resistant to this method, McGrath said. He cited an example from his work with rice farmers in Indonesia. Standing in a rice paddy, he looked down at his feet and noticed a hand mark in the dirt. Each plant was weeded by hand. But there was another plant growing there, too. It looked exactly like a rice seedling. It was a type of weed known as a “mimic,” resistant to hand weeding.
To prevent resistant weeds in our own gardens, McGrath advises using cover crops. Plant a crop such as fava beans that you put in during the fall and till in the spring when it flowers. He also recommends using companion planting, or plants that enhance each other’s growth and can crowd out weeds. He also says to time your planting and to plant different crops in succession because different weeds grow at different times. Finally, you can use herbicides, he says, but don’t rely just on them because weeds can become resistant to them.
No. 5: Know yourself.
“The toughest thing to do when analyzing a weed problem is trying to figure out what the person is doing to contribute to the problem,” McGrath said. We don’t like to admit that we may be causing the problem. McGrath showed a picture of a farmer spraying a pesticide along a road where star thistle had spread along the ditches because it had become immune to the chemical. So the farmer changed his strategy and planted a cover crop, creeping red fescue, along the ditches. The crop is easy to maintain and it prevents the weed from growing without pesticides.
Microorganisms make life out of somebody else’s trash
Master Gardener Teresa Matteson, now on the education and outreach team for the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District, took our class outside into the chilly January air to show us some compost bins.
She explained that anything once living could decompose: grass clippings, leaves, flowers, weeds, twigs, and hedge clippings. The rate of decomposition depends on air, water, size, time and the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. You can adjust those factors to speed up or slow down the process.
Matteson, a former coordinator of the Master Composter Program through Recycling PACT (People Acting Change Tomorrow) in southern Oregon, recommends starting compost piles anytime.
Begin by forming a 12-foot piece, ½-inch hardware cloth, a type of welded wire mesh, into a column.
Then dump in six inches of your coarsest compostable material. Add three inches of green matter like grass clippings, then some water and a little soil. Mix those layers together and repeat until the column is filled. Let it sit for three weeks to heat up then turn to introduce more oxygen into the mix.
Matteson showed us a bucket filled with leaves, grass and other organic matter. Another bucket was filled with that material, except now it was mushy and uneven. Little organisms, tinier than the eye can see, were hard at work gobbling up the yard clippings, manure and leaves. Somebody else’s trash was their treasure.
Then we Master Gardener trainees, huddled in a circle, gasped collectively in astonishment at a bucket filled with finished compost.Rich, brown, aromatic, fantastic compost. It was what all that yard debris had become. Matteson sifted her fingers through it. The fresh, warm odor of a forest floor wafted toward my nostrils.
Morning Session: Arrgh! Identifying plants is frustrating
The word of the day for my latest OSU Extension Service Master Gardener class: frustration.
My small group leaned over trainee Patrice Thomas’ iPad and pulled up a website developed by Pat Breen, our instructor for the morning session. Breen is a self-described CPN, or certified plant nerd, and is a retired professor with OSU’s Department of Horticulture. His website (http://bit.ly/11PSOJ9) contains pictures and information on more than 1,700 mostly woody plants. It also offers a plant identification system that walks users through a checklist of features to identify an unknown woody plant.
“In many cases, frustration rises so that you begin to use expletives,” Breen warned us. “All the tomatoes and rotten vegetables have been taken away from you so you won’t be able to hit me with them.”
Fortunately, we only had to identify about a dozen plants. I pulled a few branches out of a grocery bag and set them on the desk in front of us. They were tied with tags and labeled only with a number and whether they came from a tree or a shrub.
I puzzled over a twig that was sticky to the touch. Its leaves reminded me of a maple tree with their five-pointed star shape. Its buds were glossy and globule-shaped.
I scoured the checklist on the website, one category at a time. Is it a tree? Check. Is the stem pendulous? Check. Are its leaves deciduous? Check. Are they attached to the stem with an alternate arrangement? Check.
Are its leaves simple or compound? Oh, that’s more difficult. With its star shape, the leaves appeared compound, similar to a leaflet. But my perception was erroneous. Here’s a trick to distinguish simple versus compound leaves: Look at where the bud attaches to the stem. Our mystery plant’s buds were attached to the base of its leaf, meaning simple leaves.
We were getting closer. But our search still didn’t return any acceptable results. I was beginning to wish that I did indeed have a rotten tomato to throw. I looked at our checked boxes again and widened our search. I removed “pendulous,” since that was incorrect. A list appeared that included the scientific names. We hovered the cursor over each of the names and viewed a close-up, pop-up image of the plant.
Tediously, we scrolled our cursor down the long list. “No. No. That’s not it. Nope.”
Finally, an image popped up of a green five-pointed, star-shaped leaf.
Our plant proved to be a Liquidambar styraciflua, or an American sweetgum tree. My fellow trainees remembered their California childhoods. Classmates Susanne Taylor and Patrice Thomas tossed out some of the tree’s common names. Its spiny, golf ball-sized fruit in particular has many names. The women remembered autumns as kids avoiding the cascade of its obnoxious fruit dropping to the sidewalk.
Dingleberry, some kids would call it. Or monkey balls. Nostalgic, unabashed laughter erupted from our group upon hearing that.
We had figured it out. But thank goodness there hadn’t been any rotten tomatoes around.
Afternoon Session: Getting to know your soil
In our afternoon session, Melissa Fery, a small farms instructor with the OSU Extension Service, told our Master Gardener class the following story about a time when she was teaching grade-schoolers about soil.
“They touched it, played with it, smelled it, maybe some of the kids ate it, I don’t know,” Fery said. “I was trying to get kids to understand how important soil is to us.”
So she asked the kids to imagine the world without soil.
“There were blank stares for a moment, then somebody says, ‘You have to have plants, and you know, plants grow in soil.’ I said, ‘You’re right. That’s awesome,’” Fery said. “Somebody said, ‘There wouldn’t be any animals because animals eat plants.’ One boy shot his hands up and said, ‘The whole world would be naked!’ Naked in a first-grade class is apparently the four-letter word.”
Soil is all too often overlooked, but it is perhaps the most important part of the landscape. It helps plants grow better. It acts as a filter that protects the air and water. It’s thriving with billions of tiny microorganisms. And it’s really old.
It’s good to know what’s in our soil if we want to grow healthier plants.
“Understanding more about the specific nutrients can be really useful especially if you want to apply fertilizer at a rate that is right on target,” Fery said.
For example, it could be a sign of nitrogen deficiency if the older leaf material on your plant is yellow. If your leaf veins are purple, it could mean a phosphorous deficiency. Blossom end-rot in tomatoes, peppers and eggplants could be caused by over-watering, or perhaps not enough calcium.
Fery recommended that we collect samples of soil at various sites in our gardens or yards. She showed us the following three-minute video explaining how to do it: http://bit.ly/10nqDkt
After that, we can send those samples to a lab for analysis, which can cost between $20 and $40. A list of laboratories serving Oregon is at http://bit.ly/WoEPEd.
Fery passed out an example of a lab’s soil test report she had ordered for her property. She wants to grow blueberries and make jam, so she wanted to figure out the acidity of the soil.
I learned to read the report, what the different symbols meant and what the optimum levels for each nutrient are. There’s a good guide to that at http://bit.ly/SXkEkm.
Now I don’t take dirt for granted. Without it, we’d be naked.
My first Master Gardener class offered by Oregon State University’s Extension Service covered ecosystems, pollinators and flower anatomy.
But really, I learned about sex.
Linda McMahan, a horticulturist with the OSU Extension Service, projected a photograph onto a screen of a fantastic, brightly colored Namibian flower. It’s called a stapelia, with five yellow-colored triangles stretching outward in the shape of a starfish encircling a bright pink center.
The photos were from a horticultural favorite, the website Botany Photo of the Day.
“Do you have any idea what this flower is doing? Is it trying to attract a certain pollinator?” McMahan asked. “The structure doesn’t look anything like the flowers you will tear apart a little later this morning because it is so fantastic.”
McMahan asked how a pollinator would perceive the leaves of this starfish-shaped plant.
“Flesh,” a trainee in the audience suggested.
“Actually they do look like flesh to a pollinator,” McMahan said. “This is a fly-pollinated plant and so the flower is designed to attract a certain kind of pollinator. It’s beautiful as well. It’s a carrion beetle or a dung fly that will pollinate this plant. That interaction between the different parts of the animal and plant kingdom is a fascinating subject, something I’ve always really loved.”
McMahan showed another image of a butterfly pollinating a stunning white and yellow lily. Is the butterfly innocently drinking the nectar? Likely not. The butterfly brings pollen from another flower. It bumps into the end of the pistil and stigma, and boom, sex.
“Notice the structure and notice that the sexual parts of the flower are sort of way out there,” McMahan said. “They are there out in the open because that is where pollination is going to occur if a plant is pollinated by a butterfly.”
We split into small groups and were given two types of yellow chrysanthemums, a small red knife and a magnifying lens. I rubbed the glossy, slick yellow petals between my fingers. I carefully made an incision, trying in vain to identify each sexual organ. There were thousands of little flowers! Where was the stamen, or the pollen-producing male reproductive organ, with its anther and filament? What about the stigma, the female parts that receive pollen during fertilization?
The answer lay in the details. The Asteraceae family is made up of composites. The family includes the daisy and the sunflower as well as the mum. Those thousands of tiny flowers that cluster inside the petals each have individual microscopic sexual organs. It would seem size doesn’t matter to mums.
Next time I check out the Botany Photo of the Day website, I’ll know those botanists are really looking at flower porn.
After I cared for a community garden plot in Stayton for three seasons, this suburban brown thumb got hooked on horticulture. Nothing compares to the rush of tasting your first juicy tomato after weeks of weeding on your hands and knees in the dirt.
I’d heard about the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Master Gardener volunteer program. I had considered taking the training but incorrectly assumed I needed more experience.
In November 2012, I started a new job as a public service communications specialist in OSU’s Extension and Experiment Station Communications department. As part of that position, I interview OSU’s horticulturists and Master Gardeners and write stories about their gardening advice. I thought it would be helpful to enroll in the Master Gardener training to find out what it was all about and then blog about it so you can see for yourself.
Over the next 11 weeks, I will take notes and talk to other trainees during the classes, which will take place every Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Tangent.
Master Gardener training is conducted by Extension Service offices in 30 of Oregon’s 36 counties from January to March. There is also an online option. Those interested in participating must first apply. They find out if they’re accepted in mid-December. To be admitted, applicants must have a positive attitude and a sincere commitment to volunteer service. In Benton County, they are required to take 66 hours of training and “pay back” those classroom hours with 66 hours of volunteer service, which can include answering the public’s questions at the Extension office or community gardening events. Or by paying more, participants can forgo the volunteer option.
After they’re accepted, there’s an orientation session. OSU Extension Service’s horticulturist Barb Fick led mine at Extension’s office in Corvallis. Two Master Gardeners sat in: Kathy Clark, a Master Gardener since 2010, and Kathi Tucker, who has been one since 2007. Both women enjoy interacting with the public and sharing their love for gardening with others.
People at the orientation were interested in becoming Master Gardeners for all reasons. They were mostly retired, like former teachers George and Elly Love of Corvallis, who wanted to learn more about horticulture. Twenty-five-year-old Lev Parker left his job to learn more about farming and gardening.
Over the next few months, we’ll learn about botany basics, soil management, how to keep plants healthy, and how to identify and control pests, among other topics. I’m looking forward to learning how to diagnose and manage plant problems and pests. I’m also excited to learn more about the basic life cycles of different plants and why some plants are more difficult to propagate than others.
I’m ready to dig in.