Dry gardening community science

How can you grow tomatoes and melons in a home garden with limited water?

By Ann B., Master Gardener Volunteer

Volunteers measure a soil core to see if the soil is deep enough for dry gardening. Credit: Benton County Master Gardener Association

OSU Extension, with Amy Garrett, has been developing the protocols and plants to garden without irrigation.  Not only will this allow gardening in the ever-increasing years of drought, but it also can save on water bills.   So, a project was started at the Master Gardener volunteer demonstration garden to determine whether vegetables can be grown in the home garden without watering. 

First we used an auger to remove a soil core from our plot to determine if we had at least 4-6 feet of soil.  Our soil was deep enough and contained clay as well.  Organic-rich soils with some clay content have more water-holding capacity.  Shallow or sandy soils are not amenable to dry farming.  Before planting, the soil was tilled, some organic fertilizer and organic matter was added and the area was soaked.    Plants were placed at least twice as far apart as usually indicated.  We planted ours 6 feet apart.  The soil was gently packed around the transplants and 2-3″ mulch was placed on top.  During the summer we did not water at all, removed weeds regularly and did not walk on the area so that the soil was not compacted.  Despite having a very warm summer (above 100F for a week), we harvested lovely Early Girl tomatoes.  Subsequent years we harvested Dirty Girl tomatoes and melons. 

Volunteers install tomato plants for dry gardening experiment. Credit: Benton County Master Gardener Association

During our first summer we noticed that one plant was much bigger than the other two.  We had several theories of what caused it, from it getting less wind to being a hybrid planted by mistake.  In the fall, at the end of the season, when we were removing the dead plants, we solved the mystery.  This was a very clever plant.  It grew a very long thick root that grew over about 6 ft. to a nearby bed that was watered.  Therefore it was not really participating in the experiment!  In subsequent years we did not irrigate that near-by bed. 

Amy Garrett, OSU Extension Service, has run experiments on many other plants.  These are some that she has determined do well with dry farming: Stupice and Perfect Rogue tomatoes, Beefy Resilient beans, Sweet Freckels melon, Eel River  and Christmas watermelon, Zeppelin and Delicata winter squash, Dark Star and Costa Romanesco zucchini.  And there are varieties of potato, dry beans, and grapes that will flourish.  Although we did not do this, using a cover crop over winter, especially a legume such as crimson clover, will add organic matter and increase nitrogen availability.

Growing tomatoes with dry gardening system. Credit: Benton County Master Gardener Association

Tips for success

  • Don’t plant where there is competition for water from trees or other plants.
  • Don’t plant on a slope.
  • Raised beds are not ideal as they dry out faster; sunken beds work the best.
  • Try to find a place protected from wind, which causes plants to lose water quicker.
  • Use plants as indicators of where you have the most water. Notice which plants are still green and lush in August. They’re telling you where deep soil with water-holding capacity exists.
  •  Maintain a neutral pH of 6.5 to 7. Most soils in the Willamette Valley will need an application of lime.
  •  Timing is key. Plant when is not too wet or too dry. It’s tricky, but the important thing to remember is to plant when there’s still moisture in the top profile of soil.
  • It’s possible to use little or no water and have a productive garden. It’s an important technique when you’re trying to save resources, and water is one of the biggest issues.

Resources

  • OSU Extension- Small Farms Dry Farming Demonstration: http://smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/dry-farming-demonstration
  • Runsten, D. and Mamen, K- Introduction to Dry Farming Organic Vegetables.
  • CA Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative 10 Nov 2014 http://agwaterstewards.org/index.php/practices/dry farming
  • Solomon, Steve- “Gardening Without Irrigation: or without much anyway”, 2013
  • Widtsoe, John-“The Better Days Books Origiganic Guide to Dry-Farming: A Complete System for Achieving Bountiful Harvests Where Rain is Scarce, and Without Irrigation”, Nov. 2008
  • Widtsoe, John- “Dry Farming: A Guide for Farming Crops Without Irrigation in Climates with Low Rainfall and Drought”, 2018

Welcome a Rhododendron Into Your Garden This Spring

By Brenda Bye, Master Gardener Volunteer

Unknown Rhododendron Species. Photo by Brenda Bye. 

One of the reasons that I love spring in the Willamette Valley is the masses of colorful rhododendrons. It’s hardly surprising that this flowering shrub is so popular, because it comes in a wide range of sizes and colors. Many species are evergreen which is an additional bonus to add structure to your garden in grey winter months. Spring is a great time to plant rhododendrons and it’s not too late. 

There are about thirty species of rhododendron native to North America. They are found naturally in temperate deciduous forests and enjoy the acidic soil found in these wooded hills and mountains. If you are looking to plant a Northwest native, consider Rhododendron Macrophyllum, the Pacific Rhododendron. Its flowers can range from pale pinks to deep purples. It will grow to be 8 to 10 feet in the garden but can grow much bigger in the wild. 

Another interesting native is Rhododendron Occidentale, the Western Azalea. Its flowers range in color from white to pink, but all have a yellow spot on the upper petals that adds interest and beauty. Their flowers are known to be quite fragrant. Unlike the Pacific Rhododendron, the Western Azalea is deciduous and can have very pretty autumn foliage. 

Regardless of which rhododendron you choose, they require similar growing conditions: 

  • Acidic soil with a pH usually between 4.5 and 6
  • Soil that drains well and is rich in organic matter
  • A consistent level of moisture
  • Dappled shade, although it will tolerate a variety of sun exposures
Smaller rhododendron species, possibly Rhododendron Japonica, the Japanese Azalea. Photos by Brenda Bye. 

Having the right soil conditions is very important before you plant your rhododendron. Many of us in Western Oregon already have acidic soils but if you have questions about getting your soil tested or how to interpret a soil test, I would recommend reaching out to your local OSU Extension Office. You can also reach them online at https://extension.oregonstate.edu/ask-expert.

Rhododendrons can be prone to root rot. That is one reason to mix in a good amount of organic matter into your planting site. Some sources recommend a mix of 50% organic matter. In addition to building healthy soil this organic matter will make sure the roots are getting oxygen and not becoming soggy. Organic matter also helps to feed your plant to keep it healthy. 

Smaller rhododendron species, possibly Rhododendron Japonica, the Japanese Azalea. Photos by Brenda Bye. 

Before you place your new rhododendron in the ground make sure to water it well. When you place the root ball in the ground it should be planted at the same level as it was in the pot. Then mulch it with a thick layer of pine bark mulch, which is good for those acid loving plants. Make sure there is a nice ring of space between your trunk and your mulch to prevent fungal diseases. As the mulch breaks down it will also provide more nutrients to your rhododendron. 

Although rhododendrons have specific soil requirements, they are very easy to care for once planted. The mulch and organic soil you used will help the soil have consistent moisture, but they may need additional watering in the heat of summer. They generally don’t need to be trimmed but do benefit from deadheading spent flowers. Rhododendrons appreciate a yearly fertilizer in the fall and a refresh of their mulch. 

Rhododendrons look great as foundation plantings around your home. Their range of colors will fit into any planting scheme and they will bloom for years to come. If you don’t have one yet, consider planting a rhododendron. 

If you are looking for more information about this flowering shrub, check out the resources of the American Rhododendron Society, www.rhododendron.org. And here is a very in depth article from the Pacific Horticultural Society about the Western Azalea https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/western-azalea-beauty-and-fragrance/

Less water, successful veggies

By Diane Hyde, OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Credit: Markus Spiske. Indeterminate (vine) tomatoes, especially earlier-producing small cherry varieties, produce flavorful fruit in a dry garden.

Summers are getting hotter and drier while water is getting more expensive. Some vegetables can produce acceptable yields successfully with no supplemental irrigation with some careful planning. Not all vegtables are suitable for dry gardening, and not all locations will support gardens without water. Dry farming has been done for millennia, and knowledge of the practice has been passed on in a few farming families and cultures.

Oregon State University Extension Dry Farming Project has focused on management strategies to grow with little or no irrigation. Yields may be 25% to 50% less than irrigated crops because plants are spaced out farther apart. Each plant can still have good yield, so a family dry garden might take more space to provide as much produce. Produce grown without irrigation has often been judged to be more better in color, texture and sweetness in taste comparisons. 

Successful dry gardening requires soil that will retain spring rain water. Clay soils and organic humus will hold seasonal moisture, but if the underlying ground has rock that drains well then water will not be available for the summer. Four feet of moisture-retentive soil is recommended. Shallow, rocky or sandy soils may not hold enough water for decent crop yields. The climate should have a wet period, like ours, that provides lots of moisture prior to the dry period. The dry garden area should have no competing trees, shrubs or turf sucking up the water before the vegetables can get it.

Sloped land holds less water than flat land. South-facing gardens lose more water to evaporation than north-facing gardens. A windy garden site will lose water from plant leaf evapotranspiration. A site that grows good weeds or healthy blackberries with no irrigation may be a good place to transform into a dry garden. 

To dry garden in summer, plant as early in Spring as possible to take advantage of seasonal rain. Soil in our area can often be prepared as early as February to April, but frost dates and soil temperatures limit which veg will grow that early. Seeds need to be planted in wet soil, deeper that the seed packet recommends if the surface has dried. Pre-soaking seeds 24 hours before planting helps them germinate and establish more quickly. Transplants may need to have all but the top leaves removed and the stems buried as deep as possible. Mudding in the plants at planting, filling the hole with water, will get the roots started well so they can deal with no more irrigation. 

Roots will reach deeper and wider in a dry garden, so more space per plant will be required, probably at least twice the space recommended on the seed packet. Because there is less water applied to dissolve ground minerals, lime applied to the soil before planting helps prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes, squashes, peppers and other veg that require more calcium. Mulches applied deeply after the plants are established will retain more moisture and keep the soil cooler. 

Indeterminate (vine) tomatoes, especially earlier-producing small cherry varieties, produce flavorful fruit in a dry garden if they are started well. Peppers, potatoes, winter squash, zucchini, melons, dry beans and corn are commonly dry-farmed. Beets, carrots, chard, kale, leeks, rutabagas will grow without irrigation, but will do better with occasional water. Fall-planted garlic, fava beans, root crops and leafy greens establish in the rainy season and mature without irrigation in early summer. Fall-planted broccoli, kale and other cool-season crops can grow through winter but bolt and flower quickly when warmer weather arrives. Spring-planted onions, celery, radishes and greens require irrigation to be productive. Choosing varieties with shorter growing periods listed on the seed packets means they might complete their growing cycle before the water dries up. 

For more information about dry vegetable gardening and a list of resources visit http://center for small farems.oregonstate.edu/dry farm.

Extension publication “Intro to Dry Farming Organic Vegetables” is available for free download at catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/EM9229. 

From the Demonstration Garden: an Introduction

By Sandy N, Master Gardener Volunteer

Credit: Sigmund

Welcome to my post! I’m Sandy N., and this is my fourth year as a Master Gardener. This is also my third year as a volunteer at the Benton County Master Gardeners’ Demonstration Garden (known affectionately as “the Demo Garden”), and that’s the topic I will tell you about today.

The Demo Garden is an instructional garden that illustrates best practices for sustainable home gardening in our area. The garden was started in 1995 at the Benton County Fairground in Corvallis and is located on the South side of Fairground, just inside the fence and to the West of the ticket booth entrance. The garden covers more than 115′ x 40′ — plenty of space to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables suitable for our climate and soil while allowing us to showcase a variety of plants and gardening techniques. Here you will find vegetables ranging from asparagus to zucchini (including a few exotic crops, like hops), as well as herbs, fruits, and berries that are all well-suited for growing in our area. We also display a variety of gardening techniques in the Demo Garden — espaliered fruit trees, several types of raised beds, several types of compost bins, a variety of row coverings, dry land gardening, drip irrigation, non-toxic pest control, winter cover crops and more!  

During the summer we work in the garden once a week, tending our crops and weighing our harvest. We often sample our produce to evaluate flavor, texture and usefulness in cooking (e.g. are these tomatoes flavorful enough to make good tomato sauce?), but the majority of our harvest is donated to local food banks and to the Fairground employees who keep our water flowing and our animal pests under control.

hops on the vine
Credit: Markus Spiske

In normal years visitors are welcome to walk through the garden whenever the Fairground is open. During the annual Benton County Fair we staff the Demo Garden with volunteers who can answer questions about gardening, as well as entertain young gardeners with garden-themed games. We also sponsor evening “Walk In the Garden” events, again with Master Gardeners available to answer questions.

person's hand holding freshly dug carrots with dirt on them
Credit: Markus Spiske

But last year when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Fairground to close, the public could no longer visit, and only a small number of Demo Garden volunteers were allowed to work in the garden — while social distancing and wearing masks. Only about half of the garden was planted with crops, and as the pandemic worsened our volunteers decided that all of the produce that was harvested should be donated to food banks in Corvallis and Philomath to help families experiencing food shortages. By the end of the summer, over 750 pounds of fresh produce had been donated locally! 

 Sadly, the Fairground is still closed, so we can’t invite you to visit our garden quite yet. In mid-April Master Gardener volunteers were allowed to return to the garden to prepare the soil for planting, and this year the entire garden will be planted with produce that we will donate to local food banks to help families in need.

Hands holding blueberry fruit
Credit: Markus Spiske

Even though the Fairground is closed, we would like to keep you informed about our activities in the garden, so one of my colleagues will post a short, weekly garden update to this blog, describing what we did in the garden and (once we start harvesting) how many pounds of produce we took to food banks that week. In addition, several of my colleagues and I will write posts that describe some of the techniques we use in the garden.

We are looking forward to the day when we can welcome you back to the Demo Garden, but until then we hope our posts will prove to be interesting and useful to  you– just look for posts with the words “Demonstration Garden” in the title! 

Reduce stress with these easy houseplants

by Celeste Pace, Master Gardener Volunteer

According to Texas A&M Extension, “Studies show that people who spend time cultivating plants have less stress in their lives. Plants soothe human beings and provide a positive way for people to channel their stress into nurturing.Most of us are experiencing increased stress right now, so bring on the plants! Even if you live in a small space with zero garden, these easy house plants can provide the benefits of stress reduction and more, with no green thumb required.

Sansevieria trifasciata– Mother in Law’s Tongue 

Sansevieria trifasciata plant has large pointed green leaves with pale green edges.
Photo by: Martin Olsson (mnemo on wikipedia and commons, martin@minimum.se), Snake plant, CC BY-SA 3.0 Sansevieria trifasciata

Sansevierias are one of the easiest houseplants you can get because of their willingness to be put in almost any situation. Sansevierias can handle high light or very low light, just make sure to adjust your watering depending on the light level. They don’t want their roots to stay wet so only water when the soil feels dry to the touch. They can tolerate a wide temperature range, anywhere from 55 to 85 °F, but don’t like to be around the low 50s for prolonged periods. They aren’t heavy feeders so you don’t need to worry about fertilizing them very often. A mild fertilizer can be used in the summer months while it’s putting on new growth. Sansevierias are known to flower when they become stressed but once you figure out whats wrong, it’ll bounce right back. They have non showy blooms that can be pruned at the base of the stalk. Sansevierias are also wonderful air purifiers. Studies have shown that they not only release a noticeable amount of oxygen through respiration, they also purify the air. They absorb four of the most common house air pollutants (formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide.) A great plant to keep around the house or office!

For more about the care of Sansevieriahttp://erie.cce.cornell.edu/resources/sansevieria-trifasciata

To learn more about houseplants purifying air:  http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/FactSheets/houseplants-for-clean-air.php

Spathiphyllum- Peace Lily 

Spathiphyllum lancifolium (Peace lily) has a white teardrop shaped flower with a large yellow stamen in the center.
Photo by: geoff mckay from Palmerston North, New Zealand, Spathiphyllum lancifolium (Peace lily) (49475281073), CC BY 2.0

Spathiphyllum are great ornamental plants with dark to medium green foliage and white blooms. They prefer bright indirect light but will tolerate lower light levels as long as they aren’t overwatered. However, they do like to stay on the moister side so don’t let them dry back completely between waterings, they can be quite dramatic and will let you know with wilted foliage if you’ve waited too long on watering. They also aren’t very heavy feeders and will be fine with only being fertilized once or twice a year. Since Peace Lilies are known for liking more water the majority of problems with them come from overwatering, make sure your plant is in well drained soil and you don’t let it sit in water. Spathiphyllum are tropical plants and like warmer weather, they will tolerate temperatures between 68 and 85 °F. They are poisonous so keep away from children and pets. 

There are two main parts of Peace Lilies flowers; the spathe and spadix. The spadix is the flowering spike that actually contains the florets and pollen, while the spathe is a bract that surrounds the spathe. If flowers are left to mature on the plant the spadix will often shed pollen on the foliage leaving a white dusting that can easily be whipped off. Some people choose to cut the spadix out at the base and leave just the white spathe. Either way, their lovely white blooms are guaranteed to bring brightness to the darker corners of your home! 

For more on Spathiphyllum culture and varieties: 

For more on Spathiphyllum flowering:

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep320

Zamioculcas zamiifolia- ZZ Plant 

Photo by: MokkieZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)CC BY-SA 3.0

ZZ Plants are incredibly easy to care for, they tolerate low light and extended periods of drought. This is a perfect plant to ignore and only care for it when you remember. ZZ Plants will thrive in bright indirect light but like previously mentioned, they will tolerate all different types of light levels. These plants are already known as slow growing so with less light it will really be slow.  Let the plants soil dry completely before watering but water thoroughly until water comes out of the bottom of the pot. Make sure to discard excess water so the plant is not sitting in it. Like Sansevierias, ZZ Plants like a mild fertilizer to be applied during the growing season.  

Since the foliage is so glossy and shiny, if neglected dust shows on this plant fast. However, it is extremely easy to wipe off with a wet rag. ZZ Plants have almost no pests but problems can arise if over watered. ZZ Plants are toxic if ingested by humans and pets. 

For more information: 

https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/2009/2-4/Zamioculcas.html

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/zamioculcas-zamiifolia/

Epipremnum aureum- Pothos 

Pothos , Liane du diable

Pothos are amazing additions to your home or even your office as they can survive off of fluorescent lights or indirect light from outside. They don’t require bright light and will still grow in the darker areas of your home but they will also do well in a brighter area. There are several varieties of pothos and different variegation patterns. Keep in mind that with different variegations light requirements will change. Make sure to let soil dry between waterings and make sure they are not sitting in water. Pothos don’t like to be root bound in a pot so if you see roots starting to pop out of the bottom of the pot it might be time to upgrade. Pothos like to be fertilized about every three months but will still put on new growth without it. 

To keep a tidy foliage crown prune back vines for a more uniform growth habit. If you let vines grow naturally over time foliage will start to thin, cut them back to the soil to promote new- fuller growth. Pothos don’t have a lot of pests but mealybugs can be an issue. If you notice mealybugs act fast and control the pests before they spread to other plants. All parts of this plant is poisonous to humans and pets. 

http://erie.cce.cornell.edu/resources/wny-gardening-matters-article-109

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/epipremnum-aureum/

 For a list of different varieties: 

Ficus elastica- Rubber Tree 

RabeeratrixeHK Sheung Wan 18 Po Hing Fong barber shop Ficus elastica Indian rubber tree Aug-2012CC BY-SA 3.0

These intriguing trees are a great way to add a different texture to your house plant collection. They have very large, glossy and almost leather like dark green foliage that will drip a white sap when damaged or removed. The sap can be irritating if it makes contact with skin. Ficus elastica like indirect light but will tolerate lower light levels. However, they will not tolerate cold drafts. They also don’t like to be moved and if they are moved too often it can result in leaf drop. Let the soil dry back between waterings but do not let them go dry for long periods. It is best to underwater this plant than overwater it. They like 55-85 degrees fahrenheit and will not tolerate any lower. Mealybugs, scale and spider mites can all be an issue on rubber trees. Pruning is not time consuming with these trees as it is common for the lower leaves to yellow and drop. However, given enough light they grow quickly and might need to be pruned to fit their original space as they can grow to be 6-10 feet indoors.

If the growth is sparse and leggy they can be staked up for support so stems do not lean. The leaves can be wiped off with a damp cloth, just be careful to not crack the leaves. Ficus elastica is very easy to propagate. If you take a stem cutting and let it sit in water, roots should start appearing after a week or two. 

To learn more: 

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ficus-elastica/

Dracaena (Dra-C-na)

Photo of Dracaena ‘Warneckii’ by: KENPEI, Dracaena deremensis2CC BY-SA 3.0

Dracaenas come in many different sizes, shapes and colors but overall have mostly the same needs. They like to dry back slightly between waterings so only water when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. They love bright indirect light but will tolerate medium to low light levels. They like day time temperatures to be between 60-70°F and around 10 degrees cooler at night. They like a little more humidity than most houses have so they benefit from their foliage being misted occasionally. Some Dracaenas can grow to be up to ten feet tall, if you have this variety and it is outgrowing its space you can cut the stalk at the desired height and it will sprout new leaves lower down. Scale and spider mites are the most common pests along with root rot. 

Dracaena marginata (Dragon Tree) is incredibly susceptible to spider mites but is an intriguing variety. It has strappy long foliage with narrow purple margins and is sometimes trained to have a bend in the stem. It tolerates low light and has the same water requirements. 

‘Warneckii’ is often referred to as “the best variegated plant for low light.” It is shorter than other varieties growing to be only around 2-4 feet. It has a white stripes running down its foliage and is a great desk plant. 

For more on care and other varieties: 

For information on toxic plants visit: 

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants

https://www.poison.org/articles/plant

Starting from scratch and constantly learning

Master gardener trainee Allison Socha joined the Master Gardener Program of Linn & Benton County in 2020. Allison and her classmates adapted to the many challenges of 2020 by finding new ways to connect with gardeners and build community online.

Photo courtesy of Allison Socha

Tell us about your hometown.

I grew up in the Bay Area in Union City, CA. As a child in the 80’s and 90’s Union City was known as the Gladiolus capital of the world. However, like many places in the Bay Area, vast swatches of farmland were soon replaced with houses, houses, and more houses. As I became an adult, I realized that life in the crowded suburbs was not for me, and was especially not somewhere I wanted to raise my children. About two years ago, my husband and I got the idea to “move to the woods” and in June 2019 we were able to make that dream come true when we bought our house in Philomath. My hope is that this house in the woods will provide the perfect green backdrop for my 4-year-old daughter’s imaginative play for years to come. 

What’s a favorite garden memory? 

When my daughter was about a year old we started our first vegetable garden in our Bay Area home. We lived in a very hot part of the Bay Area that tomatoes loved. That first summer our cherry tomato plants exploded with fruit in the middle of the summer. I gave my daughter one of the sungolds with no expectation that she would like it, being that she was only a year old. To my surprise she absolutely adored it. She begged for more and more, and almost every tomato on the plant ended up in her stomach. She still loves tomatoes to this day, we can’t keep them in our house long. I will always grow tomatoes just to watch her enjoy them so much. Over the years, her love of veggies has grown, and she will scarf down peas and zucchini too. But nothing compares to her first love of tomatoes. 

Tell us about your current garden.

We moved to our two acre lot in Philomath just over a year ago. Most of our land is Douglas Firs on a steep hillside, but we have one flat spot perfect for a vegetable garden, although it doesn’t get quite as much sun as I would hope for. In January of this year we were able to get the spot cleared and built some raised beds surrounded by a 7 foot deer fence (because country deer jump higher than city deer). After the pandemic hit, I was so happy to have a space to grow our own little “victory garden”. I definitely still have a lot to learn about gardening in this Pacific Northwest. But I am happy with what we were able to produce this year. We had success with peas, strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, and broccoli. 

Orange California poppies in a beautifully overgrown garden.
Eschscholzia californica, or California poppy. Photo by Madeleine Maguire on Unsplash

Describe a plant that reminds you of home.

Growing up in the Bay Area we spent many days hiking in the hills. My parents both love

California native plants and taught me to identify them as we meandered the trails. Of course, one of my favorite seasons was in Spring when the California Poppies would turn the hills a brilliant orange. When I was a little older, my parents ripped out their front lawn and filled in the space with native plants. It wasn’t long before the poppies took over, and every late March and early April their garden would explode with poppies. I saw a singular California Poppy come up in my garden here in Philomath this Summer, and it immediately transported me back to my parents’ garden, hiking the hills, and home.  

Why did you become a Master Gardener volunteer?

I decided to become a Master Gardener because I was new to Oregon and the Corvallis area and I wanted to expand my personal community while also learning about gardening techniques in the Pacific Northwest. When my family and I moved to Oregon we didn’t have any connections in this area, so we were basically starting from scratch. I thought that the Master Gardener program would be the best way for me to dive deeper into one of my interests while at the same time meeting new people who had similar interests as me. As I learned more about the program, I also realized how fulfilling it would be to already build a foundation of giving back to the community so soon after moving to a new place. I hope to be an example to my daughter in the importance of volunteering. 

What’s one thing people might be surprised to know about you and/or your garden?

People might be surprised to learn that I had very limited gardening experience and knowledge before I joined the Master Gardener program. You don’t actually need to have a lot of knowledge to start out with, just an interest and drive to learn more and give back to your community. I have learned so much this last year through my classes and hands-on activities but I know I have so much more to learn. Some of the most inspirational Master Gardeners I have met so far make it clear that they too are constantly learning and don’t have all the answers. One thing that surprised me the most about this program was that it is more important to know how to find the answers to gardening questions than to know the answers off the top of your head. 

Learn more about citizen science in the garden and how garden researchers work in this post.

Get The Valley Gardener Newsletter to stay connected with our upcoming learning opportunities for gardeners.

Empowering gardeners in uncertain times

By Emily Herb, Master Gardener Volunteer

In March 2020 the Benton County Master Gardeners were facing the same shut down challenges as everyone else in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched itself toward Oregon and the waves of closures, cancelations, and eventually quarantine were announced day after day. In the Benton County Master Gardeners I am a member of the Community Gardening Education Team. Spring and Summer are our main programmatic seasons and we had many events, including several sessions of a hands-on basic gardening class called Seed to Supper in the Garden, that folded along with everything else. Honestly, as much as I care about gardening, these classes were not my main concern at the time. I had to let them go, along with so many other things, and see what this era would bring.

I was out in my vegetable garden one of those March days, doing my best to center myself when I heard my phone “bling” with a new email. With the frantic pace of change and announcements from all sectors of my life, I knew I needed to take a look, even as I was trying some escapism out in the dirt. This new email was from a member of the Community Gardening Education Team asking members to please consider joining a Zoom meeting that day to brainstorm the idea of moving our Seed to Supper classes online. I must admit that I had been ignoring this email chain because I was already overwhelmed with my paid work being moved to online and the thought of any more screen time made me queasy. Also, I am a strong advocate for hands-on learning, so the idea of teaching gardening online didn’t appeal to me. My mind was closed and thus I closed the email, without replying, and got back to my gardening. But, as I worked my mind started working. I started seeing that there could be a way to be “hands on” online. I thought, “we could make movies! Everyone in their backyard could make movies as they went about putting their gardens in and we could share that online!”. I took my phone back out of my pocket and shared my idea with the group and committed myself to the afternoon meeting. 

The Community Gardening Education Team (CGET) team is made up of a bunch of wonderful women who have a desire to educate the community about growing their own food. There is a strong social justice bend to this group and I thoroughly appreciate them. During that  afternoon meeting we had a powerful conversation about how we could be useful and relevant to the vegetable gardeners of Benton County, especially during the lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elizabeth Records, the Educational Program Assistant for Master Gardeners for Linn and Benton Counties, shared with the Team the staggering number of people who had signed up for the online gardening class that the extension service had made available for free, as a response to the pandemic. People seemed to have a newfound enthusiasm for growing their own food as they were stuck at home during uncertain times. We talked about how we could reach these people, how we could get seeds and plants into the hands of people who needed them, and about how we could educate people and help them make gardens with what they had on hand in the homes that they were confined to. 

Two exciting ideas came out of this meeting. One was to move forward with offering Seed to Supper online through Zoom and a subgroup from CGET moved forward with modifying the curriculum of that class to meet the challenges of the online environment, but also with the thought that they could add warmth through personal pictures, gardening stories, and maybe even some backyard movies! Another idea was to host Virtual Veggie Q&As to try to meet the needs of the new gardeners at home through answering their questions live and in real time during a Zoom call in session. I was among the group that decided to launch that effort. I am so glad that despite how shut down I was feeling in the garden that morning that I opened myself enough to join this meeting and be carried away with the creativity and meaningful work of CGET.    

A couple of weeks later I found myself with Elizabeth and two other Master Gardeners, Sue and Jennifer, on Zoom getting ready for our first Veggie Q&A. I’m afraid as we were all still novices to Zoom we had a number of technical difficulties, but regardless of that, we made it work! We had a good number of participants and the four of us found our rhythm answering questions, posting resources, and sharing the new online space with our participants and each other. Since that first Q&A we have had a total of 6 Virtual Veggie Q&As and all of them have been well attended and enjoyed by facilitators and participants alike. The spontaneous nature of the call in format makes it a very lively and authentic exchange with people getting answers to questions they have right then about problems they are having in their vegetable gardens or advice they are seeking about plans they have for the future. We are not always able to answer all the questions, but in a way that adds to the authenticity and vulnerability of the experience! And we can always promise them to research their issue later and email them an answer. Recently we have pulled in other Master Gardeners to answer questions and I hear that our idea has even spread to other counties! We are getting better with our technology as well, and Elizabeth now has us streaming Live on Facebook as well as making podcasts of our sessions after we are done. We didn’t have any idea that our small attempt to reach people and be relevant during the pandemic would get so big.

Another little side story related to all of this is how Veggie Q&A opened the door to reaching out to a community in Oregon that previously had little contact with Master Gardeners. In my professional life I am a Sign Language interpreter and when we started hosting the Veggie Q&As I posted the advertisements for them on my Facebook page. One of my Deaf friends reached out to me to see if there would be a possibility of offering a similar opportunity in Sign Language. My friend and I worked with the Master Gardeners, who were very excited about this opportunity, to set this up and since then have had two Veggie Q&As in American Sign Language that have been open to all of those who use that language. Similarly, we currently have a person who will be joining our next English Veggie Q&A to see if it would be possible to offer a Spanish session. New ideas lead to more new ideas!

I believe many stories will be written about all the new things we learned how to do professionally, personally, and within our community groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is one of those stories. I don’t think telling these stories is a way to put a positive spin on the whole thing, but rather a reporting of our experiences during a time when we had to give up on doing things in person and physically together and figure out a different way of being. Not figuring it out meant giving up on meaning and purpose. I hope that next Spring we will be back to offering Seed to Supper actually in the garden, but I bet that we keep offering it online as well! I also imagine that we will keep up with our Virtual Veggie Q&As and use them as a way to reach more and more people. Opening up to the limitations of Spring and Summer 2020 brought forth our creativity as a path toward meaning and purpose. I am proud of how Benton County Master Gardeners and the Community Gardening Education Team moved into that space and brought gardening to more people during uncertain times. 

To listen to our podcast of Veggie Gardening Q&As, CLICK HERE.

Start your garden with these five resources you can access from home

Birdseye view of person and dog at outdoor table in a garden, working on a laptop.
  1. Start with a research-based introduction to growing food at home. Our favorite is Growing Your Own from OSU Extension. Learn when to plant, how to prepare your growing space, stopping pests and more: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/em9027
  2. Where can you get garden supplies? Plant Something Oregon has a list of suppliers that offer a range of options for safer shopping. Find them here: https://plantsomethingoregon.com/coronavirus/
  3. Where to get your soil tested? Master Gardener volunteers are not currently able to test soil pH, so gardeners will need to send samples to soil testing labs found in Analytical Laboratories Serving Oregon: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/em8677

These labs can provide a variety of services. Most home gardeners who are growing plants in the ground will want to check soil pH as well as levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Many labs offer the option to request recommendations for amending soil when ordering their tests. Learn how to take a good soil sample to achieve the most accurate results with A Guide to Collecting Soil Samples for Farms and Gardens: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/ec628

4. Use research-based resources to find garden solutions. OSU Extension offers straightforward tested resources to build resiliency for by growing gardens in this amazing virtual collection: https://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening

5. Connect with real gardeners to get help! Though our offices may be closed, OSU Extension Master Gardeners are still available to answer your gardening questions by phone or email. Please leave us a detailed voicemail and a callback number. We’re also checking email! Share your photos of plant or insect problems with us. Master Gardeners will research your question and give you a call back or send an email. In Benton County: (541) 713-5000 or email: bentonmg@oregonstate.edu In Linn County: (541) 967-3871 or email: linn.mg@oregonstate.edu

Before Reaching for Pesticides, Get to Know Beneficials – The Good Guys!

By Judi Di Bord, Master Gardener Volunteer

Did you know there is an alternative to controlling pests in your garden by using a pesticide?  Attracting beneficial insects, like lady beetles, green lacewings, praying mantis and dragonflies can help control insects that feed on your plants.  Beneficials don’t just help control pests. Some beneficials are also important pollinators! 

Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) on an Common Yarrow's umbel (Achillea millefolium)
Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) on an Common Yarrow’s umbel (Achillea millefolium). By Hélène Rival on Wikimedia Commons.

How can you attract beneficials to your garden?  One way is to purchase them at a local garden center and release them into your garden.  You can also attract them to your garden by growing plants to provide an enticing habitat for them.  If you are able to dedicate some space to growing these habitat plants, the rest of your garden can reap the rewards.

Following are some recommendations from the Penn State Extension Service:

  • Carrot Family (Apiaceae)  Plants in the carrot family are especially attractive to small parasitic wasps and flies. Interplant them in your vegetable garden and flower beds. Plants in this family include: caraway (Carum carvi); coriander/cilantro (Coriandrum sativum); dill (Anethum graveolens); fennel (Foeniculum vulgare); Bishop’s flower (Ammi majus); Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota); and toothpick ammi (Ammi visnaga).
  • Aster Family (Asteraceae)  Attractive to larger predators such as lady beetles and soldier beetles. Incorporate into the vegetable garden and flower beds. Plants in this family include: blanketflower (Gaillardia spp.); coneflower (Echinacea spp.); coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.); cosmos (Cosmos spp.); golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria); goldenrod (Solidago spp.); signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia); sunflower (Helianthus spp.); tansy (Tanacetum vulgare); and yarrow (Achillea spp.).
  • Legumes (Fabaceae)  Generally grown as cover crops and attractive to many beneficials. Plants in this family include: alfalfa (Medicago sativa); fava bean (Vicia fava); hairy vetch (Vicia villosa); and sweet clover (Melilotus spp.).
  • Mustard Family (Brassicaceae)  Attractive to beneficials that are parasites and predators of the insect pests of the mustard family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, mustard greens). Be sure to plant these away from the garden rather than in the garden since these plants attract pests as well as beneficials. Some are common weeds, such as yellow rocket and wild mustard. Plants in this family include: basket-of-gold alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis); mustards (Brassica spp.); sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima); yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris); and wild mustard (Brassica kaber).
  • Verbena Family (Verbenaceae)  Attractive to a variety of beneficial insects. Many plants in this family are favorite garden flowers. They include: lantana (Lantana camera); Buenos Aires verbena (Verbena bonariensis); hybrid verbena (Verbena x hybrida); and lilac vervain (Verbena rigida).

Beneficial insects also need a source of water. Shallow containers such as ceramic pot saucers with pebbles for the beneficials to rest on are best.

Suggested OSU Extension publications:

PNW550: Encouraging Beneficials in Your Garden

For kids:

EC1601: The Wildlife Garden: Dragonfly

EC1604: The Wildlife Garden: Lady Beetle

EC1605: The Wildlife Garden: Praying Mantis

Suggested websites:

National Pesticide Information Center, Beneficial Insects.

Penn State Extension, Attracting Beneficial Insects

Sharing a love of gardening with children

Michele Ecker became an OSU Extension Master Gardener in Linn County in 2014. She is active in supporting the Linn County Master Gardener Association’s Albany Garden Tour. Michele is always willing to lend a hand especially with children’s gardening activities. Michele shared her story in Fall 2019.

Tell us about your hometown.

My roots are in the Midwest. My family moved to Oregon from Wisconsin when I was a teenager, but I’ve lived in the Willamette Valley since I went to the University of Oregon in the early 80’s. We moved to Albany in 1984 from Klamath Falls when my husband, Lane, got a job with the Oregon Dept. of Transportation. Our daughters attended St. Mary’s School, Calapooia Middle School and South Albany High School. I think Albany is a great place to raise a family and there are certainly a lot of good things to appreciate and enjoy here. One daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren currently live in Albany. I LOVE the long growing season in the Willamette Valley! I have a gardening friend in Wisconsin who is always envious when I send pictures from our early Spring garden.

What does being a Master Gardener volunteer mean to you?

I’ve always thought that it’s important to give some of my time for volunteering in order to connect with our community and help others. As a Master Gardener I can share my time and knowledge about gardening to encourage others and help them increase their gardening skills and knowledge. I enjoy problem solving too, so finding research-based answers for people who have gardening problems is fun for me, although I have to admit that sometimes I get frustrated on the occasions when it’s difficult to solve a problem with a definitive answer. My favorite activity is to combine children and gardening.  I’ve enjoyed being involved with a school garden and the Power of Produce (PoP) program offered at the summer Farmer’s Market. 

What’s a favorite garden memory? 

I have had many wonderful garden experiences! One favorite includes being in the garden on an early summer morning and just absorbing the smell, sight and quiet stillness. A fresh picked, warm and ripe tomato, eaten straight from the vine is my favorite taste sensation! In the fall I love to go to the apple orchard, taste the different varieties of fruit and fill boxes to take home for making applesauce or cider with our family.

Tell us about your current garden.

We live on a plot just under one acre with lots of mature fir and oak trees, so our yard is mostly shady. Deer and other “critters” frequently visit our yard too, so there are some challenges to address. The sun is best in the front, so I grow food, flowers and herbs in an area with southern exposure. I am fortunate to have a very handy husband who constructed raised beds and plumbed water for me. In a larger area on the other side of the yard, I grow mostly flowers with some food mixed in. I have a large pot with only edibles, so the grandchildren can taste flowers and herbs, which they enjoy. Tomatoes, cucumbers (grown vertically to save space) basil and zucchini are staples in my garden. I also like to grow beets, peas, broccolini, herbs for cooking, arugula, fennel, hops and pumpkins. A bay tree has grown happily in a pot for several years. A funny “fail” I had in the garden was growing carrots. On the third try, the carrot tops had grown about an inch high and I was very excited that I was finally getting carrots to grow. I was in the garden with my grandchildren, ages 4 and 7, helping my grandson plant seeds when my granddaughter called, “Look, grandma, I pulled out the weeds!” She had pulled out the entire row of carrot greens! I enjoy growing a variety of perennial and annual flowers including foxglove, roses, dahlias, black-eyed susans, Japanese anemone, iris, clematis, nasturtium, nigella, poppies, and more. Sharing bouquets of flowers with friends and family gives me great joy. 

Describe a plant that reminds you of home.

While I was growing up my family moved a few times but mom always planted rhubarb wherever we lived. My siblings and I used to love pulling out a stalk of rhubarb, dipping it in sugar and eating it. I have rhubarb in my garden today and love to use it in different ways. A family favorite is a rhubarb bread recipe from my grandma that was printed in a “heart healthy” cookbook.

What’s one thing people might be surprised to know about you and/or your garden?

Dividing dahlia tubers is a great challenge for me, even though I’ve grown them for years and I try each year, I still have to consult with my brother-in-law who is an expert at growing dahlias.  

How did you begin gardening?

My gardening journey began when I was in elementary school and my family lived in rural Wisconsin on three acres. Dad decided we should have a large garden and each of us five children got to choose what we wanted to plant. I planted gourds and at the end of the season I sold them to the local grocery store and made some money. After my family moved, I don’t remember having a garden again. Eventually my family landed in Bend, Oregon, where we still grew rhubarb, but no other garden to speak of.

It was after I was married and we lived in a nondescript rental home when I wanted to plant some flowers in our yard. My husband’s grandmother bought me some stock and pansies and I wondered why they didn’t grow very well in the hard, cracked, clay soil. By this time I had three young daughters to “grow”, so I didn’t really have time for watering.

Why did you become a Master Gardener volunteer?

When our daughters were older, we planted flowers together at our own house. My youngest daughter, Alison, could walk down the fence, point to the variety of flowers and name them all at a very young age. Soon after, we removed a row of photinia and my husband made me some raised planting beds. We tried growing some vegetables and fruits, with varying degrees of success. I saw an article in the Albany Democrat-Herald about the Master Gardening class and thought it looked interesting. However, at the time, I was teaching full time and couldn’t take the classes. When I retired from teaching, the Master Gardener training was on my list of things to do. I asked a friend to join me, she said yes, and we took the training in 2014.

You can help grow knowledge, gardens and communities. Applications for the 2020 Volunteer Program are open until December 3rd.  Learn more and join us.