Master Gardeners

Carrina Stanton/For The Chronicle Master Gardener MaryAnn Albenesius trims grass at the Borst Park demonstration garden on a recent Saturday. Master Gardeners usually work in teams to maintain the program's four demonstration gardens but these days work solo to adhere to social distancing standards.

Saturday mornings have definitely been different at the Borst demonstration garden.

Usually bustling with master gardeners working on upkeep, and sometimes offering workshops to the community, the resource is now fairly quiet. The volunteers, used to working in groups, now come solo to maintain social distancing.

“We’re just trying to figure out where to go from here and how to get there,” said MaryAnn Albenesius, working with her husband, Bob, at the site on a recent Saturday.

Because the WSU Lewis County Extension office’s physical location in Chehalis has been closed, many people have wrongly assumed that the Master Gardener program is also closed, said Jason Adams, head of the WSU Lewis County Extension Master Gardener Program. Since the majority of Lewis County Master Gardeners are older adults, Adams said the membership had already begun talking about strategies for continuing their work in the event that a shelter in place order was made. There was never a question in any of their minds that the nonprofit’s work would continue, said master gardener Barbara Eastman.

“We’ve been in Lewis County for 40 years. We’re in it for the long haul,” Eastman said.

Since the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect mid-March, master gardeners have been using the Zoom app for meetings and have been trying through social media to reach the community and let them know they’re ready and willing to help.

“We’re a county educational resource and a lot of us are feeling kind of lost because we aren’t doing what we feel called to do,” Adams said.

The spring version of the Master Gardeners’ Gardening for Everyone, planned for April 4, was canceled this month. And last week, the decision was made to cancel the May 16 Master Gardener Plant Sale. This is the first time in the sale’s history that it has been canceled, said Albenesius. Adams said the plant sale, which is the program’s primary fundraiser for the year, usually provides $30,000 of the program’s annual revenue.

“Thankfully, we have some really responsible people on our board,” Adams said. “The membership votes on every big purchase but they have managed the money well enough that we’re not going to crumble because of it.”

Still, the loss of this year’s plant sale will be a hit, Albenesius said. 

“That’s our fundraiser for the year,” she said. “That’s how we pay for the coordinator salary, the demonstration gardens. It’s how we have printouts for our classes.”

The Master Gardeners growing starts for this year’s sale had planned to have about 10,000 plants available to sell this year. Eastman, who works on plants for the sale all year long, said most of the perennials will simply be held until next year’s sale. As for the annuals, each individual master gardener raising plants for the sale was tasked with finding homes for them. Eastman said they are aware that many people in Lewis County are reeling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown and plan to use their plants to try to help. Many of the vegetable starts will end up at one of the four demonstration gardens the master gardeners run throughout the county as both an educational resource for those wanting to grow their own food as well as a way to get fresh food into the hands of needy citizens. Eastman is involved with the Salkum library demo garden and said many of the usual flowers in that garden will be replaced by vegetables this year.

“We’re going to grow as many vegetables as we can for the food banks this year,” Eastman said.  

And the Master Gardeners are not the only ones with vegetable gardens on their minds. With grocery store stocks strained, many people are talking this year about the concept of Victory Gardens, a term coined during World War II when people were encouraged to grow their own food to help with food rationing efforts. Albenesius, who runs the Lewis County Master Gardeners Facebook page, said she has seen a large upswing in people following their page and she sees this as an indicator that more people may be gardening this year and she has responded by adding a lot of content aimed at beginner gardeners.

Eastman said one of her favorite seed companies, Territorial, usually ships seeds in about 24 hours. Now, the company’s website says to expect shipments to take closer to 10-14 days.

“It tells you people are really thinking about gardening this year,” Eastman said. “It gives them something to do and clean food and something to think about other than what’s going on out there.”

If you are itching to get your hands dirty this spring, Albenesius said her biggest piece of advice for first timers is start small. She recommends starting with a small garden patch. If you are short on space, a few patio planters or even a hay bale can make a good garden plot.

“A small, well-tended plot is a lot more productive than a large, weedy mess,” she said.

And while you’re starting small, start simple, too, Albenesius said. She said beginners are better off planting starts rather than trying seeds.

“The first time around, choose something that’s easy to grow,” Albenesius said. “Don’t try watermelon to begin with. Try carrots, radishes, tomatoes.”

And if all this cabin fever has you wishing you could be out in your garden right now, Eastman said there are many seeds that can be planted right now and will tolerate the still chilly evenings. Some of the crops that can be planted this time of year include: many varieties of peas; lettuce; spinach; and root crops such as radishes, carrots and beets. Around May 15, when the weather warms and the last frost has occurred, tomatoes and peppers can finally be planted.

If you’re someone who lives in a home without a large garden space, choose determinate varieties of tomatoes instead of indeterminate, since they will grow more compact and are better suited to growing in a container. Some popular determinate varieties include: Siberian; Rutgers; Roma; summer set; any variety of bush tomato; and the aptly named patio tomato.

With vegetables, timing is everything. A soil temperature of between 55-65 degrees is recommended for some plants to thrive.

“With beans, I’d wait until the first of June,” Eastman noted. “If it’s too early, they’ll just sit there and rot.”

Though Master Gardeners cannot currently hold clinics and workshops, they hope the community will see them as a resource for their gardening questions. For example, Adams said master gardeners would normally hold plant clinics this time of year where people can bring clippings of plants in to get help identifying pests, disease or the type of plant. They cannot hold plant clinics right now, but can still answer questions for people who might normally come in to the plant clinic. He said the best way to ask a plant clinic question is to send a photo with their question to the email or Facebook accounts.

“If someone calls or emails a question, I’ll forward it to whoever was on the schedule to be at the plant clinic and we’ll get you the answer,” Adams said. “That way, we can still help the community and our volunteers can still be engaged.”

To contact the Lewis County Master Gardeners: leave a voicemail at (360) 740-1212; or send a question including photos if needed, to the Lewis County Master Gardeners Facebook page or to mastergardener@lewiscountywa.gov. More general gardening information is also available at lewis-mg-mrc.org or on the Lewis County Master Gardeners Facebook page.

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