Gardening grows in popularity, notes local master gardener

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The desire to grow plants may be its strongest during the first days of spring. The grass is greener, the air is warmer, and tending to a flower or bell pepper sounds like a hobby that just needs doing.

When it comes to gardening in Oneida County, who is is taking up the activity, and what does the culture surrounding it currently look like? The Daily Sentinel sat down with Master Gardener Volunteer Rosanne Loparco from the Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) to gain insight.

The current state

Gardening, Loparco says, has seen a renaissance in recent years as the pandemic has called people to the craft in ways never seen before. She says demand for resources has been booming in the horticulture community since the 2020 shutdowns, with many nurseries completely selling out at record pace during that time.

“And that’s a good thing,” she remarked. “I hope that continues.”

As more and more people start growing their own crop, more and more people can start reaping the benefits, which Loparco says are control over your food, relief on your grocery budget, and proximity to healthier, fresher foods.

Despite this spike in interest, younger people aren’t taking up gardening in the same way as older adults. Loparco recently lead a class through the Mohawk Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement, teaching area seniors about small fruit and vegetable gardening. Retirement has lent time to the hobby for these folks, but the challenge, Loparco says, is filling a room with younger generations who want to learn, too. She says there’s a big gap in age that she’d like to see shrink.

“We’re all busy, and younger people are especially busy,” Loparco admitted. “Especially if you’re a young person with kids, I get it. There’s a lot of demands on your time between your job and kids.”

Misconceptions about growing food keep young people away, too, the gardening expert says. She wants people to know that it doesn’t have to be expensive or take up a lot of space. And no garden is perfect, regardless of expertise. “It is not without its failures,” she shared candidly.

“Put your vegetables close to you where you can see them all the time [and] you keep an eye on them,” Loparco recommends. “And then, if you do have kids, how great a project it is to have [them] involved.”

Often, it’s younger folks’ perspective to acquiring food that discourages them from trying to grow their own. “Younger people have this instant-impact kind of mindset,” Loparco shared. This doesn’t translate well to the practice; it’s a slow burn from seed-to-plate. Tending to a plant over the course of several weeks is a lot different than walking into the store and grabbing a tomato. But “you have no control over the tomato that you buy,” which is an important thing to consider, Loparco says.

How popular home-horticulture will be this upcoming season is unknown, but the local grower is hopeful that the trend will continue upward. And with the state of inflation and rising food costs, she says now is as good a time as ever to get started.

“For people who are economically strapped, you can start a vegetable garden very inexpensively. Seeds are not expensive. You read so much about food insecurity, and it breaks my heart when you hear about that.”

Where to start

Loparco wants everyone to know that you don’t have to be a full-blown farmer to grow your own food. “A five gallon bucket with drainage holes drilled in the bottom is big enough to grow most vegetables. So you don’t need a large space to grow a few crops. Start small and then just work on it more.”

Let’s say you’ve got your bucket, but what about seeds? Varieties? Soil? Watering? And the million other questions garden-newbies might have? Loparco directs anyone seeking answers to the Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension, who’s there to help.

On their website, visitors can find gardening fact sheets, free online garden training classes, and much more. There’s even a horticulture hotline —(315) 736-3394 x100— for all your plant-growing needs.

Loparco likes to teach about what she calls “responsible gardening,” which is the absence of chemicals and a mindfulness of the environment. “It’s not a matter of reaching for a chemical or a pesticide; it’s trying to garden naturally using integrative pest management methods. Changing the way you garden will probably help you to be more successful,” she says.

“Big lawns are not going to give back,” she continued. “It’s all about sustainability down the road and giving back to the environment.” This doesn’t pertain just to food, but to native plants/ flowers, too.

For the right time to start growing, Loparco says to look to the trees. If they’re starting to sprout leaves, that’s a good indicator that the conditions are just right for your own outdoor planting (in the ground). If you’re growing in containers or raised beds, you can start a little earlier, but be careful that a frost won’t do your plants damage. The CCE has resources available to know what plants like to grow, when.

It’s still pretty early to start growing overall, the master gardener says, but it’s a great time to start thinking. “Now is a good time to come up with a plan as to what you want to do and within that plan, have a few goals.” This plan could include making a list of supplies and cleaning/sharpening your tools.

Where to go

When it’s time to gather resources, the Mohawk Valley Growers Association (https://mohawkvalleygrower.wixsite.com/association/copy-of-chester-s-flower-shop-green) is a great place to start. This group features local nurseries like Chester’s Flower Shop and Greenhouses, in Utica, who are ready to help prospective growers in need.

“They’ve been living, breathing their plants. They know what grows well here,” Loparco remarked of local organizations. “Any of our local nurseries are absolutely happy to help people. I think people just don’t ask.” It’s unlikely you’ll get this type of service at a big-box store, Loparco added.

When it comes to sourcing compost—something Loparco says many people don’t realize they can buy outright instead of making their own—she recommends visiting the Oneida County Solid Waste Authority (https://www.ohswa.org/compost/compost-information/purchase-compost/)

Leaders in horticulture will be gathered and available on June 18 from 9 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. for the Oneida County CCE Herb and Flower Festival. The event will include vendors, a bake sale, and gardening classes held throughout the day.

Knowing where to go for help is what makes any gardener successful, Loparco says. “The term master gardener doesn’t mean that you know everything about gardening. It means that you know where to go for help.”

With these recourses in hand, go forth and be a master.

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