Help for Home Gardeners
Extension Agents at Your Service
by Yvette C. HammettMany home gardeners readily list flies, wasps and beetles among the “pests” in their gardens. However, many of these are actually pollinators that help boost production of fruits and vegetables; others are beneficial insects that keep the real plant-killers at bay. A quick call to the local cooperative extension service can help sort out friend from foe—and that’s just the beginning of what this valuable, under-utilized resource can offer.
Each year, millions in federal taxpayer dollars help fund county agricultural extension programs administered through the 108 colleges and universities that comprise the nation’s land grant university system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supplies the money, also helps fund science-based research meant to reach not only farmers, but home gardeners seeking advice on best practices.
The USDA is trying to do a better job of raising public awareness of assistance that’s readily available, free of charge, especially now that it’s getting more funding.
Organic on the Rise“The good news is that the 2018 Farm Bill provided increases for many of our programs, including the organic agriculture research and extension initiative program for which we received significant funding,” says Mathieu Ngouajio, program leader for the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The USDA is eager to see the connections their constituents are making with the research. “We want to identify the needs of organic gardeners, and the best way to meet those needs to get our research into their hands,” Ngouajio says.
County extension agents are on the front lines of this effort, offering low- or no-cost soil testing, handbooks on a variety of local gardening topics and workshops on everything from making rain barrels and creating rain gardens to implementing eco-friendly pest control, cultivating native plants and employing best practices for organic gardening. Master gardeners that volunteer their expertise are central to supporting extension outreach activities.
“We would love more business from the public,” says Weston Miller, an associate professor with Oregon State University’s extension service. “The public service of the master gardener program is to answer questions,” including what and when to plant and how much irrigation is required.
In Oregon, there are 3,500 master gardeners, with 650 volunteers in Portland alone. “We train master gardeners in how to use our resources and interpret the research to the public,” Miller says.
“There are trained volunteers in pretty much every county in the country ready and willing to answer any gardening question,” Miller says. For example, a new organic gardener might not know the correct soil amendments to use or how to start a composting pile to supplement the soil in an organic garden.
There is also a nationwide network called Ask the Expert (USDA.gov/ask-expert) and questions will automatically go to an extension staff person or master gardener in the area where the inquiring gardener lives.
Reducing ConfusionMany of those getting into organic gardening might feel confused as to what connotes organic, Miller says. “Organic gardening is using a naturally formed material for fertilizer and pesticide, from plant, animal or mineral sources.”
The biggest area of confusion is that many people think organic means pesticide-free. But that is not always true. There is organic pest control, Miller says. “In terms of gardening, there are certified organic products you can use and still be organic.” One thing to look for on a label is the seal of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which indicates the product is suitable for organic gardening.
However, there aren’t many good options for weed management, he adds. “You have to do weeding by hand or use an herbicide that isn’t organic.”
Another issue that extension programs can help with is making sure organic gardeners receive only scientifically researched information, says Nicole Pinson, an urban horticulture agent with the Hillsborough County Extension Service, in Tampa, Florida.
“Gardening information is available on websites and on social media. Some information that pops up is not research-based, or they are selling a product and are not unbiased,” Pinson says.
“We generally stick to recommendations we have been able to vet through research. When we make a recommendation, we give folks all of the options of what they can do.”
To find a nearby extension office, visit Tinyurl.com/ExtensionFinder.
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. She can be contacted at [email protected].