Land Lovers: Grow How
Help with your desert garden is just an email or phone call away
By SUSAN RANDALL
Hugh Meier had been a gardener and landscaper in New York and New Hampshire.
Phil Bond had been an agriculture teacher and FFA sponsor for 13 years in Coolidge.
Now they — and 55 others — are master gardeners with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, helping other residents with Sonoran Desert gardening and landscape problems.
“Master gardeners are absolutely critical to the long-term viability of our gardens and landscapes in Pinal County,” said County Extension Director Rick Gibson.
“The reason I say that is because since 2000 our population has doubled in the county, and I’m just one person. What I did in 1981, I simply cannot do today. I’ve got tremendous amounts of emails and phone calls and samples that come in. The only way I can even begin to stay up is because these volunteers provide the services that they do.”
Gibson said master gardeners volunteered 5,656 hours of service in 2010. He estimates the value of their assistance at more than $100,000 last year.
Anyone can call the Master Gardener Hotline at 836-5221, ext. 204, and speak to a master gardener, if one is in the office, or leave a recorded message to be answered when someone returns. There is no charge, and free printed materials are available.
Retired art teacher Meier said the extension office is a nice place to volunteer.
“The atmosphere is great,” he said. “The people are friendly and helpful.”
He started gardening when he was a child in Plainview, N.Y., on Long Island. He worked on farms and nurseries, landscaped and groomed yards, even raised Christmas trees in New Hampshire — but he had no experience with desert gardening until he moved to Casa Grande.
“I had a garden, and I loved to garden,” he said, “and well, we kind of gave that up when we hit the road.”
After retiring as an art teacher, Meier and his wife, Norma, left their home in New Hampshire to travel. That’s how they found Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort.
“And we kept coming back each winter,” he said, “and we decided, ‘Well, we like it here.’ We ... decided to get a park model, so we could have a little more elbow room.”
Meier heard about the Master Gardener program during a presentation at the Casa Grande Public Library and took the Gardening & Landscape Short Course in 2005.
Gardening in the Sonoran Desert is so different than gardening in New York or New Hampshire, he said. Even the soil is different.
“In New York and New Hampshire, the soil is so rich,” he said. “In Plainview, we had a foot of black topsoil, and it was well filtered, clay and sand underneath it. It was beautiful. ... You could practically drop a seed, and it would grow — and of course, we had rain.”
Spring temperatures are more extreme in Casa Grande, too, he said.
“Sometimes it’s too cold to get seeds to grow and then of course, you are limited as to how long into the season you can grow because of the heat.”
Meier deals with the short springs by starting his tomatoes in January, surrounding them with water-filled plastic “teepees” that warm in the sunlight and release their warmth at night.
His vegetable garden is five plastic EarthBox patio container gardens, each 14 inches wide, 30 inches long and 12 inches high with 4 inches of water in the bottom. A grid keeps the soil out of the water but allows roots to grow into it.
“We’ve grown basil,” Meier said. “This year I’ve got cucumbers and zucchini, and I had peas. I’ve got radishes and beets and carrots and herbs. ... It gives me a chance to have my little garden here.”
Meier is one of the people who answer questions at the Cooperative Extension. If he doesn’t know an answer, he looks it up.
“I look at it as a continuing education for myself,” he said. “When I’m looking for something for someone else, I’m learning.”
Sometimes the questions are amusing, he added.
A man had a palm tree that provided very nice shade but was growing too tall. He asked if he could cut the top off. (No!)
A woman said all her plants were turning brown and the leaves were falling off. Meier asked how she watered them.
“Well, someone told me I don’t have to water here in the winter,” she said. (Not true!)
‘Good learning process’
Wolyn, who lives in Eloy’s Robson Ranch, took the short course in 2007.
“I happened to see the article in the newspaper, and I thought: ‘Well, I don’t know anything about desert gardening or cactus.’ So I thought it would be a good idea to take the class.’”
The course seemed expensive, she said, until she learned that it lasted for 12 weeks.
“The class is in essence free,” she said. “You are paying for the materials, and they hope that you will volunteer some time.”
When the course was over, she realized she had just scratched the surface when it came to desert gardening and landscaping.
“Now you know how much you really don’t know,” she said. “It’s an ongoing thing. When they call us master gardeners, I feel like I’m anything but. All I wanted to do was learn enough not to kill too many things.”
But the class and volunteer work have been fascinating, she said, because the growing season is so different in Pinal County. If people plant by the schedules they used in other parts of the country, “they are not going to have very good success.”
Wolyn also volunteers in the extension office in Casa Grande.
“I thought it was a good way to kind of get to know the community and get to know some of the people here rather than just sort of isolating myself out there. I really enjoy it. So I go in every Wednesday morning and help with whatever kinds of things they need.”
She works on the monthly newsletter, helps with information booths at community events and assembles information packets for newcomers and some about specific gardening and landscape topics.
“Rick Gibson runs an article every week and tells people to call if they have questions,” she said. “And they do.”
People also bring plant samples or insects to the extension office for identification.
“So it’s a real good learning process for us.”
One caller said her bougainvillea had strings hanging in it.
“So I went over there and, sure enough, she had these two gorgeous bougainvillea, and one had all these things hanging like strings in it. So I brought a piece back and learned it’s dodder [a plant parasite]. I’d never seen it before. Well, she had it, and she had to try to remove it all by hand and keep removing pieces and branches to get rid of it.”
Nursery owner, Bond, was in the first Garden & Landscape Short Course taught in Pinal County in 1982.
Today he is owner of the Avocado Nursery near Signal Peak. He started the nursery after taking the short course and is still active in the Master Gardener program. He even teaches the short course class on Sonoran Desert plants.
“The program that the University of Arizona offers is just amazing,” Bond said. “It’s serves many, many functions through the extension agency. It’s a very, very service oriented organization.”
Bond said the course covers many areas in a short time, and its guest speakers are knowledgeable in their fields.
“You might have to take 12 college classes to equal what they do with their 12 meetings, because each one is so specialized.”
Sometimes calls to the extension office are forwarded to Bond’s nursery.
A woman’s 18-foot saguaro had toppled over after a rain. He told her to replant it at the same depth and brace it with 2-by-4s. Then he recommended someone with the right equipment to lift the giant cactus into place.
“The Master Gardening program — a lot of phone calls are transferred through us,” he said, “but it’s voluntary, and I do that in exchange for the training they give me.
“Those that take the course are asked to reimburse their training by community service in some way. So in my particular way, I’m very fortunate, I get to give a lot of talks, and I do it on behalf of the Master Gardening program. When I go somewhere, it’s usually as a master gardener, not as the owner of a business.”
Bond said five of the people who work at the Avocado also are master gardeners.
“So we know how beneficial it is. Our main management team is almost all master gardeners, so they can answer these phones just as skillfully as I do. And that’s why we get sometimes 40 or 50 calls a day [master gardener questions and business calls]. I think it helps our business that people, falsely or truly, think we might know what we are talking about.”
Learn Gardening, Then Pass the Knowledge onto Others
Anyone can take the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension’s Garden & Landscape Short Course. The classes meet one night a week for three hours with a different topic each week for 12 weeks.
The next classes will begin after Labor Day at 9 a.m. Thursdays in Casa Grande or 6:30 p.m. Thursdays in Maricopa.
The registration fee is $90 a person, which covers the cost of materials, or $110 for two who share materials. Topics include basic botany, soils, cactuses and succulents, vegetable gardening, citrus, arboriculture (trees and shrubs), irrigation, integrated pest management, weeds, diagnosis, desert adapted plants, landscape design and applied learning experience. For more information, call the county extension office at 836-5221.
Those who want to become master gardeners must take the short course, pass a written test and volunteer 50 hours in the first 11⁄2 years.
To maintain certification, master gardeners donate 30 hours of volunteer work yearly. As long as they are certified, the university covers liability for activities conducted as a master gardener.
Fifty-eight master gardeners are currently certified in Pinal County. Members of the Superstition Mountain working group volunteer at schools, the Boys & Girls Club, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Meals on Wheels and Silly Mountain (a popular hiking area). They put on clinics and educational programs and teach in the short course. The SaddleBrooke working group puts on plant clinics, answers landscape questions and teaches.
Master gardeners in the Casa Grande area volunteer at the UA Cooperative Extension office, answer gardening questions, prepare free bulletins and email newsletters, schedule training activities and staff booths at community events.
Volunteers in Maricopa are revitalizing an old fruit orchard at the UA’s Maricopa Agricultural Center and creating a demonstration vegetable garden with drip irrigation, raised garden beds, straw-bale beds, square-foot gardens and gardens in the round. A volunteer in Oracle is doing research with worm composting. A volunteer in Florence, a certified arborist, teaches arboriculture in the short course.
For more info, click this link to the UofA Master Gardeners website.