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Master Gardeners

Apr 07, 2014 05:20PM, Published by Kerigan Butt, Categories: Home+Garden

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Spring 2014 issue)

By Carla Lucas


Need to know how to grow asparagus? Wondering why the boxwood shrubs in your landscape are dying? Looking for suggestions for a new plant to try in your garden this year?

Ask the Master Gardeners of Chester County, a volunteer organization supported by Penn State University's Cooperative Extension. All the members complete 14 weeks of training in all aspects of botany, pass a written exam, and serve at least 50 hours of volunteer community service related to gardening.

“Gardeners are some of the most generous folks,” said Liz Alakszay, Chester County Master Gardener coordinator. “Master Gardeners are passionate about their hobby. They want to share, give back to the community and contribute to society.”

There are 85 Master Gardeners for Chester County. There are experts in all types of horticulture -- from vegetables and flowering plants to lawns, pollination and pests.

They advocate sustainable organic methods and encourage integrated pest management and environmentally friendly practices. According to Alakszay, the organization focuses much of its efforts on promoting native plants, creating awareness about invasive species, discussing pollination and the decline of pollinators, emphasizing water management, and growing vegetables for food.

All it takes to get some help is a call to their hotline (610-696-3500) or an e-mail to The hotline is staffed during regular business hours from April through September, and less frequently the remainder of the year. You can send photos of your garden problem in an e-mail, or come to the Cooperative Extension Office in the Government Services Center, on Westtown Road in West Chester.

Master Gardeners do not just sit and wait for phone calls. They also form partnerships to promote gardening throughout Chester County. They provide assistance and teach others how to grow vegetables in the more than 650 raised garden beds operated by the Chester County Food Bank. They are creating a "Sensory Garden" that stimulates all the senses at the Tredyffrin Library. Master Gardener booths can be found throughout the county at farmers' markets or at special events such as the Mushroom Festival, the Sheep and Wool Day at Springton Manor Farm, and Family Night at Longwood Gardens.

In West Chester, Barbara Rinehart led a project with Bournelyf Special Camp at the Church of the Loving Shepherd to create a butterfly garden. During Bournelyf's summer camp program in 2012, campers worked with Master Gardener volunteers to plant the garden to attract butterflies. Activities about plants and gardening were incorporated into the program.

Master Gardeners of Chester County also runs a Speakers Bureau and can present programs to local organizations on a wide range of topics, from edible herbs to shady plants to pruning trees. A brochure, downloaded from the website, gives details and a list of topics. The program is free, but donations of $50 to $100 are suggested to help offset the costs of providing this service.

“Whatever you are growing, it's good to know what the soil is like,” Alaksday said. “If you plant something, you want to be assured it will grow.”

She recommends a soil test as the first step in improving your gardening efforts. Kits are available at the Cooperative Extension Office, or can be ordered online. Once the directions are followed for collecting soil samples, the kit is mailed to the testing laboratory and you getthe results and recommendations within weeks.

The Master Gardener program is found in every state that has a land grant university and Cooperative Extension program.

Master Gardeners of Chester County has a Facebook page with regular updates relating to the gardening season. Their website at (click on Master Gardeners) is filled with information about gardening in Chester County, as well as all the activities the organization conducts.

To become a Master Gardener, near the end of the year, look for the notification of the next Master Gardener application and training program on their website. Depending on resources, Master Gardeners of Chester County runs the program about every two years.

“Crazy gardeners love to share what they know,” Alakszay said.

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