By C. Dennis Pierce
The garden year has no beginning and no end.
The world of gardening is like drinking through a fire hose. You can never learn enough. For some time, I have considered myself somewhat of a gardener. Each growing season I had a simple relationship with the soil and I either introduced some seeds into my garden or, for lack of time and planning, relied on the local greenhouse’s “starter” plants. I watered and, when necessary, at least at first, weeded, until the weeds ruined my rapport with my plants. I would also load up with a spray mixture of Dawn dish soap and water as I engaged in a war against undesirable insects, often losing the battle. As the summer progressed, the only reward I hoped for was a few tomatoes and basil leaves to make the essence of a fresh summer salad.
If you read my column on a regular basis, you will recall that last fall I shared that I had signed up for the University of Connecticut’s Master Gardener program. Having retired, it was one of the many items that was on my “bucket list.” I applied in October, was accepted, and began classes in January. From January to May, I trekked up to Brooklyn every Friday for classes, only to find that what I thought I knew about gardening was pretty much nothing at all. Now it is September, and classes and volunteer hours have ended. Graduation will be in mid-October, and I will have successfully transitioned from what I call a “sprout” to a certified “permanent nametag holder”: Master Gardener.
You may ask, what is a Master Gardener? Certified Master Gardeners are members of the local community who take an active interest in lawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, and gardens. They are enthusiastic, willing to learn and to help others, and able to communicate with diverse groups of people that might have questions or challenges with their gardening activities. Master Gardeners receive extensive training and then provide information to the public via phone or email helplines, speak at public events, write articles for publications and the internet, and partner with other community programs, gardens, and educational facilities. The label Master Gardener isn’t simply a designation for someone who is good at gardening, but rather a specific title achieved through skill, hard work, and a passion for people. It is a designation overseen by the U.S. government and land-grant universities. Many universities offer Master Gardener programs through the Cooperative Extension System of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Master Gardeners are distinguished by two main traits:
- A commitment to being a community resource for gardening knowledge as well as a desire to teach and mentor other gardeners
- A dedication to volunteering and community service
Applications have opened for UConn’s 2024 edition of its Extension Master Gardener program, which blends educational instruction and hands-on volunteer work to instruct participants in the art of horticulture. The deadline for applications is Oct. 13, 2023, and formal instruction will begin on Jan. 8, 2024. The university has a long history of education through the Master Gardener program. It has been taught throughout Connecticut since 1978, at locations including Stamford, Norwich, Torrington, New Haven, and Brooklyn. Online, the UConn Extension Master Gardener program continues to engage individuals of all skill levels in the process of gardening. Participants do not just learn to build their own gardens but are also given a critical opportunity to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm with would-be gardeners and perform community outreach. The application and further details can be found at the official UConn Master Gardener website, https://mastergardener.uconn.edu, which also provides valuable resources and information on Advanced Master Gardener classes.
While my experience was worth the effort, potential interns should be aware of the time commitment. To become a Certified Master Gardener, you must complete a 16-week course that meets once a week from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., starting in January and running through April. Individuals enrolled in the program receive training in botany, plant pathology, soils, entomology, pesticide safety, integrated pest management (IPM), woody ornamentals, herbaceous ornamentals, vegetables, tree and small fruits, turf grass, invasive plants, weeds, water quality, environmental factors affecting plant growth, and diagnostic techniques for the home gardener.
Following formal classroom instruction, you will complete a 60-hour internship program. Thirty hours are dedicated to hands-on training in the Extension offices, where interns are supervised in researching and determining the answers to a broad range of horticultural questions, including insect and plant identification, diagnosing plant diseases, and providing sound horticultural recommendations. The remaining 30 hours are devoted to organized community outreach projects. Internships include plant clinics, educational displays at local county fairs and farmers markets, presentation of educational lectures, and working in demonstration gardens. During this past year, I have volunteered with the Friends of Goodwin Forest, maintained information tables at various events such as the Coventry and Andover farmers markets and the Lebanon and Woodstock fairs. In mid-October I will participate in the “graduation” ceremony, where I will receive a certificate and name badge officially verifying my achievements as a University of Connecticut–certified Master Gardener.
In the end, you might ask, was it all worth it? The guy who thought he knew enough to grow a tomato plant realized he was only scraping the surface. This may sound corny, but in a biblical sense the scales fell from my eyes, and I now have a different perspective on the nature that surrounds me. I have a better understanding of the plants, trees, and shrubs in my yard that I took for granted, how they rely on each other and the challenges they encounter, and how the ecological system that surrounds me survives. So, if you ever had the inclination to obtain the certification, do so now. As mentioned above, the application deadline for this year is October 13.
No time to commit, but you are an avid gardener? Remember that whenever you encounter a gardening issue, you can email the Master Gardener program and you will receive a response that will help you in your time of need. And best of all, it is a free service brought to you by UConn’s Master Gardener program and Extension offices: https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/ask-us-a-question/.
Some of you may be putting your garden to bed, others may still have a lot of squash as a result of a successful production season. On the culinary side, we have a tendency to move to preparing thicker soups, such as a bisque, this time of year. These tend to be a hearty, smooth and richly flavored earthy soups, such as the pureed butternut squash soup described below:
Curried Butternut Squash Bisque
Serves 6 to 8
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 medium butternut squash (about 1¾ lb.)
1 tablespoon butter
¾ cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large cooking apple, such as a Cortland or McIntosh, peeled, cored, and chopped into ¼-inch pieces
1 teaspoon curry powder, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup half and half
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves or 1/ teaspoon dried sage
salt and pepper to taste
whole sage leaves for garnish
Wrap the squash in aluminum foil and bake for 1½ hours or until squeezable in the center.
Remove and when cool enough to handle, remove seeds, scoop out pulp, and set pulp aside.
Melt butter in a large pot.
Add onions, garlic, and apple and cook over low heat until mixture is soft, about 10 minutes.
Add curry, nutmeg, and flour and stir until flour is mixed in.
Add this mixture, squash, and 1 cup of broth to a food processor and puree.
Return mixture to the pot and add tomato paste, half and half, minced sage, the remaining 3 cups of broth, and salt and pepper to taste.
Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until beginning to boil.
Serve in pre-heated bowls with a garnish of whole sage leaves.
Preparing a homemade soup is a process. Unlike the convenience of opening a can and reheating the contents, each step is an effort that involves all of your senses and the result is a unique experience that is one of life’s pleasures. There is nothing extraneous in any of the actions. That is what is called living. Life requires time and effort. If we eliminate time and effort, we eliminate life’s pleasures. Enjoy the processes in life, and every so often experience the flip side of convenience.
Lastly, I leave you with a poem by Robert Frost that is so suited as we approach the season of autumn.
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
If you have a suggestion for a farm or a local grower or even a recipe that features a local ingredient, please let me know. I will do my best to share your suggestions in a future column. Drop me a line at Codfish53@Yahoo.com. Peas be with you. Come celebrate with me and remember, every day is a holiday, and every meal is a banquet. I’ll save you a seat at the table!
Caption: John Lorusso, Erica DuPlessis, and Katie Wilcock.