If you want to purchase some plants for your lawn or garden, the Schenectady County Cornell Cooperative Extension has just the thing for you. And, if you want to dig a little deeper, the group's Master Gardener Plant Sale Saturday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Central Park greenhouse is the best place to start.
The group is celebrating its 100th anniversary in New York later in the fall, but if gardening and farming are your passions, and you want to know more about what you're doing, don't miss Saturday's opportunity to learn.
"We'll have a variety of plants and vegetables for sale, and master gardeners will be on hand to answer questions and do soil testing for people," said Sarah Pechar, who has worked at the Schenectady County Cornell Cooperative Extension for 19 years, the last four as its executive director. "People can bring a bag of soil and we'll test the pH right on site and give a recommendation for what they need to add to the soil."
It's the kind of thing that's been going on since 1914 when the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, establishing the partnership between agricultural colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1918, Cornell University in Ithaca had been selected as the college in New York to work with county governments around the state to promote better farming practices.
"What we do is synthesize a lot of information that comes from Cornell and other universities as well," said Pechar. "Back in the 1900s agents from Cornell would come from Ithaca on trains and do farming workshops. These days we're able to do much more through email."
During the summer months, Pechar's group has around 35 employees. Some of those people are part-timers, and many others working hard to make the thing a success are volunteers. Angie Tompkins is the Community Horticulture Coordinator and the person who oversees Schenectady County's volunteer group.
"We have an incredible volunteer program, some of whom have been with us for more than 20 years," said Tompkins, a Galway resident who has worked for the Cooperative Extension for 10 years. "It's a very unique group with diverse talents, and very dedicated. We probably have around 50 volunteers who have worked hard to become master gardeners and then give back their time by volunteering."
How might one go about becoming a master gardener?
"We have a pretty intense 12-week training program which takes place every other year," said Tompkins. "Our next training session is coming up in September. There is a cost. It's about $300, and that basically covers all the books and resources that we provide. If you're serious about gardening or farming, it's well worth it."
Niskayuna resident Kathy Harter certainly won't argue that point.
"I took the course back in 2012 and it was a wonderful learning experience," she said. "I got out and met new people. I found someone to carpool with to the class and we're still friends and master gardeners. We also want to be in our own garden in the spring, but we continue to volunteer as many hours as we can at the greenhouse in Central Park. I really enjoy it."
Harter got more involved in her gardening after her children were older.
"It's been an interest of mine for a long time, but when the kids are little it's hard to get your hands dirty and still take care of the babies," she said. "They always need something. When they were grown it became much easier for me to spend time in the garden and to learn more."
One of Harter's volunteer duties is to take her shift manning the Cooperative Extension hotline.
"People call the master gardener phone line to get help with the issues they're facing in their garden," she said. "We're pretty busy during the spring. We get weather-related questions, pest-related questions, and we just give them general advice or refer them to other resources. Sometimes we have to do some research, but we usually figure out what the best answer for them is."
During the time of the year, the Cooperative Extension hot line in Schenectady County is available to anyone Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
"Our mission is to help improve the lives of people through community partnerships," said Pechar, who added that the 4-H Youth Program is under the umbrella of the Cooperative Extension. "We take education and information provided by Cornell University and bring it to the community. Much of it is about agriculture, but we also have a lot of programming about nutrition and wellness. That is a big component of what we do, along with parenting education."
The Department of Agriculture was created by Abraham Lincoln, the son of a small farmer, in 1862. The Smith-Lever Act in 1914 called for the USDA to donate funds to each state based on its population in order to form partnerships at the county level aimed at educating each community. For more information visit www.cceschenectady.org.