Master Gardeners program encourages residents to grow

For those involved with the Baltimore County Master Gardeners program, gardening doesn't end with the summer — it's a year round activity.

Bernie Zienkiewicz, 62, has been gardening for longer than she can remember.

"I've always wanted to put my hands in the dirt and grow things," Zienkiewicz said, standing among the vast array of plants rooted in her Catonsville backyard.

Large green pepper plants, leeks, squash, strawberry plants and plump, red tomatoes can be found growing beneath the summer sun behind her home — evidence of her dedication to the hobby.

While her garden changes with the seasons, it is a continuous activity.

The avid gardener is taking her hobby to a new level as an intern in the Baltimore County Master Gardener's program offered through the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. She is one of 25 interns seeking the designation of Master Gardener.

She and the 24 other interns will become certified Master Gardeners in four months, if they complete the program. They will join the 140 other volunteers in Baltimore County. The program is offered statewide in 19 counties and Baltimore City.

They will soon join the many other area Master Gardeners such as Gemma Hoskins, 61, of Relay, who retired four years ago from teaching at Lansdowne Middle School, and decided to help teach others about gardening through the program.

"The whole idea is not to learn gardening for yourself, but to learn how to work with gardening within your community," Hoskins said.

Master Gardeners can often be found at farmers markets and other community events throughout the county, where they field questions about gardening.

Locally, they can be found at the weekly Catonsville Farmers' Market held Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bloomsbury Community Center on Bloomsbury Avenue and at the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce farmer's market held Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 730 Frederick Road.

This weekend, they will also be part of the annual Catonsville Arts and Crafts Festival on Sunday, Sept. 7, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ask a Master Gardener booths at the Catonsville Farmers' Market began three years ago and in 2013, an estimated 347 people interacted with the volunteers.

The volunteers also present information at the Catonsville Library and the Catonsville Flower Mart.

Because they try to promote knowledge within the community, the group prefers to answer questions at community events, rather than at individual homes, Hoskins said.

For those interested in continuing to grow plants during the fall, Hoskins said it is better to plant trees in the fall because the summer is too hot.

She said the fall is a good time to plant bulbs that will bloom in the spring, and plants like Daikon radishes that will grow throughout the winter and break up the soil.

"It amends the soil and makes it more productive," Hoskins said.

For those wondering what to do with the fall leaves, Hoskins said they are great for adding to compost, which can be used in the spring as fertilizer.

Planting the seeds

Beyond the basics of plants and gardening, the program informs volunteers about stormwater management and the Chesapeake Bay, ecology and native plants.

The program taught Master Gardener Tom Potyra, 50, a Catonsville resident, to see beyond his back yard,he said.

"When you step back and look at the bigger picture you see there is lot more there than just your vegetables," Potyra said.

Volunteers say beyond the knowledge they have gained through the program, it has been a great way to meet others who share a passion for gardening.

"It's the most diverse group of people I've ever met — it's everyone from college students to retired people in their seventies," Hoskins said, adding that she has, "met a great gamut of people."

In January, Zienkiewicz enrolled in the Master Gardeners program, which has been offered across the state since 1978 by the Extension Service. Those interested in enrollment are required to submit applications. Once accepted, students are required to pay a $250 fee and complete 50 hours of formal training in classes.

The program's mission is to: "support the University of Maryland Extension mission by educating residents about safe, effective and sustainable horticultural practices that build healthy gardens, landscapes, and communities," its website says.

The students take classes on topics ranging from botany to ecology to native plants.

"I feel like I've learned more than anything, that I'm a steward of the Earth," Zienkiewicz said, seated on a picnic bench beneath a shade tree in her expansive backyard.

After the formal training which included taking a class one day a week for 10 weeks and passing an open-book summer exam, Zienkiewicz is now considered a Master Gardener Intern. Before she becomes certified as a Master Gardener, she must complete 40 hours of volunteer service.

Once those 40 hours are complete, she will begin sharing her knowledge and expertise with the community to promote sustainability and gardening. The program seeks to inform people about environmental issues related to the environment, which they then pass on to others in the community.

The Bay-Wise program offered through the training teaches volunteers about the way the landscape affects local waterways that eventually connect to the Chesapeake Bay. Volunteers take between nine and 12 hours of advanced training on the topic.

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