Organic Growers School a mountain treasure

By the time March rolls around, I am generally in the thick of getting the garden whipped into shape, with seedlings busting out on every windowsill. This spring, however, has been different. Fact is, I hesitate to call it spring at all. My kids have been reveling in the many snow days, and I’ve burned significantly more firewood than I did over the past few pitiful excuses for winter.

Believe it or not, though, spring is coming. And one clear harbinger of it is the 10th annual Organic Growers School, happening this Saturday at Blue Ridge Community College in Hendersonville.

If you live and garden in Western North Carolina and you’ve never attended this daylong, multifaceted gardening-and-farming miniconference, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. And if you have experienced this event before, rest assured that this year’s edition will live up to your expectations, serving up a solid and outright inspirational learning experience.

Diversity is the key. Whether you’re a beginning gardener or a professional organic farmer, you’ll find subjects of interest among the broad range of 90-minute workshops. This year’s offerings also include nine tracks covering such wide-ranging topics as “Herbs for Women,” “Landscaping with Native Plants,” “Home Cheese-making,” “Introduction to Ayurvedic Cooking” and “Starting an Urban Community Garden.”

In anticipation of this year’s OGS, my thoughts turned to the unsung heroes who’ve been there every year, quietly doing their part to ensure a well-rounded experience. I’m certain, for instance, that Kathleen Lamont, who owns Back to Basics in Waynesville, will be there selling products for sustainable living. Kathleen has been helping promote sustainable lifestyles in this region for many years now; she’s also served the organic community as a board member and officer of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and by writing a column in her local paper.

Another longtime, multitasking common denominator within the WNC sustainable community is Jim Smith. For years, Jim operated Good Earth Organics at the Farmers’ Market; in recent years, he’s been actively involved in assembling and promoting the sustainable-ag program at A-B Tech. Jim is sure to be on hand at the OGS with his big grin, selling organic amendments and plants and helping keep folks informed. And Lee Barnes will be there too with his terrific collection, faithfully continuing the oldest avocation in the world: trading seeds.

At this point, the OGS has been around long enough that the organizers have figured out how to pack the maximum amount of benefit into the one-day event. They’ve divided the day into four workshop slots, which attendees can fill by choosing from among nine different “tracks” of topics. This year’s tracks (each offering four individual presentations through the day) are Beginning Gardening, Advanced Gardening, Livestock, Herbs and Flowers, Organic Potluck, Advanced Vegetable Diseases, Food Handling and Cooking, Beginning Vegetable Grower, and Living with the Land.

Within this framework, the good folks who pull together this action-packed day line up some of the best presenters the region has to offer. Asheville’s own permaculture guru/king of positive vibes, Chuck Marsh, will be exploring foundational permaculture approaches to understanding and analyzing existing landscapes. The effervescent Dr. Richard McDonald will be tag-teaming with rock-solid organic grower Pat Battle (one of four writers who’ll be taking turns producing the Mountain Xpress gardening page you’re reading right now) on the subject of “Managing Beneficial Insects.” There’ll be Cooperative Extension agents like Linda Blue (who’s also one of the organizers of this annual event) and Carl Evans, and researchers like Dr. Chuck Talbot of N.C. state, who always gives a solid presentation. And storyteller/naturalist/herbalist/semi-legendary wild man Doug Eliot will lead one of his highly entertaining and educational weed walks around the Blue Ridge campus.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always felt that I didn’t get my money’s worth from any talk that didn’t include a slide presentation. In that spirit, I’ll be showing slides and giving hands-on demonstrations during two sessions: “Easy Raised Beds for High Performance Gardens” in the morning, and an afternoon session on “Extending the Season with Crops and Contraptions.”

The workshop presenters are a diverse group, including my gardening pals Babs Strickland, Lynn Morningstar, Tom Elmore (another longtime event organizer) and Pete Dixon. These folks know their subjects inside out and consistently deliver terrific presentations — which is why they keep getting asked back.

If you haven’t preregistered already, it’s too late to order the vegetarian lunch, but you can just brown-bag it and enjoy the good fellowship of like-minded people.

All in all, I guarantee the modest registration fee ($30 CFSA members, Blue Ridge Community College or Warren Wilson College students; $35 all others) will be the best treat you’ve given yourself in a month of Sundays. The first workshop starts at 9 a.m., and the registration table opens at 7:30. To get there, take I-26 south from Asheville for about 30 minutes to exit 22. Turn right and then right again on South Allen. Follow the signs to the Killian Building on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College.

Meanwhile, to get the full enchilada on this must-see annual event, check out the OGS link on the CFSA Web site (www.main.nc.us/cfsa_mountains/ogs).

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