The Practical Gardener

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was started in 1862. Around 1900, the Agricultural Extension System was established as a branch of the USDA. In North Carolina, the department name “Agricultural Extension” was changed to “Cooperative Extension” about 10 years ago, to reflect the changing services that have arisen to meet needs on a county-by-county basis.

From its inception, Extension has had three components. When I was growing up, I was most aware of the youth component. I had cousins living on farms in Iowa and Kansas, who each raised a calf per year for showing and eventual sale to a slaughterhouse, where the quality of the meat was as important as the presentation of the animals in halter class for judges’ inspection at fair time. When I was in junior high school, there were more horses per capita in my county than in any other county in the nation. That special need generated a 4-H club for kids in my county who had horses. As a middle schooler, I was involved in this 4-H program for two years in Jefferson County, Colo., where I learned about show skills, basic equine veterinary skills (I took part in the field gelding of a horse during this time, performed by the local equine veterinary specialist), and, joy of all joys, how to tie a diamond hitch to attach panniers and gear to a pack mule.

But 4-H isn’t just about calves and homemaking skills anymore. This program now includes space camp, photography and computers, in counties where there is a grassroots need for it and those needs aren’t being met anywhere else.

A second Extension component is “Family and Consumer.” This began as basic home economics with most of its focus on the home canning of produce grown in the garden. It is this branch of the Extension service that deals with nutrition, which it teaches using the nutrition pyramid. The pyramid has changed considerably over the last 50 years, being continually adapted to people’s changing lifestyle and food choices. Nancy Ostergaard is the Buncombe County Family and Consumer agent, and her field of expertise covers household environmental issues and home maintenance. Linda Spivey, the Buncombe County Health and Nutrition agent still does a couple classes a year on home canning, but local grassroots needs have caused her to offer education in small business management and other seemingly diverse areas as well.

The third component of Extension is a program to supply answers to all horticultural questions of local residents. The program is always tailored to the locale, on a county-by-county basis. In North Carolina, paychecks for the agents comes from Raleigh, but each county office has the autonomy to make its own decisions on programs that are most responsive to the needs of the immediate community. Information pamphlets respond to local needs; the Buncombe County Extension has one pamphlet on xeroscaping (landscaping in dry climates, or to conserve water), while the extension office in Phoenix, Ariz, offers six pamphlets on various aspects of the same subject.

I got to thinking about the Cooperative Extension system the other Saturday morning, when I was at the North Asheville Farmers market (located behind Asheville Brew and View) and encountered a Master Gardener table set up amongst the various folks selling veggies, pastries, flowers and herbal concoctions. Typical of the Master Gardener tables that you see at the county fair and various other gardening events, the table was filled with free literature and manned by a volunteer to answer questions. On hand at this table, was Master Gardener Leslie Saye.

The Master Gardener’s program started in Seattle about 25 years ago when an Extension agent had too many home-gardening questions to answer coming to his office. The agent started a series of classes to teach all aspects of home gardening, with a requirement for graduation that students spend a certain number of hours answering the phone at the Extension office, helping folks like you and me who want to know what bugs are eating the corn, or how to freeze a batch of apples most effectively for future use, or any number of questions that come through county Extension offices all across America each day. In a short time, that model had been implemented in many states.

Leslie Saye’s involvement is typical of Extension volunteerism found throughout the country. Master Gardeners are a tightly knit group of people who continue to volunteer on the phones in the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Office (on Coxe Avenue, just south of the bus station), long after they have satisfied their requirements for graduation from the program.

Linda Blue is the Buncombe County Urban Horticulture Agent. She is in charge of our very active Master Gardener program, as well a wealth of other duties related to educating homeowners about their gardens. Diane Ducharme is the Buncombe agent in charge of professional horticultural issues; she advises on greenhouse management, professional landscaping, challenges of growing fruits, veggies and tobacco for market, and she is also in charge of coordinating the farmers’ markets in our county.

Linda will be coordinating the Extension’s Beginning Gardening School on Aug. 10, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pre-registration is required. The $20 fee covers instructional materials and lunch.

You can call 255-5522 with your horticultural questions or to pre-register for the Beginning Gardening School.

You’ll find it worthwhile stopping by the Extension office to investigate their rack of informational brochures, or you can check out the full list at, with excellent links to other federal, state and county Web sites as well.

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