While the weather waffles between winter and summer, on Saturday, April 9, local gardeners can spring into action and hone their horticultural skills at the annual Berkshire Garden Symposium organized by the Berkshire County chapter of the Western Mass. Master Gardeners Association.
Now in its 12th year, the all-day event at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School offers three 1 hour 15 minute sessions with a choice of 15 classes covering topics such as Seed Starting; Raised Beds; Beneficial Birds, Butterflies and Insects; Container Gardening; and Growing Beautiful Hostas. The classes are taught by experienced educators, writers, landscape professionals and Master Gardeners, who are available to answer questions at an information booth throughout the day. Vendors will sell plants and garden supplies from gloves to bird houses, with environmental information tables and a popular raffle.
Jodi Cahillane, who works at the long-established Ward's Nursery in Great Barrington, will present the class "What Makes an Organic Garden?". She became a Master Gardener after moving to the area from Chicago in 1999.
"It was a good way to get to know the people and the plants of the area and branch off in a new direction," she said.
She learned at an early age that gardening takes time and effort, and is not without its pitfalls.
"Growing up in Wisconsin, I tried to do a vegetable garden when I was 8 years old. It was an utter failure. It was on the north side right next to the foundation and got no light. Only through failure can you learn success," she said.
When starting a garden, Cahillane recommends doing a soil test first.
"You look at the health of the soil and what you want from your garden, evaluate what can grow there, and choose your plants accordingly, all before you put anything in the ground."
Diversity, she notes, is key to a good outcome. "You want to incorporate as many different kinds of plants as possible, and ultimately have something blooming all the time to encourage the insects and birds and other critters of the ecology to help you out," she said.
Margy Gwozdz has helped organize the symposium since becoming a Master Gardener in 2009. "I love plants and helping people, and I took my vacation time one day a week for 12 weeks so I could take the Master Gardener class," she said.
The event attracts up to 100 participants from novices to more experienced gardeners from around the region, and is the last of three symposia held in western Massachusetts each spring.
Of some 250 current association members, aged from their late teens to in their 80s, around 35 reside in Berkshire County, Gwozdz said. During the year, they test soil and answer questions at farmers markets and run an online hotline. They also offer free monthly classes from May to September at their demonstration garden in Pittsfield's Springside Park.
"Our mission is to try to educate the public on good gardening organic practices so they don't do any more damage than what's already been done to the poor earth," she said.
Gwozdz has gardened for more than 40 years.
"As a teenager I planted flowers with my grandfather, he was from Denmark and had a huge flower garden," she said. "Now, I have a really eclectic garden. Whatever comes up, if it's growing well it can stay."
The Western Mass. Master Gardeners Association took over the Master Gardener program when UMass Cooperative Extension Service ended its comprehensive training for horticultural volunteers in 1989. Certification courses now take place every two years, with the next one scheduled for 2017. Applications can be submitted beginning this summer.
"Gardens are never static, they're always moving, always changing," Gwozdz said. "You have the shrub that winter kills, or something gets too big for its spot and you have to move it or prune it back severely, or plants that creep and take over, or others that seed everywhere. You never stop learning."
Fortunately, the Master Gardeners are ready and willing to share what they know and help solve troublesome gardening problems; and the garden symposium offers a timely opportunity to learn from them, right at the onset of spring.
If You Go:
What: "Finding Your Garden Path" Berkshire Garden Symposium
Where: Lenox Memorial Middle & High School
When: 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Saturday, April 9
Cost: $30 until March 28, then $40; includes lunch. Single sessions $15.
Download Registration Form at wmmga.org
Information: Margy Gwozdz (413) 743-4903 firstname.lastname@example.org