Sussex County Master Gardeners become ‘Foster Gardeners’
A public garden in Sussex County has been called one of 10 “Hidden Gems of Delaware” by an online tourist guide.
The Demonstration Garden, in existence for two decades, was created and is maintained by the Sussex County Master Gardeners on County Seat Highway, Route 9, west of Georgetown, located behind the county University of Delaware Cooperative Extension office.
This year, COVID-19 closed the Demonstration Garden to the public and to the master gardeners. The virus also put a lot of people out of work and greatly increased the need for donated food.
Before the pandemic, of the 32 specialty gardens within the one-acre Demonstration Garden, six were dedicated to growing vegetables — in the ground, in raised beds and in containers. The entire harvest — more than 1,000 pounds in some years — are donated to the Cape Henlopen Food Basket, a Delaware food pantry.
In order to continue food pantry donations, the master gardeners organized a foster gardener program. Eleven master gardeners volunteered to grow produce at home and deliver the vegetables to their local food banks. A few of them had never grown vegetables before, and some of the experienced vegetable growers had not previously grown the crops they took on this season, or had not grown them in pots before.
The gardening year in the Demonstration Garden normally starts in March — just when this year’s pandemic shutdown happened. Waiting for word as to whether and when master gardeners could get back into the gardens resulted in a late start on planting, qne the spring growing season was lost entirely. The summer crops were started after mid-May in master gardeners’ home gardens throughout the county. A few crops were grown in the ground, but most crops were grown in containers in the hope the containers could be brought back to the Demonstration Garden later in the season.
Grown in the Foster Gardener Program are asparagus; peas; basil; bush and pole beans; butternut squash; chard; corn; cucumbers; eggplant; kale; kohlrabi; lettuces; mustard greens; red, white and yellow onions; parsley; peppers, both sweet and hot; pineapple sage; potatoes; radishes; sweet potatoes; red and yellow, cherry, paste and slicing tomatoes; and zucchini. Master gardeners are also donating herbs, vegetables and cut flowers from their own gardens.
There were also some losses. Hurricane Isaias blew down the cornstalks and flooded and rotted some of the potatoes. The heat took out the mustard greens and some of the tomato plants, and slowed the production of almost everything else. Cabbage worms went after the kale, birds pecked the tomatoes, deer and rabbits found the sweet potato vines quite tasty and a groundhog wrecked one master gardener’s entire garden. Still, the gardeners carried on.
When the program ended in October, the Foster Gardeners had donated 104 pounds of fresh vegetables to food pantries in five locations across the county.
The Master Gardeners learned a few things this season: food banks and pantries are grateful for fresh vegetables and herbs, and flowers, too; taller plants need to be staked and/or sheltered from the wind; for best production from indeterminate tomato plants which can grow five feet and more in a season, interior suckers should be pruned out; internet videos also show how to prune indeterminate tomatoes, and the nursery tag should indicate whether the tomato plant is determinate — bush — or indeterminate — vining; and, in the heat of summer, vegetables grow better in the ground than in pots.
When growing vegetables in pots, the gardeners offered a few pieces of advice. First, the bigger the pot, the better, as the soil won’t heat up as much or dry out as fast. Large tomato plants need at least a 15-gallon pot, and pots should be elevated to keep out of the reach of rabbits; netting or caging can be used to keep away other pests. Finally — water, water water.
The lessons learned will come in handy in the Demonstration Garden next year, when the master gardeners will need to clear the weeds that are filling all the planting beds and deal with the weed seeds left in the soil.
A workshop about container vegetable gardening is being considered for the 2021 growing season. Lessons learned will be taught for community gardeners and master gardeners.
Those growing vegetables at home and looking for advice can contact the master gardener garden helpline at 856-2585, ext. 535, to speak with volunteer experts, now working remotely from home. The public is encouraged to donate fresh produce to a food pantry or food bank; find out where, when and how at fbd.org/produce.
For more on the Master Gardener program, visit bit.ly/3aoGg58.