Spring technically begins March 20, but those vivid outdoor beds of marigolds and pansies are still the stuff of dreams. Now, however, is the perfect time to start planning a garden for the upcoming growing season, or to think about starting the hobby for the first time.
Local experts say gardening is a great way to break the dreary spell of cabin fever, connect with nature and grow fresh and healthy food or flowers to help brighten the surrounding area.
For the novice, gardening can be overwhelming. What plants do best here? How do you stave off plant diseases and insect infestations?
Cornell Cooperative Extensions in each New York county have a variety of resources to help both beginning and established gardeners, including a Master Gardener education program, soil testing, and information on plant varieties and their ideal growing conditions.
At the extension’s Schuyler County branch, six Master Gardener volunteers work with CCE staff to answer questions, said Roger Ort, local foods and agriculture educator. They also tend a trial garden outside the building where they test out new plant varieties and techniques, seeing which work well in Schuyler County and which don’t.
“We can help from the very beginning, planning your garden, to the very end,” Ort said.
Cornell has a wealth of information available both through the extensions and online, and extensions also offer workshops on topics such as seed starting, many of which occur in the early spring.
“It is a big learning curve, and thank goodness, the extensions have a lot of fact sheets,” Ort said. “We can send a lot of literature. Each county has an extension person. It’s nice that there’s a resource in the community.”
Even prior to the season, there are plenty of things aspiring gardeners can do to get started. “A lot of folks right now are starting their seeds that take a long time to grow,” Ort said. “Peppers and tomatoes are started. A lot of garden centers already have them in.”
Some plants can be started on a windowsill, even in the colder months, Ort said. Herbs and leafy vegetables, in particular, do well in cooler temperatures.
Ort also recommends having a garden’s soil pH tested before getting under way. “That will help you know what to grow, or how your garden needs to get fertilized, compost added, things like that,” he said. “You want to start with your ground.”
Community gardens are increasingly popular and available in many areas. The spaces typically have multiple plots that an individual or group can rent for the growing season, helpful for those who don’t have the land or resources to make a plot on their own land.
These gardens are typically established by municipalities, nonprofits or community groups. In Binghamton, Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments, known by the fitting acronym VINES, operates 12 community gardens in the Binghamton area as part of its mission to develop a sustainable community food system – and they’re expanding.
A 13th garden will be constructed this spring in Vestal, and grant support from the Klee Foundation will help VINES reach its goal of 20 community gardens by 2020, said community garden manager Kaitlyn Sirna. The organization is currently accepting proposals for new community garden locations and will build two or three new gardens each fall for the next couple of years.
Experienced and new gardeners alike take advantage of the plots, which are usually full by the end of the season. One garden on Liberty Street is already full for the upcoming season as returning gardeners reserve their spaces, Sirna said.
“We receive probably three or four phone calls a month from people interested in building a community garden in their neighborhood,” she said. “There’s definitely a positive buzz about it. We haven’t hit any plateaus or anything like that. The need just keeps increasing.”
Those who reserve a plot can grow whatever they’d like, but Sirna says most stick to staples like tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, squash and herbs.
VINES offers free classes in the spring, summer and fall on topics like seed starting, composting, gardening basics, harvesting, food preservation and cooking. They also provide free seeds and starter plants, working with local nurseries and greenhouses to receive donations, and have free water and tools available.
“Our goal is really to empower community members to grow their own food,” Sirna said. “We try and eliminate any barrier to gardening that there could be.”
Gardeners will typically break ground on their plots in May, but are already preparing, Sirna said. “Now is the time we encourage people to start thinking about what they want to plant and planning out their plot,” she said.
A garden application form will be available on VINES’ website, www.vinesgardens.org, by mid-March, Sirna said.
If you’re not interested in the amount of maintenance a garden takes, want some inspiration for your own garden, or just want to look at pretty plants, keep the following local spots in mind for an outdoor adventure.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County uses the stunning Cutler Botanic Garden in Binghamton as its home base for horticulture and environmental education. The garden is free and open to the public year-round for self-guided tours from dawn to dusk.
Educators also offer hands-on classes in the garden, addressing subjects such as annuals, perennials, roses, integrated pest management, and composting.
On the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, Cornell Botanic Gardens is a sprawling site totaling over 4,000 acres, with a variety of areas including bioswale, container, vegetable and wildflower gardens. Until the snow melts, check out Mullestein Winter Garden, which features over 700 plants chosen for interesting bark, unusual growth habits, winter fruit and other standout features.
Bring the young ones to Ithaca Children’s Garden, which features flower gardens, a kitchen garden, a bird habitat garden, and plenty of play areas.