There are nearly 400 Master Gardeners in the Memphis area, and they want to help you keep plants alive.
Their free advice is likely to be down to earth (sorry), judging by a conversation with Tom Rieman, a nine-year veteran of the program.
“We’re not gardening gods, just people who enjoy it and have killed more plants than you have,” he says.
He decided to take the Memphis Area Master Gardeners course offered by the UT/Shelby County Extension Office because he was killing plants that he liked. “Gardening has been a hobby my entire life, and like most gardeners, I kill a lot of plants,” he said. After multiple failures with one — “I really wanted that plant” — he signed up for the course.
While the Master Gardeners program for trained volunteers is national, their advice is local.
“All gardening is local,” as Rieman says. “What’s right for us in the Mid-South may not be right for other parts of the country. The whole idea of Master Gardeners is local people who understand local conditions.”
The program requires 40 hours of training, and a commitment to provide 40 hours a year of volunteer service. The corps maintains a hotline (901-752-1207) and members are available for public speaking. Rieman, for instance, offers talks on lawn care, tree placement, weedless gardening and espalier (training plants to grow flat on a frame).
He’s currently working on a talk about garden myths, and here’s a myth he’d like to debunk: “I was taught that when you plant a tree, you dig a $50 hole for a 50-cent tree. That’s wrong. Through science we know that when you do that, the roots are so happy they never want to leave home, like your spoiled teenager.”
The roots need to spread out for the tree to flourish. “I noticed Martha Stewart recently wrote something about planting trees, and sadly, she had it wrong,” Rieman said.
The urban gardening business has been making headlines during the COVID-19 era. At Reuters: “Home gardening blooms around the world during coronavirus lockdowns.” From the Financial Times: “How coronavirus changed gardening forever.” On Marketwatch: “Why gardening is so comforting during a pandemic.”
“It was crazy back in the spring,” says Kenneth Mabry, manager of the Dan West Garden Center on Poplar in East Memphis. “Everybody was home, sick and tired of looking at those living room walls, and everybody and their mother wanted to go outdoors.
“People were planting who never planted before,” he said. “They had time to go outside, just doing maintenance, creating new beds. Vegetables were huge this spring.”
He couldn’t quantify the explosion.
“Business was up 30%, 60%, 40%, I don’t know. It was crazy, we’ve never experienced a spring like this before.”
Brett Norman, who owns Urban Earth in Midtown, used the same extreme descriptions.
“Industry-wide, it’s been insane, absolutely insane,” he said. ”It seems to me gardening has been an escape, one of the only safe and healthy escapes people could find.”
Gardening for work and pleasure
No one is more at home with this gardening boom than Dr. Chris Cooper, the University of Tennessee Extension agent in Shelby County and coordinator of the county’s Master Gardener program.
Urban horticulture is both his work and his hobby. Cooper hosts “The Family Plot” on WKNO-TV, in its 10th year and now broadcast nationwide. The vegetable garden at WKNO studio which serves as his backdrop is currently producing cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, okra and beans.
At home in Cordova, he concentrates on ornamental planting. He’ll probably be putting in this year’s pansies as you read this. ”I’m a little proud of my little garden,” he says.
Cooper grew up in a family farm culture. His grandfather was a sharecropper, with sugar cane, cotton and corn on a large place in east-central Mississippi. “As a child, I was always fascinated that you could put a little seed in the ground and it would grow into a corn plant or cotton plant,” he says. “My grandmother had a huge vegetable garden. If you wanted something to eat, she would send you out to the garden.”
He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, with gardening parents — vegetables in the back, ornamental plants in the front. Then he went to Southern University in Baton Rouge.
“Imagine my mom’s response when I told her I was going to major in plants and soil science,” he said. “’So you’re going to be an educated farmer?’” In addition to his bachelor’s degree in soil science, he earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in plant physiology from Alabama A&M University.
Cooper is present for every training class with the 25-year-old Master Gardeners program in Shelby County. The 15-week course is three hours per week from January to April, and in addition to Cooper, who teaches a class on weeds, students hear from a variety of other UT extension agents, county directors and local gardeners about turf, annuals, perennials, soil science, botany and vegetable gardening. They also take field trips to Memphis Botanic Garden and Dixon Gallery & Gardens.
“We place the application on the website in May,” Cooper said. “All you need is an interest in plants and a willingness to share that plant knowledge as horticulture educators.” And $150.
As Shelby County’s only residential Extension agent, Cooper relies on the Master Gardeners to, as he says, be an extension of himself.
Coronavirus may have been great for the gardening business, but it forced the Master Gardeners to cancel the Spring Fling at Agricenter, one of their two major annual fundraisers. So a lot is riding on sales of the Memphis Area Master Gardeners 2021 calendar, which includes a monthly planting guide and garden to-do list, horticulture events and answers to such questions as how to grow tomatoes or why hydrangeas don’t bloom.
The calendar is available for $15 from the Memphis Area Master Gardeners website from Nov. 12 to Dec. 11, and will also be sold at businesses including Novel bookstore, Wild Birds Unlimited, Dan West, Urban Earth, Memphis Botanic Garden and Dixon Gallery & Gardens.