PSU gardeners bring expertise to Ag Progress Days

Volunteers provide horticulture advice to attendees

ROCK SPRINGS — Spotted lanternflies have recently been in the news and those stopping at the gardener’s advice tent at Ag Progress Days voiced their concerns over the invasive species, said Master Gardener Coordinator Molly Sturniolo, who oversees more than 100 volunteers in Centre County. Those volunteers are deployed to provide research-based horticulture advice to the public in courses, presentations and at their signature advice tent during Ag Progress Days.

“This is one of our projects, and Ag Progress Days is outreach,” Sturniolo said.

As for the spotted lanternfly, experts advise people who see the insect to kill it and report its presence to the hotline at 1-888-422-3359. Currently, the insect is found in 45 Pennsylvania counties.

Other questions the gardeners are asked involve tomato blight or how to properly care for other plants. The answers are based on the person’s soil type and area, including rainfall, said Brian Kohler, who first attended Ag Progress Days as a master gardener in 2021, and returned in 2022 to field questions on plants, seeds and his specialty, pollinators and turf reduction.

“This is a great turnout,” he said of visitors to Ag Progress Days. “Things are coming back, people are becoming more comfortable being in public settings again, we had a great turnout last year, and we’ve had a great turnout this year,” Kohler added.

Despite the high number of concerns he addresses, the questions have not gotten stale, he said.

“There’s not that many repetitive questions, because everybody has their own garden and … has their own ecosystem, so everything is unique,” Kohler said, “everyone is always worried about their own garden.”

According to Kohler, while he can give broad advice on certain subjects, he tailors his recommendations to the particular soil type, seed variety and rainfall concerning each person’s garden.

“They’ll say ‘Oh, I’m growing tomatoes, and this is the focus of what I’m growing and can you give me information on keeping that healthy, and best practices,’ things like that,” Kohler said.

In the rare situation where Kohler hears a question outside of his realm of knowledge, he turns to his colleagues to bridge the gap.

“Sometimes you get pesticide questions, and as a master gardener, we pass that off to the extension educators who focus specifically on pesticides — it’s not our expertise,” Kohler said.

For questions that fall within his subject area, though, Kohler said he relies on his comprehensive master gardener training.

“Our curriculum covers a broad spectrum, from botany to taxonomy … but it’s all about research, and using research-based information,” Kohler said, “as opposed to home remedies, which we stay away from and try not to recommend.”

This approach is central to the master gardeners program, which uses peer-reviewed research to offer best-practice horticulture advice.

While directing the Centre County master gardeners’ packed schedule of events is the primary focus of Sturniolo’s role, recruiting capable candidates to the program is just as important.

“We look for people who want to do the outreach, who will be here at an information table, not people who just want to get the info for their home gardens or dig in the dirt,” Sturniolo said. “We are looking for people to deliver outreach.”

To become a master gardener, interested applicants must complete 40 hours of classroom training, pass two exams and fulfill 50 hours of community service before donning the coveted blue apron.

In addition to their annual advice tent at Ag Progress Days, master gardeners hold plant sales, seed-to-supper and spotted lanternfly education courses throughout the year.

“We are about outreach,” Sturniolo said. “We are extending the College of Agriculture information and research out to the public.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today