On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from early spring through fall, you can find dedicated groups of Master Gardeners lovingly cultivating an organic Demonstration Vegetable Garden at the Fairfield County Extension Center site in Bethel. By summer, the garden is a beautiful oasis teeming with butterflies, and pollinators as volunteers harvest tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and other organic vegetables to donate to area food pantries. In addition to vegetables, the bountiful harvests include a variety of fresh herbs, and gorgeous annual flowers. Recently, the Master Gardeners have collaborated with Extension’s Food and Nutrition EFNEP and SNAP-Ed programs to provide clients with nutritious recipes in both Spanish and English to accompany their produce. Harvests continue all season long and food pantry drop offs are rotated to share the bounty. Among the area organizations who benefit from the donations are the Brookfield Food Pantry, Faith Food Pantry in Newtown, Daily Bread in Danbury, and the Bethel Food Pantry.
The 3,000 square foot garden was started in 2013 by a group of Master Gardener interns excited to assist food insecure clients, and at the same time educate the public about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and best garden practices. Each year additional Master Gardeners have joined the group and added to the garden’s infrastructure. The garden now has numerous raised beds, an irrigation system, tunnels to protect brassica crops from cabbageworms, and a blueberry enclosure to keep hungry birds at bay.
Advanced Master Gardener, Andrea Sarnik, began working in the garden in 2018. In 2020, Andrea joined Barbara Stauder as a project co-captain. Andrea explains, “The garden’s primary mission is to serve as an educational tool. It does that in a multitude of ways. The garden itself is a showcase of many varieties of vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. We receive many visitors on Saturdays when we open the garden during the Farmer’s Market. Visitors get ideas on things they might try and get answers to questions regarding gardening from the Master Gardener volunteers. The garden is marked with signs identifying the crops and informational signs such as companion planting and integrated pest management.”
In addition to the educational signage, a small rain garden display hugs the garden shed and a rain barrel system catches water from its roof. A three-bin compost system sits just outside the garden gate. This garden is definitely all about education, but clients are not the only ones who benefit. New interns join the group each year as they pursue their Master Gardener certification. As Andrea Sarnik adds, “Master Gardener interns obtain a broad array of information from the more senior Master Gardeners and even the seasoned gardeners continue to learn as they encounter issues and exchange information.”
Each winter the group of about 30 volunteers meet to plan for the new season. They work to extend the season by careful planning, incorporating more early and late blooming crops, seeking out pest and disease resistant varieties, and discussing other ways to increase harvests and productivity. The enthusiastic group weighs their harvests and tracks their crops with numerous spreadsheets, noting weather and pest issues. “Most years show an increase in total pounds of produce donated with our current top year total of 1365 pounds,” Andrea remarks. Clearly, the Master Gardener’s methods are successful.
This season, the group has already donated hundreds of pounds of produce, having started early harvesting garlic, onions, and cole crops. With the cool, rainy spring, the tomatoes are a bit behind with many green fruits waiting for more sunshine to sweeten and ripen them. This year, over five years after planting, the young native persimmon tree outside the garden will finally fruit. One of the young pawpaw trees also has a few potato shaped fruits for the first time. The Master Gardeners are excited by this development and are already envisioning another abundant harvest to share with their friends at the local food pantries.
To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener Program, which is offered in multiple locations throughout the state, visit our website at https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/. Applications will be available by the end of August for the 2024 program.
Article by Sandi Wilson, Fairfield County Master Gardener Coordinator