New in the Garden? Need Some Help? Your Extension’s Got The 411

Margaret (aka @backyardwisdom)Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Margaret Lawrence (@backyardwisdom). Since RW&G tends to get a lot of hits this time of year from new gardeners from across the country, I wanted to include a post about how your county/parish extension office can lend a hand with your own efforts. (And for folks who are visiting my blog from Alabama, War Eagle!)

First, I want to thank Pamela for inviting me to talk about a subject dear to my heart: how your state’s Cooperative Extension Service can help get you on your way to raising fresh vegetables and fruits.

A quick disclaimer here: I am not a horticulture professor. I don’t play one on television, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I am a communications specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, and I host a weekly radio gardening program called Backyard Wisdom.

The Basics about Cooperative Extension
Every state has a Cooperative Extension Service affiliated with a land-grant university. Each Extension service has a network of local offices. In these offices, you will find professionals who can give you useful and research-based information on a variety of topics, including gardening.

In Alabama, Extension is based at Alabama A&M and Auburn universities. In Texas, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service is part of the Texas A&M System. Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture links to states’ Extension Services here or look for Extension in the phone book’s county government listings.

If you visit your county Extension office, you will likely find a large display of free and very informative publications. Most Extension publications and services across the country are free. On a recent visit to my county office, I found publications on how to grow vegetables, how to build a raised bed and how to grow blueberries to name a few.

Can’t make it into the office? No worries. You can find many of these same publications as well as additional home garden information online at the state Cooperative Extension Services Web sites. A quick Google search using phrases such as “South Carolina Extension garden information” or “Mississippi Cooperative Extension gardens” will get you where you want to go. The key is to include in your search the state’s name and the word “Extension” or the phrase “Cooperative Extension.”

Pick Up the Phone
You can also call your county Extension office. Most offices have someone to answer home grounds questions. County Extension agents are often out visiting clients, so if no one is available when you call, leave a name and a phone number so they can call you back.

You may talk to a county Extension agent or perhaps a Master Gardener. Extension programs across the country run Master Gardener programs. These people have taken about 50 hours of training in gardening practices. In return, they do volunteer work related to horticulture education. Master Gardeners in some areas handle routine home garden questions, freeing county agents to tackle more complex ones and to develop educational programs.

Many states have toll-free hotlines you can call with your questions. In some states, like Alabama, hotlines are open during the growing season. Other states’ hotlines are open year-round. Check to see if your state Extension service has one.

How Do I? What Is This?
Cooperative Extension professionals can help you with your garden from the first shovel of dirt turned until harvest. Generally, new gardeners are told to have a soil test done. But how do you do that and who does the test? In most states, soil tests are handled through the county Extension office. They can teach you how to take a sample and will ship your sample for testing for a small fee.

Got a bug that’s munching your tomatoes? Leaves on your squash turning yellow? Take a sample into your county Extension office. They can help you identify the problems and explain your options for dealing with them.

Don’t delay. Contact your Extension office today!

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