Master Gardeners Go Au Natural

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Organic gardening growing plants and vegetables without chemicals is alive and well in the Payson area. And help and advice about this time-honored practice are available to longtime gardeners and those just getting started.

The Gila County Cooperative Extension Office can refer gardeners to graduates of the Gila County Master Gardener program. Graduates are required to serve 50 hours of community service a year as part of the program.

Chris Jones, assistant agent of agriculture and natural resources in the Globe extension office, said the program is "designed to educate the home horticulturist, get them to a certain level of knowledge and certification. Our county has an agreement with Eastern Arizona College to teach a four-credit-hour class, and then the students are required to become volunteers."

Jones said it is not too late to start a garden, especially in the higher elevations.

"A lot of the old-timers wait until the first of June to put anything in the ground," he said.

The fundamental tenet of organic gardening is using natural fertilizers.

"You should be running yourself a home compost system where you are taking your household waste, clippings and leaves and mixing them into a compost," Jones said. Mixing horse manure into the compost enriches it. "Talk to horse and llama owners," he said. "They have to dispose of it and they are always willing to give it away."

Jones said composting reduces chemical and pesticide exposure, keeps those materials out of landfills and helps conserve water.

Organic gardening in this country started around 1930 when J.I. Rodale began using the term, longtime master gardener Arne Koch said. When Rodale died, his son Robert Rodale picked up the organic gardening banner and carried on. Koch has written numerous articles on the subject for local and national publications and has lectured on the topic.

"I read a lot of magazines that make no sense unless you live east of the Mississippi," he said. "You cannot have a garden here without artificial irrigation."

Koch has two 500-gallon cisterns that collect rainwater from his roof. The water is gravity fed to his garden.

He said his father-in-law gave him a whole bookshelf of organic gardening magazines when he was young.

"I liked the philosophy," he said. After retiring from Motorola, where he worked as a computer programmer, Koch bought five acres in Round Valley. He started with a little garden.

"My wife was overwhelmed by what I brought in from the garden so we started selling the produce," he said.

What started out as a little garden grew into ARJOY Acres, a five-acre organic garden where he and his wife, Joyce, sold produce and had a pick-your-own operation.

"I was retired doing what I liked to do," he said. Koch now tends a sizeable garden in Payson.

Carol Lydic, along with her husband, Ed, has participated in the Master Gardener program twice. She said if you want to be certified and be able to put Master Gardener behind your name, you need to stay affiliated and active.

"First-year associates of the Master Gardener program have to complete 50 hours of service that is acceptable to the Cooperative Extension Office," she said. "That can be anything from putting together gardening seminars to helping out at the county office."

Lydic said that gardening problems can be solved with processes that are not going to harm the environment.

"I've watched what chemicals do to the environment," she said. "You can garden without them."

Lydic also advocates water harvesting. Her garden is watered from a 300-gallon cistern, a tank she wants to quadruple.

"Water harvesting has been around for many years," she said, "but people have not paid any attention to it. It's a wonderful way to feed your plants because you are not affecting the ground water. Rainwater is loaded with micronutrients, electrons and ions.

"You would be boggled at the ... amount of water that runs down the street," she said.

The Lydics started gardening two years ago. "We were giving away produce last year," she said. "We get more off our little garden than we can eat. We were so busy that we didn't have time to do any canning."

For more information about the Master Gardener program, call Susan Bolt at the Gila County Cooperative Extension Office at 474-4160.

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