The well-known saying “April showers bring Mayflowers” — a favorite among gardeners — signals the return of the spring growing season. This year, however, the rain showers in April simply brought more showers. But the extra-wet spring doesn’t seem to have deterred local gardeners.
About 30 people attended an introductory class on growing vegetables Saturday, hosted by Washington State University’s Master Gardener Program. The full day course was held at the Heritage Farm on 78th Street in Hazel Dell.
Some in the class were old hands in tillage and were looking for answers to their more difficult gardening problems. Many were newbies looking to join the grow local movement.
Erika Johnson, program coordinator for the Master Gardener Program, said gardening has always been a popular activity for Clark County residents. Since she joined the master gardener program 10 years ago, there has been steady participation in master gardener training, she said.
“I’ve attended 11 training sessions and we’ve had about 50 participants in the class each year,” Johnson said.
The courses offered to the public have continuously evolved to meet the interests of the participants.
Gardening courses cover a wide range of topics, from propagating plants to getting the most out of a small garden, from soil basics to protection against invasive species.
“We started doing a hands-on blueberry pruning class about four years ago,” Johnson said. “The first time we held it … we had to start directing cars away from the parking lot because it was a madhouse. I had no idea how high the interest would be.”
She said the Master Gardener Program also offers courses to achieve a range of skill levels.
“We find that there are a lot of beginners,” Johnson said. “Today … there are maybe six or seven people who have never gardened before, which is kind of amazing. People usually try before they come to a class.”
According to the National Gardening Association’s annual survey, gardening’s popularity soared more than 20 percent at the start of the pandemic. Now that supply shortages and food prices continue to rise, even more people are turning to hoes and trowels to keep costs down.
Rachel Feston, the owner of Urban Snail Farms in Vancouver, gave the class tips on growing vegetables from seed on Saturday. She covered how to choose seeds, what type of seeds to choose, how and when to plant them, when to transplant, what soil to use, and how to store unused seeds for next year.
Feston mainly grows peppers and tomatoes on her farm and sells them at local farmers markets and the Second Mile Food Hub. Her experience of growing tomatoes comes in handy because, according to her, she is the most often asked about it.
“Usually it’s ‘What’s wrong with my tomatoes?’ It needs to be transplanted,” she said.
Feston has been a master gardener since 2015.
“I’ve noticed that it’s up and down. There’s definitely an increase when things get expensive and stressful,” she said.
Planting a garden can be expensive. The cost of buying seeds, fertilizer, pots, soil, lighting, and other things can add up quickly. But Feston said there are alternatives for those just starting out.
“Look for what you can grow seasonally by simply tossing seeds in the ground and letting them grow without having to start everything from within. Work with the season,” Feston said.
Vancouver resident Lang Nguyen was one of several in the class who were new to gardening. He said he recently retired and finally has some free time.
“I had a lot of questions,” Nguyen said.
Mandy Dunn, from Camas, said she took the class because she finally had space to garden and was willing to grow her own food.
“We have five kids, and they’re older now, so not at the age where they’re just throwing mud around,” Dunn said, laughing. “Right now it’s all about the zombie apocalypse, so it’s working perfectly. You must learn how to grow your food before the apocalypse.”
Dunn said that before moving to her home in Camas, she mostly lived in apartments. She said she looks forward to reaping the benefits of a “full” garden.
Bekah Marten, who has been a master gardener since 2011, has taught many gardening classes as part of the program. She said there was a question she was often asked.
“Usually it’s like, ‘What can we grow here?’ The answer is a lot!” said Marten. “In our climate here in the Northwest, we can grow so much. It’s quite remarkable.”
Marten said that while gardening has always been popular, she’s noticed a greater interest in it lately.
“Our workshops are always well attended. But personally, in my life, I feel like more and more friends are asking me questions about getting started. Certainly in the last two or three years,” said Marten.
Like Feston, she said the cheapest way to get started is to grow seeds in the ground rather than in pots and later transplant them outside.
“Share the seed packets with your friends. There can be hundreds of seeds in a pack,” she said.
Marten said sharing seeds among a group, with each person buying a different vegetable, can help keep initial costs down. She also recommended the free seed library at the Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washougal.
For more information on becoming a master gardener or upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://extension.wsu.edu/clark/master-gardeners.