Longtime Penn State Master Gardener shares tips and experiences with the program

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Joyce Christini is the longest-serving member of the Penn State Master Gardener program in Center County. She began her basic Master Gardner training in the fall of 1992, followed by an exam and 50 hours of volunteer work, after which she officially became a Penn State Master Gardener in the spring of 1994.

The Daily Times Center recently spoke with Christini to find out more about her experiences in the program, as well as her top tips for local gardeners.

Daily hours of the center: What prompted you to become a Master Gardener?

Joyce Christini: I grew up on a farm. I have always been around plants and I myself am a gardener. I love my gardening and felt like I could learn something (through the program) and maybe I could give back a little as well.

CDT: What does your garden generally look like? Do you mainly make flowers, vegetables, etc.

JC: All that! I do a lot of perennials. I have shrubs. I have a vegetable patch and berries. I live in State College Borough and my lot is 0.44 acres – so less than half an acre and there is the lawn and the house.

CDT: Has your gardening and garden changed over time?

JC: It has definitely changed over time. There are always new things to try. I’m more aware of pollinators now and native plants that help support pollinators, so I’m probably growing fewer annuals now and more perennials for pollinators.

CDT: And what kept you in gardening and in the Master Gardener program for almost three decades?

JC: It’s my hobby. This is what I love to do. Meeting the public and helping them learn more about their gardening issues and goals is rewarding. I really enjoy planting, learning more about my plants, and eating great food. I’m getting better sweet corn than ever before this season, although I guess it’s probably partly because of the wet year.

CDT: What does your work with the Master Gardener program look like?

JC: I volunteer. There is a pollinator demonstration garden at Ag Progress (field). I do a lot of volunteer work there and then we work on it during the Ag Progress event. Now we have a butterfly house there that gets a lot of interest every year from the young people who come and the young at heart, who really love to see the monarchs hatch.

I also work on our hotline, where you can send questions. Different (master gardeners) on the hotline take different days and we answer questions from gardeners. If we have a problem (responding to one), we talk to each other and share what we have learned and what we possibly need to say to the person who sent their information. If there is a really difficult question, we can send samples to Penn State.

CDT: What kind of questions do you hear the most on the hotline?

JC: It’s always the tough one, “Why is my plant dead?” There is so much (that could have happened), whether the plant is planted poorly, the season is too wet or too dry, or a new insect has appeared, or there is a fungus problem or leaf spot. I find these questions stimulating and very interesting, because to give them a good answer I have to do a lot of research, and I learn all the time when I read about how to answer these questions.

CDT: So, would you encourage newbies to take up gardening in Center County as a hobby, on any scale?

JC: Well, it must be something that you like. There are people who have the proverbial black thumb, but it’s rewarding to put some lettuce seeds, in the spring, and bring out some fresh lettuce. If you only have a small space, you can plant some green beans and eat something. You can pick beans every week and have beans for supper. But it has to be what the person wants, because if they see gardening as another job that they have to do, then it will fail. But, it is enriching. You can plant beautiful flowers and have a lot of landscaping around your house. People who garden have a lot of different choices for what to do.

CDT: For beginners, are there any particularly easy or sturdy plants that gardeners can get started with, if they are not completely confident in their gardening skills?

JC: I think growing lettuce and green beans, if you want to try some veg, is very easy. If you want color in your garden, purchasing annuals in late May will give you color. The space you have and what interests you will affect your choice.

CDT: Do you have any tips for Central County gardeners who may be planning to plant a garden next spring? What can they do now to prepare?

JC: Control weeds. Don’t let weeds go to seed this fall, as those seeds will stay in the soil. Some of them will be there for years and years and years. If you don’t have time to remove them this fall, take out your scissors and cut off the seed heads and throw them in the trash.

If you can feed the soil some sort of compost or supplement so that the soil is ready in the spring, that would be great. Fall leaves that are cut by the lawn mower make a good mulch and a good soil amendment.

And then, in the long run, especially if you are growing vegetables, rotate your crops. Don’t plant the same thing in the same spot every year, as the plants will use up the nutrients they need and they won’t continue to grow well in the same spots.

CDT: For more advanced gardeners, would you encourage them to participate in Penn State’s Master Gardener program?

JC: Yes I would like. You are learning a lot all the time. I’m still learning and the other gardeners I interact with have a lot of great ideas and suggestions. The people you meet when you are in public, they are really interested in gardening and they have good questions and they have great knowledge to share.

For more information on the Penn State Master Gardener program, visit extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener. To contact the Master Gardener hotline with your gardening questions, send an email to [email protected] When contacting the hotline about a particular gardening problem, it is always best to provide as much information as possible, with photos of the affected plants, said Christini.


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