MONTROSE – Thursday is diagnostic day for CSU Extension master gardener Ginny Price.
The table was littered with mystery bugs in pill bottles, diseased leaves in plastic bags, and what Price called “freakoid” vegetables, hybrids that no one’s ever seen before.
“This is so cool,” she said, holding up a bright-orange cucumber that had crossed, somehow, with a pumpkin. “This fellow brought it in; he had no idea what it was. Here take a whiff. Smells like a cucumber, looks like a pumpkin. I call it a cuke-kin.”
The Colorado State University Extension office at Friendship Hall in Montrose is the place to go if you have questions about anything agricultural: from plant diseases and pests to pruning roses to running a local 4-H program for kids.
This is Price’s third year as master gardener in Montrose. She is not an extension “agent,” but she is a “jack-of-all-trades.” She is a diagnostician, a problem solver, a facilitator with the research and educational resources of CSU behind her. She makes house calls. (Twenty-five dollars an hour, but you can invite as many neighbors as you want.) She runs the seedling tree program for all of western Colorado.
She fingered a baggie full of western grapeleaf skeletonizers (she has a couple of strategic suggestions for how to deal with the colorful and destructive caterpillars short of applying systemic poisons) and swept a hand along bookshelves lined with natural histories and technical identification manuals. “It’s fascinating! But if I get a bug I can’t identify, I’ll send it up to Bob Hammon, our entomologist in Grand Junction.”
The extension network reaches into every county in America. Its roots go back to the very beginnings of the United States, when farmers formed local groups to share technologies and solve common problems. The current system was formalized around the turn of the 20th century as a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in partnership with the country’s land-grant universities, the ag schools. The idea was to introduce new technologies and bring research-based knowledge to the nation’s farmers.
During World War I the extension system helped to double wheat production. During the Depression, agents helped establish buying and selling co-operatives and taught women about nutrition, canning, preserving, sewing and home nursing – in short, helped a lot of rural families survive the tough years.
The famed “victory gardens” of World War II were an extension program. In 1943, it was estimated that 20 million back-yard gardens supplied 40 percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. that year. The extension system had a great deal to do with turning the United States into the world’s food basket.
Ginny Price turned back to her “freakoid” collection, pointing to an odd-looking, extra wide zucchini. “Isn’t this fun?” she said with typical enthusiasm. “Look at this.” The outside was green-striped, zuke-like, but then she pointed out interior textures that were reminiscent of a spaghetti squash. “A zuke-spagoid!
“The man who brought this in said, ‘I have never grown a squash.’ I asked him, ‘Do you compost?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. He had composted a spaghetti squash, and the seeds then hybridized in his zucchini patch! It’s fascinating!”
Price spends most of her year dealing with less exotic plants. The extension’s seedling tree program makes (mostly) native trees and shrubs available to anyone who wants them – spruce, fir, aspen, ponderosa and piñon pines, juniper, cottonwoods, poplars, willows, mountain mahogany, service berry – the lost goes on and on. “We start ordering in November, and the seedlings are picked up in April. Thirty trees for $50,” Price enthused.
She was careful to say the trees must be used for conservation: windbreaks, shade breaks, erosion control, wildlife habitat and sustenance; and not, technically, for landscaping. “We’re not allowed to compete with the nurseries and garden centers,” she said.
“We need to work with you to order things that are going to work with your particular climate and soils. And you are going to do a lot of work on those 30 holes,” she added. “Planning is more important than planting. You’re going to put a lot more into those holes than your $1.66 per tree.”
To talk with Price about the seedling tree program, call her at 249-3935.
In fact, call her about anything. “I want people to call me,” she said. “Let’s say you’re looking at buying some Scott’s Turf Builder for your lawn. Why would you expect it to work in California and Pennsylvania and Montrose? Call me. Camelot Gardens calls me. Suppliers call me. Why shouldn’t people call me? When you’re in Home Depot and you’re wondering, how much nitrogen? Call me.”
Back one more time to the diagnostic table. “So, this guy brought in these berries from up on the [Uncompahgre] Plateau. And he wanted his wife to make a whole lot of jam from them. But he thought he’d better check first if they were edible. I was able to identify them; they were some kind of high-country blueberry.
“Oh, I get snakes in here. I get ‘How do I take care of a raccoon?’ It’s so cool. I have the best job.”