How does your garden grow? Master Gardeners plant seeds of knowledge for novices and pros alike

By Christina Heintzelman

Spring is in the air, buds are beginning to pop, and crocuses and snowdrops are peeking their tiny heads out of the dark earth eager to pay homage to the returning warmth of the sun.  Here in Pennsylvania, gardeners are also beginning to plan their gardens of flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables with an eye toward a new year of outdoor gardening activity, which is great for the wallet, health, and happiness.

Whether someone is brand new to gardening or has several cultivating years under the belt, Dauphin County Master Gardeners Program can help with gardening plans.  This program is part of the Outreach Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds State Departments of Agriculture throughout the country.  The Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture then funds the Pennsylvania Land Grant University, which is Penn State University.

Catherine Scott, Extension Educator/Horticulture Master Gardener Coordinator, is the head of the program for Dauphin County through the Penn State Extension Program.  “This is a way for home gardeners to get expert advice,” she said, adding she’s had questions ranging from “why are there weevils in my bathroom?” to “why are my spruce trees dying?” to “why are there no goldfinches in my backyard? I guess you could say we handle everything from bathtubs to birds.” 

This crew of experienced master gardeners is equipped to make recommendations for garden design, provide conifer identification to home gardeners, and assist with seasonal garden tips. They also can aid community gardens and other community gardening projects. In addition to their in-person assistance, they offer a garden question hotline, and an email site to assist with plants and insect samples for identification and diagnosis.

The Dauphin County Master Gardeners Program is peripherally involved with many local projects. One is The Five Senses Gardens, located on the Capital Area Green Belt in Harrisburg, designed to enhance all of the senses. A personal connection to nature and a sense of tranquility is fostered by visiting this garden with its many different types of flowers, trees, sculptures, and butterflies. Visitors can sit on one of the many benches and take in nature while relaxing.  Master Gardeners have been maintaining the garden with the help of many volunteers from surrounding communities. During this time of social distancing, working in this beautiful garden has been both safe and therapeutic for the volunteers.

In addition, the Master Gardener Program has aided The Harrisburg Cemetery, the oldest and largest in the city and the final resting place of noted individuals of national, state, and local importance, such as war dead from all American wars including the Revolutionary War and Civil War. The Master Gardeners joined with Mayor Eric Papenfuse and volunteers from the board and staff of Harrisburg Cemetery to plant tree seedlings to begin the creation of a beautiful arboretum during the 2015  Earth Day celebration. The plans for this started more than five years earlier while the gardeners were volunteering with a clean-up of the cemetery and noticed that many of the trees and various plants were not healthy.  They began thinking about new plantings emphasizing native species. Now the cemetery is a beautiful historic place with an astonishing variety of plantings and the feel of a lovely suburban park.

The Master Gardener Program has also assisted with the Hershey Community Garden on the campus of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, which offers a venue for community networking on 234 plots, 220 for community residents to garden, and 14 to raise produce to donate to organizations that distribute it to those in need. In 2020, more than 3,000 pounds of produce were donated to local groups like Hershey Food Bank, Palmyra Food Bank, Middletown Food Bank, and CocoaPacks, benefiting more than 1,000 families. The garden was completed in 2014 with 123 plots, but expanded in 2018. Generally, about 50 community members are on a waitlist for plots. Gardeners do not have to live in Derry Township to be eligible for a plot.  

Other features of the Hershey garden are sections allocated for children with hands-on educational programs and several raised garden plots that are designed for those who cannot bend to ground level.

Hershey Community Garden is also taking part in a study sponsored by Penn State Health with collaboration from Dauphin County and two adjoining counties, Lebanon and Lancaster. The study is being conducted by dietitian Susan Veldheer, DEd, RD, who is an assistant professor for Family and Community Medicine and Public Health Sciences, Penn State College of Medicine. The goal of the study is to introduce new gardeners to starting and tending a garden throughout the season while realizing another goal by introducing them to the link between healthy eating and gardening, which can result in improved health.

“Gardening is the fourth most common physical activity in the country, so the idea is to go with that momentum and link it to a great way to access fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables while improving one’s physical and mental health, and helping the environment,” Veldheer said. She also noted that gardening has increased in popularity during COVID.

The study will be done online because of potential health uncertainties this spring due to COVID. There will be links to videos and online materials timed to what should be happening in the garden in real time.  Also, Zoom meetings will be held with a Master Gardener presenting information on a gardening topic. Participants will have homework to do in their garden and will be able to present their questions or concerns to the Master Gardener at the end of the Zoom presentations.  

In addition to the Hershey Garden project, the Dauphin County Master Gardener Program has aided the Capitol Hunger Garden in Harrisburg. This 1,000-square-foot garden first broke ground in an area between the Main Capitol Building and the Ryan Office Building in 2008 with the goals of creating a garden that would provide healthy food for those in need and serving as a valuable tool to raise awareness of hunger issues in Pennsylvania. 

Since its inception, the garden annually yields nearly 800 pounds of produce for local food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens. It is maintained by volunteer master gardeners — and sometimes lawmakers.

“Since 2008 the Legislative Hunger Garden has served as an ever-present reminder of the struggle many face each day just to put fresh food on the table,” Senate President Pro Tempore, Jake Corman (R-34) said. “In the midst of a global pandemic that caused all-time highs in unemployment, it is even more important to highlight the importance of working together to ensure that not one Pennsylvania resident goes without food. I am pleased Senator Vogel [Senate Deputy President Pro Tempore Elder Vogel (R-47)] has agreed to spearhead this effort for us this year.” 

A fourth-generation dairy farmer, Vogel agreed that “[i]t is important that we carry on the mission of the Hunger Garden because of the fresh, nutritious foods it provides to Pennsylvanians. At the same time, the garden serves as a tangible reminder to those who walk by it to do business in the Capitol that some of our neighbors experience food insecurity every day.”

For those who already are comfortable with their gardening skills, studying to become a Master Gardener volunteer is an option.  Scott recommends it as a pastime for people who love dealing with new people and enjoy learning new things. “And while we are learning, we realize just how much more we have to learn,” she said.

The Penn State Extension Master Gardener basic training program is open to individuals interested in becoming volunteers and sharing gardening knowledge with the public through community outreach. The horticultural training is taught by Penn State Extension educators and university professors. Master Gardener trainees are required to participate in a minimum of 40 hours of classroom training, score 80 percent on the final exam, and fulfill 50 hours of volunteer service. The training class schedules are varied based on location within the state and include the following topics: botany, plant propagation, soil health and fertilizer management, composting, controlling pests safely, entomology, plant diseases, indoor plants, vegetables, lawn care, pruning, woody ornamentals, herbaceous plants, native plants, weeds, and invasive plants. 

Those interested in studying to become a Master Gardener can contact the county Extension office in their area for an updated schedule of classes and program cost. Financial aid may be available through the local Extension office. Basic training for Master Gardeners is not offered annually in every county. You can also visit the website:

For assistance or questions regarding a home garden, or assistance wwith a community project, call the extension helpline at 717-921-8803, or send an email to