Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Rochester residents engage in gardening education to combat food insecurity

photos provided by St. Mark’s & St. John’s Episcopal Church

The Seed to Supper (S2S) gardening curriculum is a comprehensive beginning gardening experience that gives novice gardeners the tools they need to connect with others in the community, grow in confidence, and successfully grow a portion of their own food on a limited budget. The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Master Gardener program and 4-H Youth Development Program have each been awarded this S2S grant by Cornell Garden-Based Learning. 

CCE’s Master Gardeners will form a partnership with St. Mark’s and St. John’s Episcopal Church (SMSJ), located in the Beechwood neighborhood of Rochester where more than 50 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. SMSJ has been an integral part of the community for years, with seven urban vegetable gardens currently in place that provide three days of emergency food supply to between 34 and 45 families. 

Adults on limited incomes living in the Beechwood neighborhood who are interested in developing food gardening skills will engage in a six–week course using the Seed to Supper curriculum. Classes will be taught by Master Gardeners who have been trained by CCE to serve as garden educators or facilitators. 

Additionally, SMSJ has garden bed captains at each garden site who will be offered garden facilitator training.  Training sessions will be in the community room of SMSJ and the existing raised bed gardens on the property will be available for hands-on instructional activities.

The youth portion of the grant, S2S Youth Corps, will engage diverse youth in underserved audiences. 4-H educators will meet youth where they are located by forming partnerships with existing food assistance and youth development programs doing similar work. 

4-H educators will introduce existing garden-based learning curricula into these communities and train teens to teach it to younger youth. This peer educator model is based on the published and research-based Choose Health Action Teens (CHAT) curriculum, which engages youth to promote healthy living in their local communities. The model further increases teen leadership and youth voice in our community.

Trained teen garden educators can then facilitate after-school programming, supplement summer learning, and teach children of adults participating in S2S workshops. Teen garden educators could earn community service hours or a small stipend for their work. 

Starting the Seed to Supper program in Monroe County will allow CCE to further engage the community and build partnerships that increase food security in Rochester. Those involved will learn skills they can share with their neighbors and create a sustainable cycle of community improvement and development. 

The Master Gardener program is offered through Cornell Cooperative Extension to provide services to Monroe County residents. Master Gardeners give advice on garden planting, plant selection, maintenance, and pest management. Many volunteers staff the phone support helpline, speak to local groups, and support community improvement projects. Guidance is focused on non-biased, research-based information provided by Cornell University.

The Monroe County 4-H program is offered through Cornell Cooperative Extension to the youth of Monroe County. 4-H is a worldwide youth development program open to all youth aged 5 to 19, who want to have fun, learn new skills, and explore the world. In return, youth who participate in 4-H find a supportive environment and opportunities for hands-on or “experiential” learning about things that interest them.

Learn more at monroe.cce.cornell.edu.

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Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy of Coldwater Pond Nursery

When third-generation nurseryman and plant propagator Ted Hildebrant was ready to open his own nursery in the early 1990s, land in his native New Jersey was too expensive. A friend  living in Wayne County encouraged him to have a look at the more affordable farmland for sale in the Finger Lakes. 

Ted Hildebrant and Elly Keyel of Coldwater Pond Nursery

“My goal at that point was to be a bare root tree grower,” Ted says, “so I spent hours upon hours walking the farms with my shovel, digging holes to evaluate the soil. In so many places, the ground was stony—not fit for field-grown trees.” At the last farm he visited on his third scouting trip to the Finger Lakes, Ted found his land-match in Phelps in Ontario County. The property possessed an ideal, mostly stone-free sandy loam, a large pond for irrigation, and several barns in good shape. 

This would be Coldwater Pond Nursery, with a twist: one of the buildings was an operating poultry barn, and Ted accepted the seller’s offer to include the poultry business in the transaction. This decision would prove personally fruitful for Ted. Fourteen years ago, he hired Elly Keyel to help with the poultry barn; after a year and a half, Ted and Elly became partners in business and life. 

As the nursery sales grew steadily over the years, Ted and Elly eventually let the poultry enterprise go. “It was nice to have the year-round cash-flow of that business to help build the nursery, and we liked working with the chicks, but it was very labor-intensive, and the margin of profit was slim,” Ted says.  

The nursery’s business model has morphed in other ways over time. Today, Coldwater Pond Nursery is about 50 percent contract propagation—grafting scions onto rootstocks to sell to other growers—and about 50 percent producing rare and unusual plants for retail sale, mostly at farmer’s markets and garden show plant sales. (Ted and Elly travel to sell plants and give talks in Buffalo, Rochester, and Ithaca, as well as in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.) 

“It’s still on my mind to explore bare root tree field production of trees we graft ourselves, for the municipal market especially,” Ted says. “In the East and even just in New York, there are so few growers offering bare root.” There are few woody plant propagators as well—most propagation happens on the West Coast, especially in Oregon, where growing conditions are ideal for plants. That’s a change that’s happened over time; it used to be that there were lots of people doing grafting east of the Mississippi. “There’s only a handful of us now,” Ted says.

• • •

A striking dwarf hemlock cultivar, Tsuga canadensis ‘Moon Frost’, gets only 2 to 4 feet tall and wide.
Aesculus x carnea ‘O’Neill Red’ is a round-headed, more compact form of horsechestnut, maturing to a maximum of 35 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
This shrubby St. John’s wort cultivar (Hypericum prolificum ‘Sunburst’) produces a stunning flower attractive to bees and butterflies.

Often folks mistakenly assume that nurserymen and women have quiet winter months. The grafting work that Ted does with Elly’s assistance makes for busy winter and early spring months (ideally, most grafting in the Northeast is done when the scion is dormant, and the rootstock is just breaking dormancy). In reality, Ted and Elly have a few light weeks to rest in September and December, but the rest of the year’s work is full-bore, dawn to dusk. Ted does the general business management and oversees the propagation side, while Elly assists with sales and general plant care like potting and pruning—and she does the critical scion preparation for Ted. 

The latter involves removing needles or branches to get a clear area to do the graft. If it’s a deciduous scion, Elly will ensure cleanliness by wiping down the stem with alcohol to sterilize it. After Ted does the graft (there are four major grafting techniques to employ) and secures the graft union with a rubber band, Elly coats the graft union with a mixture of beeswax and paraffin then labels the plants and carries trays to benches. Ted and Elly joke that “I just sit and graft and she does everything else,” says Ted. After Elly, his preferred companion in the endeavor is classical music on WXXI out of Rochester.  

Coldwater Pond Nursery sells custom grafted material to states from Georgia and Tennessee, east to Connecticut and west to Ohio and Indiana. They fulfill small wholesale orders for a wide variety of customers, but they are also doing grafting for major institutions like the U.S. National Arboretum and Longwood Gardens. 

Most of the grafted cultivars are rare or unusual ones that customers can’t readily find elsewhere; Ted and Elly are currently propagating close to 2000 different cultivars. They add to the diversity of the collection in various ways. “Nurseries and collectors generously grant us access to collect scion wood from their nursery stock and gardens,” Ted says. “For instance, there’s a fellow on Martha’s Vineyard who is always amazing us by coming up with cultivars we’ve never heard of, and he mails us the scion wood. I would say half of our new scion wood we go and collect, and the other half is sent to us. We’ve collected, with permission, from nearly every major arboretum on the East Coast.” Coldwater Pond Nursery also maintains an extensive collection of parent plants in their own nursery from which scions and cuttings are collected.

Collecting trips aren’t always glamorous. In February, Ted and Elly traveled to a collection in Connecticut where they had a day and a half to collect scion wood from sun up to sun down. It rained heavily the whole time. “We drove all that way, though, so we had to just deal with it,” Ted says. 

Their host later took them to a highly regarded wholesale nursery on the coast, where the group had a chance to talk plants and exchange numerous propagation pointers. “It was the most wonderful four hours of our winter,” Ted says. That kind of camaraderie is important, because, as Ted says, “No matter how confident I get, or how much expertise I acquire, plant propagation is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Much like with farming, there are so many things that can go wrong, so many variables that are beyond our control.” 

• • •

This heavily variegated upright Japanese maple, Acer sieboldianum ‘Kumoi Nishiki’, has beautiful orange and red fall foliage.
Young grafted Japanese maples thriving in one of the nursery’s greenhouses.

How might the business model for Coldwater Pond Nursery change yet again? “We’ve started to dabble in propagating pre-bonsai trees for the bonsai market,” Ted says. “We’d like to do more of that, and we’d also like to do tree peony production using a special kind of grafting—but that’s a ways down the road.”

Regardless of the form the tree takes, its cultivar, or its means of propagation, Ted and Elly want their plants to be alive and thriving 200 years in the future. “That thought guides us in everything we do,” says Ted. “We are conscious of making sure the root structure is the best, the trees are planted at proper depth, and the trees, shrubs, and perennials get the healthiest start to life we can give them.” 

Recently, Ted and Elly had the opportunity to secure the genetic future of a mature, beloved community tree. Before the old copper beech tree near the Pittsford library had to come down in 2018, Ted and Elly collected 200 scion wood cuttings to ensure that they’d have well over the 100 clone trees the Village of Pittsford asked for. They ended up with 150 or so successfully grafted copper beech trees that are now 6 to 8 feet tall and will eventually be distributed around the Village. 

Folks are welcome to visit the nursery by appointment; weekdays are generally best. Every year the plant propagation class from Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) comes to the nursery to get an introduction to grafting and tour the facilities—four heated greenhouses where propagation and liner production is done, and seven unheated cold frames for growing container stock. A video of Ted instructing FLCC students can be found on YouTube.

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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Plant the colors!

by cathym on May 5, 2020

by Carol Ritter Wright

Cover of official program for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association procession, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1913. Courtesy United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Original artwork by Benjamin Moran Dale; restoration by Adam Cuerden.

Purple, white, and golden yellow.

To the suffragists who marched and campaigned and picketed more than a century ago, those were the colors signifying their quest for laws granting women the vote.

This year is the centennial of passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that accomplished what those suffragists had fought to achieve. And 2020 is also the bicentennial of the birth of Susan B. Anthony, one of the principal figures in that long fight for suffrage.

Anthony and her close friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the organizers of the historic 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, spent years working together to gain the right to vote for women. But neither of them lived to see it actually happen.

We—all of us, women and men, anyone who cares about equality and democracy and fairness – owe a great deal to Anthony and Stanton and to the many others who dressed in white and carried suffrage banners and flags in the colors of their fight. 

In this important centennial and bicentennial year, we should recognize and demonstrate our respect for those rights pioneers.

How can we do that? Simple.

Let’s plant the colors.

Most of us, even non-gardeners and apartment dwellers, usually manage each year to have at least a pot or two or a window box filled with flowering annuals at home during our all-too-brief summer.

Many plants we use in those displays are relatively inexpensive, need little care, and can be grown from seed or purchased everywhere from large nurseries and big-box home stores to supermarkets, drugstores, farm markets, and roadside stands.

Petunias, for instance, are available in many varieties with purple or purple-and-white flowers. There are lovely white geraniums. Marigolds bloom profusely in several shades of golden yellow and even in white. None of these plants requires more than minimal attention to produce abundant flowers from late spring to first frost. Experienced and adventurous gardeners can find many other species and varieties in the three colors.

Planting the three significant colors in one pot or individually in a group of pots can create a show of recognition and respect for the suffragists who made it possible for American women to cast votes in this and every election year and to hold public office. 

In Seneca Falls, a variety of special events are planned by Seneca Falls 2020, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the town government, Seneca Falls Development Corporation, and other organizations and agencies.

All of this summer’s municipal floral displays in that Seneca County town will be in the suffrage colors. Planters overflowing with mounds of flowers in purple, white, and golden yellow will decorate town parks and principal streets and historic sites.

Castelmezzano container combination. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners.

There’s a movement afoot to encourage residents of Seneca Falls to use those colors in plantings at home on porches, decks and balconies and in front yards to warmly welcome visitors and show pride in the community’s suffrage history.

People in Rochester, Susan B. Anthony’s home, should do the same. Residents of Canandaigua, where Anthony was tried in court and found guilty of voting, ought to follow suit. There are several other communities in central and western New York that have historical ties to the suffrage movement. Planting the colors would be one way to acknowledge those important bits of their histories.

It would be great if people arriving in the Finger Lakes were greeted by floral displays in purple, white, and golden yellow.

We can make this happen. Let’s do it!

Carol Ritter Wright, originally from Seneca Falls, retired as a journalist at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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