Volunteers bring spring to life in greenhouses

Mariellen Boomhower plants tomato seeds using a popsicle stick. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Mariellen Boomhower plants tomato seeds using a popsicle stick. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Annual plant sale a chance to raise money, teach beginners

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Spring may be behind schedule this year, but in Schenectady, there’s one place where green things are always growing: the greenhouses in Central Park.

Hidden off the road, behind the tennis courts and over a wooden footbridge, a cluster of greenhouses that once belonged to Charles Steinmetz are filled with shoots, sprouts and the busy hands of Cornell Cooperative Extension-trained volunteers called master gardeners.

On a chilly April morning, they were hard at work starting seeds for the annual plant sale, which benefits the volunteer program. The volunteers, in turn, provide classes and support for locals who want to overcome a black thumb, like the Seed Starting 101 classes on April 9, where students planted seeds and left them in the greenhouse to be nurtured by the volunteers.

Colleen Abercrombie-Castle plants cucumber seeds in the greenhouse in preparation for the spring plant sale. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Colleen Abercrombie-Castle plants cucumber seeds in the greenhouse in preparation for the spring plant sale. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Mariellen Boomhower, a newly trained master gardener who recently retired from a career in teaching, gingerly tucked tomato seeds into compartments in a seed starter tray using a popsicle stick. Boomhower said she enjoys teaching others about the techniques required to grow living things, especially because she wasn’t always good at it.

“The best way to learn how to garden is to make a lot of mistakes,” she said. “People think because something died, that’s the end of their skill.”

But that’s not the case; she said new gardeners often just need to find the right place for the plants they’re trying to grow, or vice-versa.

Another master gardener, Colleen Abercrombie-Castle, suggested newer gardeners try plenty of different kinds of plants until they find a subset that suits their personalities. She said she loves to plant shade perennials, since they bloom early in the spring and thrive in the woods near her house. They also come back each year, meaning she can constantly expand her garden without having to start from scratch.

But in the greenhouse, Abercrombie-Castle was working on something less familiar.

“This is a cucumber,” she said, pointing to a small, ivory seed resting on top of rich soil.

She paused.

“It should be a cucumber in 56 days,” Abercrombie-Castle said with a laugh.

Vegetables can be a little picky for her taste, requiring more affection than the self-sufficient perennials she loves to watch return each spring.

Even though the plant sale, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at the Central Park greenhouse, is technically a fundraiser, the gardeners’ love for educating others often show through in their offerings.

Angie Tompkins, the master gardener coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, said they will have vegetables available in special varieties that resist disease and have been tailored for Schenectady’s Zone 5a climate. She hopes visitors will take the time to learn why it’s important to look for plants that got their start locally, rather than being imported from other climates.

She also said the master gardeners would offer perennials from their own gardens for sale.

“We try to do something a little more unique than a regular plant sale,” Tompkins said. “We try to educate them about the plants that we’re selling.”

A container of seed packets awaits the attention of master gardeners at the Schenectady Central Park Greenhouse. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

A container of seed packets awaits the attention of master gardeners at the Schenectady Central Park Greenhouse. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)