Megan Will, a master gardener

Megan Will, a master gardener in Urbandale, Iowa, shows off some radishes from her garden. To be a master gardener in Iowa, a person must got through about 40 hours of education and promise to do at least 40 hours of volunteer work throughout the year.

URBANDALE, Iowa — There may be a cornfield across the road, but this isn’t the country. Still, there are crops being grown in this suburb of Des Moines and in other backyards around the region, thanks in part to the Master Gardener program.

“I’ve been a master gardener since 2005,” explains Megan Will, who now does work for the Iowa State University Extension Service with other master gardeners in Dallas County. “It’s a great program.”

The key, she says, is that it brings up-to-date information to amateur gardeners around the country and then uses the talents and interests of those amateurs to enrich communities. The one thing that unites the participants is an interest in gardening.

For Will, that interest includes growing fruits and vegetables in the multiple raised-bed gardens she has built in her back yard. A variety of plants, from radishes to beets to garlic to tomatoes to onions to lettuce all grow here.

Across the state, master gardener Becki Lynch is working primarily with pollinator habitat ideas in Cedar Rapids.

“We’re focusing on lots of less than 2 acres,” she says, adding that the program is aimed at everyday people who just have an interest in gardening, whether it be vegetables or prairie flowers.

“We’re the home gardeners, not professionals,” Lynch says.

To be a master gardener in Iowa, the women say, a person must go through about 40 hours of education and promise to do at least 40 hours of volunteer work throughout the year. After the first year they must do about 20 hours a year of volunteer service and another 10 hours of continuing education.

The goal, of course, is to pass information from the professionals to amateur gardeners around the state. The master gardeners can pass on information through training or volunteer work. Some of them go to schools to teach children about gardening. Others work on pollinator habitat. Still others educate the public about fruit trees or shrubs or flowers.

One of the things Lynch is working on in Cedar Rapids is a program that will put in several acres of pollinator habitat alongside the freeway.

She says that when talking to gardeners about pollinator habitat, she discusses the idea that a yard doesn’t have to be a wide expanse of Kentucky bluegrass. It can include other types of plants that may attract bees and butterflies. Clover and dandelions, long enemies for lawn-care experts, may not always be a bad thing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Iowa’s tallgrass prairie. But it could mean a more diverse backyard or road ditch habitat.

For Will, the emphasis tends to be more on educating children about back yard gardening.

“I think that over the last few years we’ve seen more interest in gardening and canning and freezing,” she says. “Even frozen tomatoes in January taste better than the store-bought ones.”

For those thinking about putting in a garden, Will has a few basic pieces of advice. First, start small. Put in one or two 4x8-foot raised beds (or in-ground gardens, as the case may be).

Second, grow what you want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to grow a huge number of tomatoes if you don’t like to eat tomatoes.

Third, rotate your crops from year to year if possible and remember that in some beds you may be able to double-crop if the item planted in the spring will be ripe and done by July.

And don’t forget that some items may need to be fenced to keep out rabbits or other wildlife. Other types of plants may need to be reinforced with cages or some type of support for a vine.

Finally, be willing to experiment both with the garden but also with the preparation of food from the garden. You may find that the food you hated as a child is one you love now if you just prepare it in a different way.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.