Meet Master Gardener Will Conway

Will Conway, a resident of Mongaup Valley, NY, received his Master Gardener training from Cornell Cooperative Extention. In addition to working on his own multiple gardens, he is available to assist others with theirs. He can be reached at 845/583-4077 or

OCH: What are the most important elements for choosing where to site
a new garden?
WC: Well, you have to start by asking a few questions. Will the plants you want to grow thrive in the chosen garden space? For instance, if you are planning a vegetable garden, do you have six hours of sunlight on it each day? Plants tagged for partial shade should end up protected from harsh sun in the middle of the day. Another key consideration is soil quality. Testing for alkalinity and acidity can tell you how much to correct the soil with amendments, if needed. [Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ferndale will test your soil for you.] An ample supply of water should be near your site. The site you choose should be easy to get to, and a pleasure to be in. Always keep the sun’s movement in mind, when planning your new garden.
OCH: What are raised beds and do I need them?
WC: Raised beds are garden beds with raised and often exposed sides, creating lower pathways in between. This expands aeration to roots of crops, allowing rapid uptake of nutrients. Raised beds tend to be made from well-turned enriched soil. Watering a raised bed is a pleasure, as it will both drain excess and simultaneously hold enough for optimum growth. It is the fattening with manure and turning of raised bed soil that gives it its success. I highly recommended raised beds for many planting situations.
OCH: I have heard about “lasagna” or “cake layer” methods for starting a new garden. Can you explain what this is and do you recommend it?
WC: “Lasagna” gardening is a method for building raised beds from a layered mix of raw organic materials, including straw, leaves, soil, compost, peat moss, grass clippings and what-have-you. An advantage to this “cake” method is its versatility, in that it can be employed without digging the soil below. A bottom layer of cardboard or several layers of newsprint will suppress weed growth and permit new plantings to get a firm foothold. Delightfully, this method has proven successful for fresh planting as a new garden. You can find more information about it on the Internet, or by getting a copy of “Lasagna Gardening” by local gardener Pat Lanza.
OCH: How important is fencing for my garden?
WC: Dwelling in the country, we are competing for forage space with deer and all of wildlife. In order to enjoy fruits of your labors, it is wise to fence vegetables with a fence at least seven feet high. Ornamentals tend to be hardier, if they are native species. There are many beautiful shrubs and flowers that deer will not eat. Cornell Cooperative Extension has a good list.
OCH: .Can I grow both vegetables and flowers, or should I choose one or the other? What about herbs?
WC: Please grow all three! Growing diverse cropping attracts health to the land. Pollinators and beneficial insects protect the living garden. Planting flowers with veggies can brighten your garden and add fragrance. Climbing beans, cucumbers and squash can save precious garden space. Easy herbs to begin with are chives and basil.
OCH: Do you recommend annual or perennial plantings?
WC: I recommend both. Supplement perennials with accents of colorful annuals to fill gaps and add charged hues and textures. Perennials serve best as foundation growth under larger plantings or in dedicated beds or “rooms.” Surprising effects can be created with whimsy. Morning glories can honk their graceful trumpets from a mailbox or lamppost. Textures and shapes of leaves and grasses can bring visual sparkle to a mixed planting.
OCH: What challenges can I expect to face?
WC: Expect all of the orneriness of weather, weeds, insects and garden pests such as moles and groundhogs. Challenges can be from too much of one type of weather, or not enough of the other. Seeds can fail. Birds or slugs can eat your seedlings. A late chill can be discouraging. Start again. Gardening harbors an unbroken faith in rebirth. Every garden is an experiment, even for the most seasoned gardeners.
OCH: What are the rewards I can expect to find in growing a garden?
WC: Challenges can be hard, but the rewards sublime. Mostly, the best reward is found in the time you spend in your garden reclaiming an organic connection with the rhythms of the earth. Sweet scents and tastes pull at the senses. Visually, a garden rewards you with slow motion explosions of shapes and blooming colors. A few moments with a hummingbird can brighten one’s whole day.
OCH: Do you have any other suggestions?
WC: Enjoy your beginning garden successes and failures. There is always more to learn no matter how long you are at it. Because they turn tons of soil, worms are essential helpers in the garden. Cultivate them by keeping an ongoing compost pile. Always strive to add nutrition to your soil, in the form of compost or aged manures. Mulch is a good moderator of soil surface microclimate, keeping sun, wind and rain in check. Many weeds are edible. I recommend the use of flowering bulbs, like daffodils, for their ease and reliability. Keep fragrance, shape and height in mind when choosing blooming shrubs and flowers.


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