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Getting down and dirty with the Penn State Master Gardeners 

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Arboretum, Ridge and Valley Sculpture 2

The path leading to the Ridge and Valley Sculpture at the Arboretum at Penn State is full of flowers on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

Surrounded by grassy plains, snow-speckled mountain summits and grazing bison, Connie Schmotzer made an unrefined, natural world at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming her office for 10 years.

Working for the National Parks Service as a naturalist, Schmotzer said she always felt a deep connection for nature and plants. Upon retiring, she decided to continue her love and passion for the natural world — with a master gardening program at Penn State. 

Taking the class in 1990, Schmotzer later became a consumer horticulture educator and taught the class herself. 

“It was really very enlightening,” she said. “Just about everybody I met had a love for the earth and a desire to improve things.”

The 16-week program covers a multitude of topics such as soils, invasive plants, pruning plants and planting itself. 

Classes are three hours long and once a week. At the end of the program, students must take a test, present a 10-minute project and have 50 hours of volunteering completed. 

“They get a real crash course in just about every aspect of anything that might be going on in the garden,” Schmotzer said. 

More recently, the Penn State Pollinator Certification Program introduced in 2011, was started by master gardeners hoping to bring the “plight” of pollinators into the public eye. 

Through its website, the pollinator program allows curious visitors to learn about saving pollinators in their own backyards. 

Some of the links curated by the master gardeners include lessons in creating nesting sites for pollinators, the best types of flowers to plant for pollinators and how to manage a garden without using pesticides. 

Through the pollinator program, individuals or organizations looking to have their gardens certified as a “pollinator-friendly garden,” can submit an application to be reviewed by Penn State Master Gardeners. 

Currently, there are 753 gardens certified throughout Pennsylvania as pollinator-friendly.

About 80 percent of all plants in the ecosystem require insect pollination, Schmotzer said. Additionally, one of every three bites of food was touched in some way by a pollinator. 

For Alice Simmons, a Penn State master gardener with an interest in native plants and providing habitats for wildlife, this program was exactly what she was looking for. 

“I enjoy learning out in the field; we share the excitement of something new,” Simmons said. “While out in the field I hear the birds singing and the buzz of the bee. It’s a very sensory experience.” 

To her, the most rewarding part of the program is sharing information with others and collecting data on plants and pollinators that can be used throughout the state and country. 

With the hope of more people utilizing the website’s resources, Simmons said she is very confident it can make a difference in promoting pollinators and the world.

“[Pollinators] run the ecosystem,” Schmotzer said. “Without pollinators, it would be a very dull, uninteresting and probably uninhabitable world.”

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