Commentary Why I’m a master gardener

By Joe Baltrukonis, Ramsey County Master Gardener

It started in the small town of Cheshire, just north of New Haven, Conn. My Grandma, as a young child, came to this country from Lithuania. She was what some would call a peasant, a person with an inborn love of the soil, plants, dirty fingernails and good food.

She grew raspberries, peach varieties we cannot grow here in Minnesota, tons of turnips and other vegetables, and sweet corn. How excited she was to try some of the newest varieties of super-sweet corn. She loved to can produce. Her strawberry jam was more of a soup than a real jam or jelly, but it was delicious. The best wine I ever tasted was when some old jar lids of jam loosened and the contents fermented.

I know where my love of gardening comes from.

Later in life, I joined the Navy and became a medical laboratory technologist and blood-bank specialist. Yet in a 20-year career, wherever I was stationed, I managed to grow a small garden. I retired to central Wisconsin and became a Master Gardener by training at the Hancock Research Station.

Sixteen years ago, I moved to the Twin Cities to work at Bailey Nurseries. Of course, we joined another great group of Master Gardeners in St. Paul. Later, I really retired, and now my wife and I do even more gardening and even more volunteer work.

Some people are in awe when they learn that I am in this program. “Then you know everything there is to know about gardening,” they say. I just smile, laugh a little, and reply, “No, it is impossible to know everything about gardening. The only reason that I know so much about plants is that I have managed to kill many more than you have. I don’t know all the answers, but I certainly know where to find out.”

I have made many dear friends in the Master Gardener Group, and I can call any one of them to find the answer. Although Master Gardeners learn about all aspects of gardening, I observe that everyone tends to become quite an expert in one or two areas of gardening. I have a black thumb when growing houseplants and tend to kill them. I hate lawns and can mow my lawn with a pair of scissors in less than 30 seconds. When I receive a houseplant or lawn question, I know just who to call. I can also read the many well-written articles on the University of Minnesota Extension website. I have access to a statewide network of talented Master Gardeners who will answer my every question by email.

Extension educators and University faculty gladly share their knowledge and time to answer the especially difficult question. There is always someone available to help you. University experts and knowledgeable gardeners present exciting training sessions, where we learn even more.

When I see a volunteer work thousands of hours in a hospital, teaching ill children the joys of gardening, when I see others start a community garden in an empty lot, when I see display gardens and educational gardens throughout the state or talk to a woman about a suspicious bug on a plant she doesn’t know the name of and convince her that she need not spray the heck out of it or see “beans on the boulevard” and seed libraries springing up, when I see a child in the city eat his very own first tomato on a plant that he has grown himself (with just a tiny bit of help from a Master Gardener) and then he smiles, and when I see the thousands of hours that the Minnesota Master Gardeners donate to their communities, then I know that the world is OK and is heading in the right direction.

I love the volunteer aspect and friendship of Master Gardening and enjoy sharing my knowledge. Ramsey County is recruiting a new crop of Master Gardeners. Applications are can be found at:

You can also email the program assistant for a request for application materials at or call 651-704-2053.

The application deadline is Thursday, Oct. 1, at 4 p.m. Hope to meet you at one of the Ramsey County Master Gardener meetings in 2016.



Leave a Reply