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Seeds of Life

For many people, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting their hands in the dirt and nurturing life in their own backyards. Whether tending an intricately planned and well-manicured flower garden, caring for a more chaotic mass of wildflowers, or cultivating fruits and vegetables to feed their families and neighborhoods, Fayette County’s Master Gardeners volunteer to beautify our city while sharing their knowledge with anyone who wants to know more about plants and their care.

The Fayette County Master Gardeners volunteer hundreds of hours each year toward a variety of community gardening projects. Pictured here are several Master Gardener volunteers from the Herb Garden Committee. Photo furnished

The Fayette County Master Gardener Program was established in 1987 by the local Cooperative Extension Office – a part of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment – as a means of training and engaging long-term volunteers to provide safe and reliable gardening information to the community. Master Gardeners share their knowledge through workshops, newsletters and other means, teaching others how to plant and care for home gardens of all types.

“There are around 100 Master Gardeners who are currently active with the program,” says Susan Umberger, the current Fayette County Master Gardener Association president, and a 20-year member of the organization. “Each Master Gardener, after completing the training program, volunteers a specific number of hours each year and continues their own education on the latest gardening techniques and research.”

To become a Master Gardener, participants must go through an intensive training program that is held every other year and that prepares the participants to instruct community members on a variety of topics, including botany, entomology, and plant pathology, as well as landscape design and care of lawns, trees and shrubs. Master Gardeners also learn about pesticide use, soil types, fertilizers and organic gardening practices, and at the end of their course are ready to pass on their knowledge.

The primary way that Master Gardeners educate others is through the Gardener’s Toolbox series of classes. These classes, held at the Cooperative Extension Office on Harry Sykes Way, off of Red Mile Road, cover the basics of flower gardening, growing food and caring for houseplants for beginners. Other classes focus on specific tools and techniques, like pruning or transplanting, while others are centered on growing specific types of plants, such as begonias, dahlias and asparagus. Class fees range from free to $20, making them an affordable and accessible way to explore gardening for those who are new to the hobby or, for those who are more advanced, to learn more. This year’s schedule is on hold in accordance with the University of Kentucky guidelines regarding social distancing practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At the time of this magazine’s publication, in-person classes were canceled at least through May 18. While no new registration is being accepted for previously scheduled classes, extension agents were working on distributing special publications and video classes to preexisting registrants of some classes.

However, the responsibilities of the Master Gardeners don’t end with teaching – around a dozen other projects are on their plates at any one time. Several projects each year are located at the University of Kentucky Arboretum, with Master Gardeners working with staff to plant and evaluate trial beds of flowers and vegetables, participating in public events, and providing special programming for the Children’s Garden. You’ll find Master Gardeners manning tables at local farmer’s markets, answering the helpline at the Fayette County Extension Office, working with 4-H and other youth gardening programs, and speaking at a variety of community events.

Debbie Johnson, past Fayette County Master Gardener Association president and a committed Master Gardener who has been through the program’s trainings in California, Illinois and Kentucky, explains that the projects can change a lot from year to year.

“We try to make sure that we are meeting the most current needs of the community, so things change a lot for us.”

With so many projects happening each year, the time commitment for Master Gardeners can be intense, but the group works together to make it all work. Says Umburger: “Some of us are retired and are able to spend more than the required amount of time working on the projects. We all work together to make sure that everyone can meet their commitment and we get things done.” Cumulatively, the group volunteers more than 5,000 hours annually for the community.

When asked about their favorite projects, both Umburger and Johnson say that the Bluegrass Flower and Vegetable Show, which typically takes place at the Lexington Lions Club Bluegrass Fair each summer, is at the top of their list. The show, co-chaired by Master Gardeners and Lexington Council Garden Clubs, is both a competition and a showcase, featuring more than 400 flowers and vegetables entered by amateur growers throughout Central Kentucky. Unfortunately, this year’s show has been canceled due to the pandemic, but Johnson cites it as a great way to introduce a larger population to the joy and art of gardening.

One of the most recent changes for the Master Gardener’s program is the relocation of the “Backyard Garden” from the Arboretum to the Cooperative Extension Office. The garden features fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers set up and grown on a scale that can be easily replicated at most homes. Planting, care and composting demonstrations can help prepare anyone with a small patch of land to plant and grow food for their own family or provide flowers to attract bees and butterflies. The Backyard Garden is not only an educational tool, but also produces around 600 pounds of fruits and vegetables each growing season, which are donated to God’s Pantry Food Bank.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an uptick in interest in home gardening. With more and more people becoming interested in growing their own food, creating their own peaceful patch of beauty, or benefiting physically and mentally from tending and nurturing plants, the Master Gardeners provide information and assistance that is invaluable. Their commitment to educating the community about how easy gardening can be inspires new gardeners to jump in and make something grow.

Online Resources:

Guide to Kentucky Garden Flowers

Fayette County’s Master Gardeners Help Lexington Gardens Flourish

Planting Calendar for Lexington-Fayette, KY

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For the Almanac’s fall and spring planting calendars, we’ve calculated the best time to start seeds indoors, when to transplant young plants outside, and when to direct seed into the ground.

Planting Dates for Spring

Planting Dates for Fall

How to Use the Planting Calendar

This planting calendar is a guide that tells you the best time to start planting your garden based on frost dates. Our planting calendar is customized to your nearest weather station in order to give you the most accurate information possible. Please note:

  • The “Frost Dates” indicate the best planting dates based on your local average frost dates. Average frost dates are based on historical weather data and are the planting guideline used by most gardeners. Although frost dates are a good way to know approximately when to start gardening, always check a local forecast before planting outdoors!
  • The “Plant Seedlings or Transplants” dates indicate the best time to plant young plants outdoors. This includes plants grown from seed indoors at home and small starter plants bought from a nursery.
  • When no dates(“N/A”) appear in the chart, that starting method is typically not recommended for that particular plant, although it likely still possible. See each plant’s individual Growing Guide for more specific planting information.
  • The “Moon Dates” indicate the best planting dates based on your local frost dates and Moon phases. Planting by the Moon is considered a more traditional technique. We use Moon-favorable dates at the very start of the gardening season. It’s a little complex for a fall planting.

To plan your garden more accurately in the future, keep a record of your garden’s conditions each year, including frost dates and seed-starting dates!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do You Start Seeds Indoors?

Starting seeds indoors (in seed trays or starter pots) gives your crops a head start on the growing season, which is especially important in regions with a short growing season. Starting seeds indoors also provides young, tender plants a chance to grow in a stable, controlled environment. Outdoors, the unpredictability of rain, drought, frost, low and high temperatures, sunlight, and pests and diseases can take a toll on young plants, especially when they’re just getting started. Indoors, you can control these elements to maximize your plants’ early growth and give them the best shot at thriving when they are eventually transplanted outdoors.

For most crops that can be started indoors, seeds should be started about 6-8 weeks before your last spring frost date. This gives the plants plenty of time to grow large and healthy enough to survive their eventual transplanting to the garden. Read more about starting seeds indoors here.

Which Seeds Should Be Started Indoors?

Not all vegetables should be started indoors! In fact, most are better off being started directly in the garden (aka “direct-sown”). The crops that should be started indoors are those that are particularly susceptible to cold temperatures or that have a very long growing season and need a head start. These include tender vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, as well as crops with a long growing season, like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts.

Most other crops do best when sown directly into the garden soil. Root crops, including carrots, radishes, and beets, are especially well-suited to being started directly in the garden, since they do not like having their roots disturbed after planting. The same is true for squash and watermelon, though care must be taken to plant them when the soil is warm enough. Read more about direct-sowing seeds here!

How Is Planting for a Fall Harvest Different?

Planting in late summer for a fall harvest has many benefits (soil is already warm, temperatures are cooler, fewer pests). However, the challenge is getting your crops harvested before the winter frosts begin. When we calculate fall planting dates (which are really in the summer), we must account for several factors, such as the time to harvest once the crop is mature and whether a crop is tender or hardy when it comes to frost. The “days to maturity” of a crop and the length of your growing season also factor into whether you start seeds early indoors or directly sow seeds into the ground outside. Note:

  • Warm-weather veggies like beans, corn, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, cantaloupe, and watermelons are all sown directly into the ground.
  • Tender heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants take a long time to mature and have a lengthy harvesting period, so we generally don’t plant a second round of these crops for fall, as they won’t ripen in time. (In regions with mild winters, this may not be the case.) These crops are typically started indoors early in the season and transplanted.
  • Root vegetables (beets, carrots) do not transplant well, so start seeds directly in the soil outside.
  • Peas are also best seeded into the ground; do not transplant.
  • Cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage could be direct seeded, but because of the heat of mid- and late summer, it’s better to start them indoors and then transplant them into the garden.
  • We tend to direct-sow leafy greens such as lettuce, chard, and spinach, though some gardeners will also sow indoors. It depends on your climate.
  • Note that garlic is not included in our planting chart. It’s a popular fall crop, but the dates vary wildly based on location and it’s really best to gauge garlic planting dates with a soil thermometer. When the soil temperature is 60°F (15.6°C) at a depth of 4 inches, then plant your garlic. We’d advise checking our Garlic Growing Guide for more information.

When Should You Transplant Seedlings?

When seedlings have grown too large for their seed trays or starter pots, it’s time to transplant. If it’s not yet warm enough to plant outdoors, transplant the seedlings to larger plastic or peat pots indoors and continue care. If outdoor conditions allow, start hardening off your seedlings approximately one week before your last frost date, then transplant them into the garden. Get more tips for transplanting seedlings.

What Is Planting by the Moon?

Planting by the Moon (also called “Gardening by the Moon”) is a traditional way to plant your above- and below-ground crops, especially at the start of the season. Here’s how it works:

  • Plant annual flowers and vegetables that bear crops above ground during the light, or waxing, of the Moon. In other words, plant from the day the Moon is new until the day it is full.
  • Plant flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers, and vegetables that bear crops below ground during the dark, or waning, of the Moon. In other words, plant from the day after the Moon is full until the day before it is new again.

Old-time farmers swear that this practice results in a larger, tastier harvest, so we’ve included planting by the Moon dates in our planting calendar, too. Learn more about Planting and Gardening by the Moon.

Planting calendar for Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky. Find the best dates for planting and transplanting vegetables and fruit! Our free planting guide calculates the best dates for sowing seeds indoors and outdoors, and for transplanting seedlings to the garden—all customized to your location. Based on frost dates and planting zones.