"Extension work is not exhortation. Nor is it exploitation of the people, or advertising of an institution, or publicity work for securing students. It is a plain, earnest, and continuous effort to meet the needs of the people on their own farms and in the localities."
—Liberty Hyde Bailey, pioneer of the National Cooperative Extension System, botanist, horticulturist, plant explorer, founder of the Cornell College of Agriculture, early advocate for women's education, all-around badass
In August 2011, after Hurricanes Irene and Lee caused the Wallkill River to flood our community garden, submerging the would-be fall harvest under as much as 10 feet of water for days at a time, we board members of the New Paltz Gardens for Nutrition had many questions. When the water receded, was it safe to enter the garden in terms of exposure to bacteria? Was any produce (e.g., root vegetables) that hadn't rotted safe to eat? How soon would it be safe to plant fall crops, if at all? For instance, could we plant garlic in October, as is the norm in our region, or would we be advised to skip a season?
We looked to a Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) publication released in the wake of these disasters, Dealing with Flooded Vegetable Fields, by Steve Reiners, to inform us. This gave us a lifeline of solid advice that we could pass on to our fellow gardeners. (We also followed up with extensive soil testing, and found the soil blessedly free of contamination.)
Every state in the US has at least one land-grant university, which means one that gets earmarked federal and state funding for extension activities, extending its research findings into practical advice for farmers, gardeners, small-business owners, and others. In New York, our land-grant institution and hub for extension is Cornell, a humble beacon for gardeners in our state and beyond. It's a source of definitive information for all things horticultural, obtained by trial and patient, frequently tedious, research. It's our Mothership. I wish more New Yorkers would take advantage of CCE's horticulture richness. And I cringe when CCE goes through budget cuts; I know firsthand that extension professors, agents, and staff work really damn hard.
At Cornell, horticulture professors often have a tripartite appointment to do teaching, research, and extension. Their teaching is for students at the university; they conduct original research and they bring their research findings to the broader public through their extension work, including writing bulletins and giving talks and trainings in practical arenas.
CCE offers beloved reliables like Master Gardener and 4-H programs, plant sales, garden-based learning, turfgrass short courses, and plant and insect identification. It's innovating new offerings all the time, like distance learning courses in botanical illustration, organic gardening, and plant propagation. These are some of the Cornell horticulture resources I use most often.
Gardening.cornell.edu is a site that all New York gardeners should bookmark. Although not all the resources there are extension publications, this site truly fulfills the goals of extending knowledge from the university to the public. This is the hub.
Pruning: An Illustrated Guide to Pruning Trees and Shrubs by Rakow and Weir. The drawings are excellent. You can find a free PDF of this through the Cornell Gardening site, too. I also recommend the Planting Guide by Good and Weir, along with the Transplanting Guide by the Urban Horticulture Institute (UHI). All of the UHI publications have things to teach homeowners, as so many of us have areas on our properties that are challenging in just the way that "urban" settings are. The site is also great if you are looking to get more involved in community forestry.
The Cornell Woody Plants Database is a fantastic resource. It gives you a means by which to match an appropriate tree species to your site, often a challenging site. The database also can be used for woody plant study, as it shows extensive cultural information and many images for each species. There is a Plant Walk section, which you can use to find a series of plant walks through campus based on different criteria like species or tolerances. I plan to take advantage of this the next time I'm visiting Cornell.
Cornell Plantations (which receives a small portion of its funding from the state), located adjacent to the university campus in Ithaca, is a superb place to learn about excellence in garden design and diverse plant materials. There are color-charged higher-maintenance gardens, like the Young Flower Garden, and there are more practical but no less beautiful expressions, like the Ground Cover Collection. Among the many arboreta and botanical gardens I've visited, I think of Plantations as the pinnacle of skillful, practical, inspired horticulture. There is no admission fee.
There is a great Find-a-Plant feature on the Plantations website. Say you want to see what the underutilized, four-season-beauty Korean mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia) looks like on your next visit to Plantations. Find-a-Plant shows two specimens of Korean mountain ash and provides maps to each.
Numerous departments and websites from the Cornell Horticulture Department are worth checking in with regularly. I still get a kick out of a seven-ring labyrinth composed of 14,000 tulip, daffodil, and grape hyacinth bulbs that was planted by Professor Bill Miller's Herbaceous Plant Materials class in the fall of 2008. You can take a virtual stroll of the labyrinth online.
Miller also recommends a section on the Flower Bulb Research Program site that explores, in pictures, optimum pairings of bulbs and perennials. For instance, Narcissus 'Ice Follies' looks great alongside Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Papageno' when they both are in bloom, but then the fresh foliage of the latter very effectively covers the dying foliage of the former.
I'm also delighted by everything about the Cornell Living Sculpture website, which includes many projects coordinated by Senior Extension Associate Marcia Eames-Sheavly with students in her Art of Horticulture class. These include sod sofas and other sod sculptures, a living willow dome, topiary, and mowing/crop art. The Living Sculpture web site gives instructions for simple activities you can use to build community and spark creativity and interest in plants.
Recommended LHB Reads
Aspects of Liberty Hyde Bailey's (LHB's) amazing résumé, including his key role in founding the nation's Extension system, were referenced earlier. In 1913, he wrote the following, which shows how far ahead of his time he was: "I would not limit the entrance of women into any courses of the College of Agriculture; on the contrary, I want all courses open to them freely and on equal terms with men. Furthermore I do not conceive it to be essential that all teachers in home economics subjects be women; nor, on the other hand, do I think it is essential that all teachers in the other series of departments shall be men. The person who is best qualified to teach the subjects should be the one who teaches it. I hope for the time when there will be as many women in the College of Agriculture as there are men."
I highly recommend the book Liberty Hyde Bailey by Philip Dorf—one of my top three favorite biographies—and the fantastic online exhibit about LHB by the Cornell University Library Rare and Manuscript Division: Rmc.library.cornell.edu/bailey.
Bulb and Perennial Combinations Hort.cornell.edu/combos
Bulb Labyrinth Hort.cornell.edu/bglannuals/labyrinth
Cornell Cooperative Extension Cce.cornell.edu
Cornell Plantations Cornellplantations.org
Cornell Horticulture Department Blog Blogs.cornell.edu/hort
Gardening and Garden-Based Learning Gardening.cornell.edu
Horticulture Distance Learning Hort.cals.cornell.edu/teaching/distance-learning
Living Sculpture Hort.cornell.edu/livingsculpture
Urban Horticulture Institute Hort.cornell.edu/uhi
Woody Plants Database Woodyplants.cals.cornell.edu/home