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Get to Know Your County Cooperative Extension Office

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART.

There’s a resource available that will make you a better gardener. It’s your regional or county cooperative extension program. It’s free, for the most part, because your tax dollars help pay for it. Under the auspices of the USDA, Cooperative Extension exists to help state residents stay informed and up-to-date on a variety of horticultural, agricultural, and food-related topics. Learn how to make the most of this valuable information.

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Do you want to know which turfgrass grows best in your area? Or what fruit tree varieties are heat- or cold-tolerant, or which insects are most likely to attack your plants? The cooperative extension knows. They can recommend disease-resistant tomatoes, tell you the pH of your soil, and identify the invasive plant species common to your locale.

The extension is valuable for gardeners because it’s a reliable place to turn for accurate, tested, regional growing information. The emphasis is on regional because, besides asking your neighbors or someone at your local garden center, where can you find gardening information that is specific to where you live?

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Cooperative extension agents are on the front lines of your region. They know the soil and what will and won’t grow, and why. They monitor insect infestations and drought conditions, test new varieties of plants, hold seminars and classes, and work to keep residents informed about breakthroughs in plant science. Consider them the go-to people for the latest horticultural information in your area.

Turn to your cooperative extension to:

  • Get your soil tested. Find out its pH and any nutrient deficiencies, and how to treat them.
  • Have gardening questions answered. An extension agent can look at a photo or sample of a plant and identify which insect or disease might be affecting it, and offer solutions.
  • Access online and printed growing guides for hundreds of vegetables, fruits, ornamentals, and turfgrass.
  • Take a gardening class, either online or in person.
  • Buy locally-grown plants at an extension-sponsored plant sale.
  • Observe which plants grow well in your region and get planting ideas by visiting an extension test garden.
  • Get your Master Gardener certification and volunteer to help your extension fulfill its mission.

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A quick history: The cooperative extension service operates under the auspices of what are known as land-grant universities. Created under an act of Congress in 1862, land-grant universities were intended to provide people – who were mostly farmers at that time – with the latest agricultural information so they could maximize their harvests and the use of their acreage. There’s a land-grant university in every state.

Operating under a division of the USDA called the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Cooperative Extension System doesn’t just cover horticulture. Food safety and preservation, agriculture, animal husbandry, environmental and natural resources are just some of the topics you can find information on.

So look up the website of your local extension office and bookmark the page. You’ll find it will come in handy in all sorts of ways.


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