COUNTRYSIDE – A green thing loosely resembling a beanstalk with shriveled leaves lay wrapped in a plastic bag on the desk in front of Jacquelyn Paine.
Paine said she thinks it’s a fungus that grew because of the recent rain, but she wants to call the owner to find out about it before she reaches a conclusion.
As one of the Master Gardeners who serves residents in suburban Cook County, Paine answers gardening questions such as when to prune lilacs or how to get rid of weeds.
In April, Paine and expert gardeners began staffing the new Master Gardener Resource Center at the Cook County Farm Bureau’s Countryside office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“This area was underserved,” said Paine, who previously volunteered in Chicago. “When I first started in 2003, there were hardly any community gardens – isolated ones here and there. Now, almost every community has a community garden.”
Bob Rohrer, the Farm Bureau’s manager, said the economic decline that started in 2008 motivated some people to start growing their own food. There also is a nationwide movement for fresh and local food, he said, along with people interested in returning to the country’s agricultural roots.
When Paine became a Master Gardener – which requires taking a 10-week course offered by the University of Illinois Extension and volunteering for 60 hours – in 2003, she said most of her volunteering was landscaping-oriented. Now, people ask Paine about growing tomatoes or lettuce or herbs.
“In the suburbs, we’re limited. We don’t have that much space for apple trees and stuff like that … But there are people who grow blueberries, raspberries [in addition to vegetables],” Paine said.
The Riverside resident also teaches a class on composting. At her house, she keeps three bins of compost and applies it to her flower beds – and her lawn.
“Compost retains a lot of moisture,” she said. “Last year, during the drought, I didn’t have to water at all, and my lawn was fine.”
Along with advising on gardening projects, the Master Gardeners also facilitate soil tests, often to check for lead before a gardener decides to grow food. They don’t conduct the testing, but rather send samples to a lab in Tennessee.
“Gardening – the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know,” Paine said.
The more she gardens, the more people she encounters.
“I’ve met a doctor who ran a hospital. You meet people who are retired principals and school teachers. You meet people who work for banks. We have lawyers. And then we have people who … are secretaries or administrative assistants,” Paine said. “So it’s the range of people. And you meet people from all over the city. And normally, you wouldn’t meet that mix of people.”
Contact the Master Gardeners Resource Center at 708-354-3276 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the center's office at the Cook County Farm Bureau's location in Countryside at 6438 Joliet Road. The office is staffed from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.