Meet the Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.
Meet Maureen Horton
The first CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale was a small community event on a Saturday in May. Only a few hands planted seeds for the 1400 plants available that year.
Over the last 14 years, the fundraiser for Denver Master Gardeners has grown to include 25 pairs of volunteer hands planting and tending more than 7,200 fruit and vegetable plants. The sale dates are May 18 and 19 this year.
While many things about the sale have changed, there’s something that’s remained the same: the work of Master Gardener Maureen Horton. She’s volunteered every year of the sale since the very beginning. She’s taken on the important task of coordinating all the planting in the City Park Greenhouse for the plant sale.
“I love filling the pots, planting the seeds, nurturing them and watching them grow,” she said. “It’s almost like a mother thing, nurturing them and then they go away, like your children.”
Maureen joined the Master Gardener program around 1999, but she’s been interested in nurturing plants since she was 5 or 6 years old. Her earliest gardening memories are of walking with her grandmother and uncle to tend the family garden plot in New Hampshire.
She recalls her grandma explaining the shoveling and watering to her, as well as harvesting lettuce and “lots and lots of potatoes.”
Now her Denver garden includes xeric plants, roses and her favorite ‘Purple Cherokee’ and ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes, among others.
Maureen’s approach to her own garden is all about nurturing, too. “Once I plant it, I nurture it to its maturity with care and the proper nutrients to grow the healthiest plant possible. It’s all about loving the soil and earth.”
She must really love the soil to commit to leading the greenhouse planting effort over six months each year, from November to sale day in May.
“We start in November and go through all the seeds we didn’t use the year before,” she explained. “We’re cost conscious and want to use all the seeds we can.”
Then the what-to-grow lists are compiled. One list includes the most popular plants from the previous sale. There’s another list of plants that are researched to find new, reliable varieties to add to the sale. Because of the heat and extreme weather from last summer, heat-tolerant tomatoes were researched for this year.
That list includes favorites like ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Red Brandywine’, ‘Burbank Slicing’, ‘Costoluto Genovese’, ‘Great White’, ‘Green Giant’, ‘Marble Stripe’ and ‘Purple Calabash’.
In addition, two new heirloom marriage tomatoes are now growing for the sale: ‘Cherokee Carbon’ and ‘Genuwine’. Heirloom marriage tomatoes are hybrids that cross two heirloom varieties to produce a tomato with the best qualities of each heirloom, plus the disease resistance and improved yields of a hybrid tomato.
Chile pepper research also figured into the list for this year’s sale. Of 23 pepper varieties, 21 are from New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.
“We’ve really babied those peppers,” Maureen said. “We’re introducing 18 new varieties of chile peppers to the sale.”
One of the new varieties is ‘NuMex Trick or Treat’. This pepper looks like a habanero and has all of the flavor of one, but with none of the heat. Another unusual pepper is ‘NuMex Twilight’ chile, an edible ornamental with peppers that mature in color from purple to yellow, then orange to red.
Once the seed order is placed, Maureen figures how many total flats of seeds to plant and the number of flats for each variety. Much of that is determined by how many benches the greenhouse allocates to the Master Gardeners for the sale.
In exchange for the space in the greenhouse and the use of a couple of their machines, the greenhouse also benefits from the help of Master Gardener volunteers.
Once the call for volunteers goes out, “people come running. It may be 40 degrees outside, but it’s 72 degrees in the greenhouse,” Maureen said. “It’s wonderful in there.”
While the planting is serious business, there’s always time for a few laughs. “We love it. There’s a lot of camaraderie and there’s a passion for it. Everyone works hard during their three hours to meet the goal of planting 40 flats.”
Once planting is complete, there’s twice weekly maintenance needed right up to the time the plants leave the greenhouse headed for the sale.
Last year the plant sale raised $36,000 to support Master Gardener programs in the community. More than half of that total came from selling the plants grown in the greenhouse.
It’s easy to imagine a high level of stress goes with the responsibility of nurturing more than 7,000 plants for the biggest fundraising event of the year.
“From doing it all these years, there’s not much stress,” said Maureen. “You have to roll with the punches. The only stress is if a flat of seeds doesn’t come up.”
By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005