Apparently, staying at home raises questions. Lots of them.
That’s certainly what happened this past March and throughout the rest of 2020 as pandemic-bound folks focused all their cooped-up energy and curiosity on their immediate surroundings. Luckily, experts with answers to those questions were just a click or call away through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
ACES, which was officially established in 1915 to offer science-based information aimed at improving the livelihoods and lives of farmers and rural residents, is the outreach arm of Alabama’s land-grant institutions — Auburn and Alabama A&M universities in cooperation with Tuskegee University.
For more than 100 years (Tuskegee’s outreach program dates back to the 1890s) Extension has made its information available to rural and urban Alabamians alike using a network of county and state offices where experts are ready with guidance on topics as diverse as gardening and farming, food safety and financial literacy, wildlife and quality of life.
While always busy, ACES experts saw an exponential rise in calls, emails and texts last year from people asking about topics ranging from backyard wildlife to food preservation and much more. Lawns and gardens, however, were a major topic of interest as stay-at-home orders made yards and outdoor spaces the go-to places for exercise, stress relief and fun.
One of those experts was Birmingham-based Regional Extension Agent Bethany O’Rear, whose phone was lighting up and dinging with calls and texts almost as soon as the state shutdown, mostly from people asking questions such as “I’ve never grown vegetables before, what do I do?”
As she and other agents across the state fielded calls, so did master gardeners — ACES-trained volunteers who provide horticultural information to their communities. Several master gardeners saw an opportunity to not just educate people about gardening but also share the wealth of a garden with others in need.
Soon, their ideas and the obvious need for a central source of ACES gardening information came together in Grow More, Give More, a web-based resource filled with links to myriad publications, videos, blogs, lists and even helpful phone apps that can be used by beginning and experienced gardeners alike. The site also offers suggestions for sharing garden bounty with neighbors, including links to area and regional food banks and pantries.
According to O’Rear, the Grow More, Give More site was a way to make gardening as easy as possible — “We even compiled shopping lists,” she says — for new gardeners by providing research-based Extension information in one location. And she stressed that this information is based on rigorous scientific studies, which is important because “You know, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
In addition to this online resource, real live human help is also available through ACES agents located in all of Alabama’s 67 counties. Their contact information, including cell phone numbers, is available on the ACES website. “We have our cell phones with us all the time,” O’Rear says. “You can call us. That’s what we do.”
Answers are also available through the master gardener helpline at 1-877-ALA-GROW or at GMGMhelpline@aces.edu. And, O’Rear notes, if ACES doesn’t have the answer you need, Extension organizations in nearby states with similar growing conditions are fabulous resources, too.
Here’s a list of links to ACES’s resources:
- Alabama Cooperative Extension System site, including links to county offices and thousands of other resources: aces.edu
- Grow More, Give More: aces.edu/blog/topics/products-programs-lawn-garden/grow-more-give-more/
- ACES YouTube channel, which has videos on myriad subjects, from gardening to baking to controlling invasive species: youtube.com/user/alcoopextensionvideo/playlists
- ACES soil testing and insect and plant disease diagnostic services: offices.aces.edu/plantlabauburn/
- SOW-A Planting Companion app, which can help identify the optimum planting dates for vegetable crops
- Farming Basics app, which is geared for small and beginning farmers but has valuable information for gardeners, too: aces.edu/blog/topics/ipm-farming/farming-basics-mobile-app/
- The Alabama Master Gardener Program: mg.aces.edu
- Alabama Public Television’s “Spotlight on Agriculture” episode on ACES and 4-H, which offers an overview of Extension’s many roles and services: aptv.org/watch/spotlight-agriculture/