The first thing I noticed about the garden was its verticality. Going vertical is a way to gain space in the garden, and it’s a favorite trick of mine in my own garden.
The garden I was admiring, though, wasn’t mine, but was The Learning Garden, the Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. If you haven’t visited it, I encourage you to do so. It’s aptly named — there’s a lot there to see and learn.
The Learning Garden is a hit at the Maryland State Fair every year, and no wonder. Preparing the garden so that it hits its peak at Fair time is a bit like playing three-dimensional chess. It requires a thorough knowledge of the plants chosen for the garden, their space needs, their rates of growth and their time to maturity. Everything needs to come together just so at Fair time if the garden is to serve its purpose of educating the public about gardening and encouraging them to take up the hobby.
In this case, that thorough knowledge comes from Master Gardener Robert Cook. Robert enrolled in the 2014 Baltimore City Master Gardener class in preparation for his retirement from the practice of law at the end of 2018. He quickly gained a reputation for his inner-city projects, becoming a co-chair of the Baltimore City Community Garden Committee his first full year as a Master Gardener. He also started working at the demonstration garden at the State Fairgrounds. In 2018 when the State Extension Office asked the Baltimore City and Baltimore County Master Gardeners to “kick up” the Extension’s presence at the State Fair, Robert led a committee of Master Gardeners in planning and constructing the various raised beds and other projects in the revamped garden.
Now, I’m a newbie MG apprentice and when I found out that Robert (with whom I’d practiced law for 30-some years, and with whom I’ve had a friendly, long-standing gardening rivalry — who can produce the first ripe tomato?) was a leader for The Learning Garden, I jumped at the chance to join his team’s work party and pick up some volunteer hours.
My first impressions? The Learning Garden isn’t terribly big. It’s an odd, mostly triangular shape, but I’d guess that it would be equal in total area to perhaps a 50 x 100-foot rectangular plot. Master Gardeners who visit will immediately pick up on the raised beds, the trickle drip irrigation systems, the straw mulch and other MG tricks and secrets.
The plantings are mostly vegetables – asparagus, beans, blacked-eyed peas, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, chard, beets, okra, basil, chives, eggplant, cucumbers, and an extensive herb bed — all the familiar favorites that, with a little careful planning, will look good at the end of August. A few flowers — zinnias and sunflowers — will add a bit of color and attract butterflies and other pollinators.
But for me, the most fun was the garden’s vertical structure. Innovative and new-to-me ways of literally stepping up the harvest were everywhere. Old reliables, like bamboo teepees, appeared next to concrete remesh frames, custom-made, heavy metal pea/bean trellises and shapely arbors. Tomatoes were housed in a deer-proof, 8-foot tall walk-in wire cages. Tall stakes were everywhere, and the objective was obvious – up, up and away! I think that’s just good gardening, but when you consider that the purpose of the garden is “demonstration,” getting the plants up to eye-level, or at least well off the ground, certainly helps the cause.
The garden also devotes a space to container gardening for the residents of Baltimore City, and other state localities, that might not have much of a backyard, but still want to garden.
The State Fair is only 10 days in late August, but The Learning Garden is a year-round effort. The Baltimore City and County Master Gardeners begin planning during the winter months and volunteers work from early spring to late fall to prep the garden for its big show at Fair time and bed it down for the winter. Extra produce from The Learning Garden goes to a local food pantry. In 2019 the Master Gardeners donated over 525 pounds of produce from The Learning Garden.
If you’re a newbie like me, or if you are a veteran Master Gardener, and haven’t visited The Learning Garden at the State Fairgrounds, consider dropping by and looking it over. The Fairgrounds are open 24/7/365 and you will find the garden next to the 4H-FHA-Home Arts building near the main entrance of the Fairgrounds along York Road.
By Tom Hudson, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener, Anne Arundel County. Current UME Master Gardeners who would like to volunteer at the Maryland State Fairgrounds Learning Garden should email Baltimore City Master Gardener Robert Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) to find out about upcoming workdays. The Maryland State Fair is from August 26-September 6, 2021, in Lutherville-Timonium, Maryland.