University of Illinois Extension program allows green-thumbers to take the next step

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Setting up the compost table during Earth Fest at the Oak Park Public Works Department building last month was Don Nekrosius, 65. He is there with a cadre of University of Illinois Extension master gardeners and composters who are sharing how the right proportion of "the browns" (carbon) and "the greens" (nitrogen), plus water and oxygen, can heat up a compost pile to create the nutrient-rich humus that home gardeners love.

Nearby is another University of Illinois Extension master gardener — MG intern Debbie Becker, 58, who also happens to be a certified volunteer beekeeper. Becker was given the village of Oak Park's 2012 Green Award for helping to change the ordinance that allows bees to be kept in backyards here.

At her table, Becker explains the importance of pollinators to the ecosystem while kids and adults dip pretzels into a flight of honey jars. It's a tasting, and each one is slightly different depending on where the bees have "grazed."

To answer the question, "What flowers attract bees?" Becker does some research and offers a "sanctioned" list: asters, sunflowers, salvia, bee balm, hyssop, mint, thyme, poppy and bachelor's buttons.

For folks who have more backyard space, Becker, who is also a graphic designer at Wednesday Journal, recommends a larger list at

On a different day in another public space, veteran master gardener and composter Pierre Poinsett, 52, (who says he is a distant relative of the man after whom the pointsettia is named) has adopted an elementary school in Forest Park where he helps maintain their garden once a week. Annually, he also judges a Garden Walk in North Chicago. As a composter, he oversees or gives advice when requested by schools, individuals and coordinators of other public operations in Oak Park and beyond.

In Chicago, he may join his fellow MGs at a community garden, the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Museum of Science and Industry Smart Garden, and other such locales to help tend demonstration gardens and teach the general public about how those green spaces tend to grow.


In Oak Park, on the 500 block of South Clarence Avenue, stay-at-home mom Jill Cohen Niewoehner, 45, has recently completed her 60 hours of horticultural training at Garfield Park Conservatory, and has begun figuring out how she will complete her year-long 60-hour internship while satisfying the 10-hour plant-clinic participation requirement.

The avid home gardener grows grapes, blueberries, apples, all manner of vegetables, and has a shiitake mushroom log in her average-sized Oak Park backyard. She is organizing the Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour on July 27 in Oak Park and will continue to work with several other Oak Park groups who do community gardening with adults and kids. To complete her 10-hour plant clinic requirement, she is heading over to the Cook County Farm Bureau in Countryside as part of its new Master Gardener Resource Center, which has a "short hot line," she says.

"Master gardeners are volunteers of the University of Illinois Extension, who are 18 years and older," says Sarah Batka, program coordinator of Horticulture Programs. "We are the public education arm of U of I. [The gardeners] are relying on research-based information to provide options to the public. We are not necessarily experts in every subject, but I think the more you learn about horticulture and the environment, the more you realize you need to learn more."

In the four regions included in the Cook County Master Gardener Program, adds Nancy Pollard, horticulture educator, there are 750 certified master gardeners. Of those, 54 MGs reside in Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest. To ease logistics, she suggests training in a location where they are willing to satisfy their volunteer requirement, and a good place to start the research is

But there are other options, as well, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, and programmatically, something very new and exciting, she says.

"Thanks to funding support from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC), the south suburbs have added a fall program to recruit and train volunteers who will agree to serve 40 of their minimum 60 volunteer hours with the FPDCC," Pollard says. "The classes in the series rotate locations between Little Red School House (Willow Springs), Sand Ridge Nature Center (South Holland), and other Cook south and southwest locations."

To learn more and apply to this class, click on the South Suburban Master Gardener link:

Getting it right

Having an interest in gardening for over half of his life, Nekrosius, a retired high school English teacher, became a master gardener in 2006 when he found himself with more free time.

"There are excellent gardeners out there who are not University of Illinois Extension master gardeners, and who do not see their role as that," says Nekrosius. "But for anyone who does want to engage in the coursework and wants to participate in the program in Oak Park and all around Chicago, understanding that there is a service component to doing this is critical."

Nekrosius has been digging into the community service aspect of the program. He has become a Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON) volunteer and is a past board member. He was also on the Village of Oak Park's Greening Advisory Committee, and to scratch his itch and help other lifelong learners, he has volunteered in all sorts of schools and other educational settings to share his knowledge of vegetable gardening, composting and much more.

As a volunteer, he has developed a traveling tool-sharpening workshop he shares with garden clubs throughout the Chicago area.

"Regardless of race, creed, age, color, sexual orientation, and so on, the great thing about gardening and composting is that it is really all about people who enjoy the process of taking something living and making it flourish," says Poinsett, who became a master gardener in 2005, and a master composter after that. "I actually have adopted Holmes School in Oak Park, and they have a humongous composting tub, which is an automated, mechanical device.

"All of their food waste is composted in that, and I help them so they will have compost ready by the end of the school year. So it is all about helping the kids understand the importance of utilizing their waste in the proper manner … and that is very, very important, and with composting, there is a level of satisfaction, first of all, when you get your compost pile heating up, and it is achieving at least 130 degrees, and hopefully into the 140s. This means that you actually made it right."

Deb Quantock McCarey is herself a master gardener.

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