Carrol Bell stood in his garden wearing a High Mowing Organic Seeds baseball hat, gesturing toward a row of curly kale and collard greens that survived the winter, uncovered.
Behind him was a row of covered tomato and cabbage plants. A cat ran by his feet and rubbed up against a container made from old pallets near the back of the garden. In one of the containers were sweet potatoes, recently planted.
The plants are in a 40-by-80 area that he and his wife have been gardening avidly in Knottsville for the past 20 years. They primarily grow vegetables, but also have a strawberry patch, a blackberry patch, a few blueberry bushes, some fruit trees and a few herbs.
"There are about 10 or 12 herbs you can put in your garden area, and they will attract almost all of the helpful insects in the whole area," Bell said. "All insects who are helpful have big, strong front legs."
Bell is strictly an organic gardener because there are some things that he dislikes about how the current food system is organized. To him, some of the chemicals that are used when growing food are big health threats to people these days, especially children.
He is staunchly against genetically modified foods and takes strict precautions to ensure his vegetables and fruits don't become contaminated. This isn't to say he doesn't spray for pests or fertilize his crops; however, his ingredients for both are from organic compounds that have been tested not to harm the plants nor leave behind a chemical residue harmful to those who consume them.
For example, near the end of his garden grows an old plant called comfrey. This plant's roots grow from 8 to 10 feet into the ground and pick up every nutrient and micronutrient in the soil, Bell said.
He takes the leaves and mixes them with water in a covered bucket. After that sits for a while, he will strain the leaves from the water and use the water as a fertilizer.
Spinosad is an insecticide he uses that is naturally made from a bacteria that can kill insects and isn't harmful to humans.
"You can spray your blackberries (with spinosad) today, and you can eat them tomorrow," Bell said.
Every now and then, he'll have a big enough problem that he has to resort to spraying insecticide, but most years Bell just picks the bugs off of his crop.
Andrea L. Stith, of Owensboro, a horticulture technician for the Daviess County Cooperative Extension office, said the agricultural industry is pushing the ability to use less land to grow more food. This is important for people to understand, she said, because, that means crops might be altered in the process.
"The more educated that people can become, then the less of a negative impact or image agriculture has," she said. "GMO has such a negative connotation."
So many of plants developed today were developed from a mustard seed, she said, and a lot of other plants enjoyed today most likely wouldn't exist if they weren't modified in some manner.
"It may have been selective breeding or two specific plants to get something new, but in a way, that's still modified food," she said.
She said, that especially this year, she has answered many calls about the raised-bed gardening and container gardening processes. This is particularly important in an urban setting, she said, when people wouldn't ordinarily have a gardening experience.
"Those are the two big things that have been hitting us," she said. "If somebody wants to (container garden), they can find a way to do it."
She said these initiatives are part of the extension office's efforts to educate the community about where their food comes from. Other agencies, such as the Cliff Hagan's Boys & Girls Club, are also taking the extra effort to educate children about the growing process.
Raised beds and container gardens can be made from several different materials, some bought new and others reclaimed: used tires, treated and untreated wood, buckets, and more. A major plus for container and raised-bed gardening is that the grower can have total control over the soil conditions. With this method, gardeners are able to derive their own soil formulas.
The Daviess County extension office offers a master gardener program, from which Bell graduated.
Stith said there are more than 60 master gardeners that are "fairly active" in the area.
The master gardener course at the extension office is offered every two years. The last one was in the fall of 2015, so it will not be available again until 2017. It is a 14-week class that meets once a week, usually for about four hours.
Participants are expected to read through the material provided, complete quizzes and pass an exam with a certain score at the end of the course. After that, they must complete volunteer hours through programming at the extension office.
Stith said that after the extension office trains gardeners to become masters, they ask them to share their knowledge with areas the extension office may not be able to reach. They can set up a booth at a fair and just talk about the programming offered at the office. Sometimes they work with the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden and do different activities, but essentially just spread research-based information for the extension office.
There is a fee to take the course and that fee varies based on what funding the extension office is provided. The fee covers the cost of educational materials, including a textbook required for the course.
Not every county in the area offers a master gardener course, so Stith said this makes the Daviess County program high in demand. They have to have at least 10 students to have a course, and the Daviess County Extension Office limits participation to 25 people because there is such a big interest.
"It's more of a competitive program here to get into," she said.
Every gardener has a bag full of tips and advice for first-time and veteran growers.
Master gardener Jackie Smith says understanding soil formula is the most important aspect of gardening. It was perhaps the most beneficial thing she learned from the extension office's master gardener course.
"I had never heard of a soil test or how important it was to find out what your soil is made of," she said. "You understand the makeup of the soil's nutrition. It's like us eating, the plant has to have the right stuff just like we do."
When the components of the soil are known, you know what it needs or doesn't need to help promote the best possible growing circumstance, she said. From her soil test, she learned that the only thing she needed to add to her garden was nitrogen.
The soil test "is the best $7 you can spend," she said.
According to information from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, testing soil saves time and money when figuring out exactly what is needed to make a healthy garden. From a test, the acidity or alkalinity and levels of nutrients can be determined.
The pH scale ranges from zero to 14, with a reading of seven being neutral. Anything below seven is the acid range; levels above seven make up the alkaline range. This is important because knowing the levels of acid and alkalinity in the soil is a good determinate of what nutrients are available for plants.
To get a soil sample, dig about 4 inches of dirt from the garden or lawn, and discard that dirt. Within that hole, dig a 1-inch by 4-inch slice of soil. Put that core of soil inside of a container, and repeat the process in different portions of the garden or lawn. Remove the roots, trash and other debris from the soil and combine all of the samples into one bucket. Then, dry the soil by spreading it thin on paper.
After the soil has dried, take two cups of it to the extension office. Results should be returned within 10 days.
The extension office recommends a soil sample be taken every three or four years.
Preparing your garden is another important step, most gardeners say. Drawing a diagram, researching what plants to grow, where, when, and how many are all included in this process.
Other tips include making sure the garden is big enough, but not too big for the time and energy you plan to put in it. Perform a soil test to ensure the soil has the proper components for growing. Harvest fruits and vegetables when they are ready, and make sure you have preparations for storing food until it is ready to be eaten.
Stith says education and research are two important factors that should not go unnoticed.
Apollo High School agriculture teacher and FFA adviser Matt Johnson has been teaching his greenhouse class about the science and management associated with greenhouse growing. This year, he and his students have grown 10,000 or more plants.
Johnson said some of his students are genuinely interested in gardening and greenhouse work, while others are just in the class to make the grade. However, even the students who don't set out to take the class seriously usually do in the end, he said.
On a recent Monday morning, the students went to the greenhouse early and began picking blooms off of the young plants to prepare them for the school's annual greenhouse sale that begins 8 a.m. Monday at the school.
Emily Leslie, a junior, said the class picks the blooms off the plants because it sends a message to the plant to grow bigger and develop more flowers. It also encourages the plant to become fuller.
She grows plants at home and said she enjoys the class.
"I like to see plants go from a seed and grow into something beautiful," she said. "My favorite thing is the geraniums because of their texture and intense color."
Johnson said an individual's knowledge about producing crops, food or flowers is a money saver. For his students, he relishes the opportunity to show them careers in the field as well.
Smith and Bell both agree that home-grown food is better because a person can know exactly where it came from, how it was grown and what environments it was grown from.
"Home-grown has a totally different taste," Smith said.
Every master gardener must complete volunteer and community projects in order to maintain their status. One of Smith's projects was assisting in the building of a raised garden bed at the extension office that will be used for educational purposes. Bell has been putting in a lot of volunteer hours by contributing to the Daviess County Public Library's seed library.
The seed library is at the library, 2020 Frederica St., in an old card catalog on the first floor. It contains thousands of seeds from a variety of plants available for the taking.
He says he invests a lot of time and energy in that seed library because the act of sharing materials, resources and seeds is an important aspect of gardening. Spreading the passion and knowledge of knowing how to grow one's own food is a powerful impact, he said.
"Because if we can just influence one person to start planting something, imagine the implications," he said. "And if that person teaches another person and so on, imagine the impact of 100 people growing their own."
For more information about the Extension Office master gardener program, soil samples or any of the gardening and horticultural services offered by the office, call 270-685-8480 or visit daviess.ca.uky.edu, where there are numerous articles and tips for first-time and veteran gardeners.