Spring weather is finally coming around, and the Master Gardeners of Mercer County expect their phone to start ringing soon.

It’s been a long, exceptionally cold winter with several snowfalls, and people will have questions about winter damage to plants, says Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County horticulturist and Master Gardener advisor. While speaking from her office, one of the volunteers is online looking up a township brush and yard drop-off location for a Ewing resident, another is looking into a microscope at a spider found at a local school, and others are offering a visitor tips on home composting.

If you have questions about lawn care, gardening, or composting, the Master Gardeners are ready serve. You can call the helpline at 609-989-6853 or stop by the 930 Spruce Street office located by the Trenton Farmers Market in Lawrenceville. In 2014 the group — trained and certified by staff from Rutgers University and by horticultural experts — helped 918 callers and 1,480 walk-ins, totaling 2,398 resident requests.

The data, tallied by gold-level Master Gardener Betty Scarlata, does not include other people the group helped at community events and outreach sessions throughout the year. Two such events are coming up over the next few weeks.

On Saturday, April 18, the Gardeners offer a composting demonstration using kitchen and lawn scraps, and on Saturday, May 2, they host a plant expo and garden market featuring produce, landscaping plants, and gardening advice.

Both events take place at Mercer Educational Gardens in Pennington, located on the grounds of the Mercer County Equestrian Center. The educational area includes several types of composting bins and theme gardens — herbs, native plants, butterflies, perennials, annuals, a cottage garden, and a weed identification garden — and a sundial, a kiosk, a nearby meadow, and a mailbox holding event calendars and compost brochures.

On April 18 the Master Gardeners will show visitors how to enrich their soil and improve its structure with homemade compost. Visitors will learn which composting ingredients to use and how much of each. Bromley has an expression to help make it easy to remember: “Equal weights of green and brown help the microbes break it down.” They will also discuss how much moisture to incorporate and how to aerate the mixture.

The demonstration will include 21 types of composting options and the pros and cons of each. Included in the discussion are the New Zealand turning bins, Earth Machine, and those made of cinderblocks or bales of hay.

Compost consists largely of decomposed organic matter, says Bromley. “Nature has been composting forever,” she says. If leaves that have fallen from trees are dumped into a pile and left alone, they would decompose in a couple of years. We simply apply techniques to accelerate the process. It’s the most important thing you can do to for your yard or garden and the environment. It’s the ultimate in recycling, and everyone should compost, she says.

In Bromley’s paper, “Composting at Home,” (which you can download at www.mgofmc.org) she discusses the advantages of composting: It saves money over the cost of store-bought peat moss or other products. It acts as a useful mulch to keep down weeds, helps moderate soil temperature, helps decrease evaporation, and reduces soil erosion. It extends the gardening season in both spring and fall by making the soil darker, enabling it to absorb more heat from the sun. It acts as drought protection by increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil. (According to Bromley’s fact sheet, 100 pounds of humus, or compost, holds 195 pounds of water.)

The objectives of composting include making productive use of organic materials that would otherwise go to landfills or incinerators; correcting the disruption of the natural cycle of decomposition that occurs in gardening, land development, and farming by mimicking the process of decay and rebuilding that occurs in nature; reducing volume of organic wastes; and producing a usable product.

More Mercer County communities are becoming interested in composting kitchen waste, Bromley says. Curb-side pick-up programs have already started for residents in Princeton and Lawrence­ville.

At the plant expo and garden market on Saturday, May 2, Bromley will be available to answer questions at the information center throughout the day. Visitors can purchase a wide variety of plants and vegetables including “tons of tomatoes” from the Gardeners’ gardens and from vendors from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Visitors will also be able to buy gently used garden tools and receive advice on choosing the right plant for the right spot.

In addition to the helpline and events, the Gardeners website provides an online resource (www.mgofmc.org) that includes more than 65 fact sheets and reports covering lawn care; gardens; weeds; insects; trees and shrubs; plus fertilizers, compost, and mulches. If you are wondering why your lawn doesn’t appear healthy, Bromley’s paper, “10 Most Common Lawn Care Mistakes,” can tell you why. One of the common problems is cutting the grass too short, says Bromley, who calls this practice “the golf course syndrome.” The absolute minimum mowing height for lawns should be 2.5 inches, she says.

One of the popular website features is the monthly tips. A viewer can click on the current month (or any month) for gardening suggestions. A few tips for April include planting roses, trees, and shrubs, starting seeds indoors, fertilizing the lawn, and reseeding damaged lawn areas. Tips for May include planting summer blooming bulbs and snap beans; and planting warm weather vegetables after the 10th of the month.

Many of the current Master Gardeners began their journey with a question about taking care of their own backyards, says Bromley. The more people learn about horticulture, the more they realize how complex the subject is, and for many the more they want to learn and share their knowledge. Becoming a certified Master Gardener is one way to fulfill these desires.

Certification begins with the 21-week Master Gardeners program, which includes field trips and classes covering 18 topics. Students must complete assigned projects, receive a satisfactory grade on the take-home open-book exam, and fulfill a 60-hour volunteer requirement that includes answering the helpline, working in the composting area of the educational gardens, and working on other approved projects such as the 4-H Fair and the Howell Living History Farm.

Aspiring Master Gardeners can start the process by calling 609-989-6830 to request an application (which will be mailed in the summer). The tuition is $200. The teaching staff includes Bromley, county agricultural agents, Rutgers staff and faculty, and other horticultural experts. Details about the curriculum and requirements are available on the Master Gardeners website.

People join the program for a variety of reasons, but they all have a love for gardening and the environment, a commitment to learning, and a desire to share what they have learned with others, Bromley says.

Mercer is among 17 New Jersey counties that have Master Gardener Programs. On a national level, all 50 states have programs; the first was launched in 1972 by Washington State University. Bromley started the Mercer County program in 1993 and also developed the county’s home composting demonstration site and gardens. The Gardeners group is one of the offerings of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which includes Agriculture Resource Management; 4-H Youth Development, and Family and Community Health Sciences.

Bromley became fascinated with gardens when she was about four years old. Her grandfather, George Clarence Johnson, was an established architect and loved to grow flowers. Bromley remembers walking in his garden in Philadelphia where the irises were as tall as she was. Bromley planted her first seed as a young child and joined the 4-H Club in grade school.

Horticulture was always a part of her life, she says. Bromley lived in Bridgeton until she was three and then moved to Amherst, where her father, William Bradford Johnson, studied and taught at the University of Massachusetts. His field of study was olericulture: vegetable crop production. When Bromley was eight, the family moved back to New Jersey, where her father was hired by Rutgers as the extension specialist in vegetable crops. Her mother, the family homemaker, also worked as a biochemist in hospitals.

Bromley studied at Rutgers, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science from the former College of Agriculture and Environmental Science (now Cook College). She also has credentials in the areas of athletic field construction and urban forestry from Cook, and studied pest management at the University of Maryland.

Early in her career Bromley worked at Rutgers as a horticultural consultant, author, and trainer. She also worked at Isles in Trenton, developing education programs for urban gardeners.

She received the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Award for Excellence in 1998 and has since received several awards from national and local organizations and New Jersey governing bodies. Bromley conducts 65 to 85 lectures and workshops per year and has written more than 80 information sheets and amassed more than 19,000 slides for presentations. She also provides tick identification for local physicians, health departments, and the public.

Bromley established the Master Gardeners of Mercer County because of her love for the environment and horticulture. “The environment in not here for us to suck the goodness out of it and run away,” she says. The Master Gardeners’ guiding principles urge people to be aware of the environmental consequences — both positive and negative — of what they do, and to make choices that do the most good and the least harm.

Today people can use the Internet to find answers to gardening questions, and while Bromley sees there are advantages to using the web, there can be drawbacks if that is your only source. Anyone can create a blog or a website and say anything, whether it is factual or not. Fortunately, many people like to confirm what they’ve read by speaking with a real live person. Says Bromley: “Master Gardeners will never be without work.”

Master Gardeners of Mercer County, 930 Spruce Street (by the Trenton Farmers Market), Lawrenceville. Helpline: 609-989-6853. www.mgofmc.org or 609-989-6830.

Compost to Enrich Your Garden Soil, Mercer Educational Gardens, 431A Federal City Road, Pennington. Saturday, April 18, noon to 1 p.m. Free.

Plant Expo & Garden Market Saturday, Mercer Educational Gardens, 431A Federal City Road, Pennington. Saturday, May 2, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free.

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