The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 21, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Amateur gardener taps into years of knowledge

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Although I am proud to say I’ve planted and harvested a few seasons worth of vegetables and strawberries, I still consider myself a complete amateur when it comes to growing my own produce.

Each year leading up to this time, I do a lot of reading and wondering and worrying. I ogle every seed catalog that winds up in my mailbox. The deals they offer are so enticing! But I have questions. Lots and lots of questions.

I long for my grandfather, a country doctor from Erie, Kan., who for decades grew absolutely everything on a sprawling farm just outside of town: shiny red tomatoes, enormous watermelons, rows and rows of fruit trees, strawberries, green beans. Oh, if only I could tap into his advice and expertise now.

Fortunately, in recent weeks I stumbled upon a few worthy substitutes.

When I called Ed Cook, a member of the Pittsburg Farmers Market leadership team, for a story about the growth and development of the market, he immediately became a go-to source for advice about ordering and growing veggies and getting my money’s worth when doing so.

A farmer just over the border in rural Liberal, Mo., Cook retired a few years ago after a long career as the executive director for Barton County’s USDA Farm Service Agency. He now grows 30-some kinds of produce on an acre and a half.

He was happy to offer me advice on where to find the best deals on asparagus crowns and what is the best time to plant broccoli in these parts, and he took some time to discuss the merits of various seed catalogs.

Then, on a recent trip to check out the new garden center at VanBecelaere’s Greenhouse, I added Glenn and Pat Oehme to my list of experts and, I hope, friends. Living well off the grid, these are people who have lived and breathed growing their own produce for decades.

Now “retired” but working at the greenhouse, they didn’t just sell me pepper plants and seed potatoes. They talked with me about where, how and when to plant them, what to look for when they’re growing, how to store the produce after harvest, and the best recipes to try.

They were kind and approachable, and I could immediately tell that these were two people I’d like to invite to sit on my porch for a while.

It wasn’t lost on me that in a little less than an hour, they conveyed knowledge that had taken them years to build, one success and one failure at a time.

A happy coincidence was that during our conversation, I learned that another great resource I’ve consulted this spring about my adventures in backyard chicken farming — Nakia Oehme at Blue Ribbon Farm and Home — is their son. He, too, is the kind of person I’d find it a privilege to visit with for hours.

So while my grandpa may not be around to consult, it’s wonderful to have other local experts who are not just willing, but excited to share their time, talent and wisdom. You just can’t get that from a seed catalog.

Garden photos sought

How does your garden grow? Send me a snapshot at astefanoni@joplinglobe.com for a project I'm putting together to feature local gardeners and their produce.

Follow Andra Stefanoni on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.