Local Jewish thumbs grew greener, as two master gardeners joined nearly 1,000 fellow horticulturalists at the International Master Gardener Conference in Overland Park, Kansas.
The June 18-22 gathering enabled Lauren Mallinger and Elaine Silver-Liberati to view captivating designs and learn from soil experts, planting strategists and celebrated arborists.
Along with touring “gorgeous” local spaces, Mallinger, 69, attended workshops on orchids, cacti and photography.
The conference facilitated an “exchange of ideas,” she said. “You get to meet all kinds of people — people from everywhere from Oregon to South Dakota or North Dakota — and you get to pick their brains about what works for them.”
Located near Construction Junction in Pittsburgh’s East End, EGT features fruits, vegetables, herbs and pollinator-friendly plants. Mallinger co-chaired the garden for five years. These days she volunteers alongside several fellow master gardeners at the site at least once a week.
“It’s a nice way to get together with people who have a common interest in gardening,” the Squirrel Hill resident said.
There’s a social component to the work, but Mallinger and her fellow soil scrapers are also interested in reaping data along with persimmons, peaches, blueberries and pears.
“We are there to analyze the fruits and vegetables and make sure we are applying appropriate interventions if there are bugs and diseases,” she said.
Weeks ago, the group discovered spotted lantern flies in the garden.
Native to China and first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014, spotted lanternflies are a “threat to many fruit crops and trees,” according to the Department of Agriculture.
Mallinger said the volunteers made an organic compound to counter the invasive insect, but the species is “very pervasive.”
Whether combating harmful elements or collecting bountiful crops and plants, Mallinger relishes her efforts at EGT.
Some of the harvest goes to the master gardeners, but most of it is “distributed quietly” to local organizations, she said. “You’re not allowed to sell it. We just kind of give it away.”
Gifting benefits the community, but so does the lot itself.
“Creating a green space in your own neighborhood is beautiful to see,” she said. “People need to go outside, feel nature and breathe. Life is very busy.”
Silver-Liberati, 76, similarly touted the benefits of gardening. The Jewish Gibsonian became a master gardener through Penn State University in 2019 and has been active in the Shaler Garden Club since 2020.
Founded in 1921, the group hosts monthly meetings for both novices and experts.
Silver-Liberati credited the club with providing “data-based” information that spurred her love of native plants and influenced her attitude toward familiar shrubs and trees, including butterfly bushes, burning bushes and Bradford pears.
So many things that people like are actually “invasive,” she said.
Spending time at the Shaler Garden Club, like attending the International Master Gardener Conference, is a chance to keep learning, Silver-Liberati explained.
“You get so many ideas, you see how people design things and you see that there’s been a real change in gardening,” she said.
Decades ago, she continued, having a giant lawn or integrating certain exotic plants demonstrated “you had made it in the world … but now with climate change we are seeing that whole approach isn’t working and is contributing to the problems we have.”
Faculty from Cornell University’s Turfgrass Program pointed to America’s sizable residential lots when noting “what we do with our lawns matters.”
A healthy ground cover can capture and store carbon, reduce soil erosion, filter air pollutants, reduce noise pollution and increase real estate values.
“By cultivating a dense vigorous lawn,” noted the educators, “you create an attractive environmental asset.”
Silver-Liberati said that conversations with master gardeners both at the Shaler Garden Club and at the international conference, often hinge on data, though “you can’t help but bring spirituality into the mix.”
The Jewish Gibsonian remembers visiting her grandmother on Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
Inside her home was a needlepoint that read, “Peaceful is my garden, contentment is my lot.”
Outside the house, Silver-Liberati’s grandmother grew vegetables.
“As a kid, you wanted to hide behind the tomato plants,” she said. “I was just playful.”
Being outdoors and tending to seeds became generational. Silver-Liberati’s parents maintained a garden. Silver-Liberati has a patch of bee balm, butterfly weeds and blueberries. Her three children cultivate their own gardens, and her grandchildren have even taken to planting seeds and nurturing future growth.
“Gardening is inspiring. It teaches you patience, and it gives you hope,” Silver-Liberati said.
There are also the psychological benefits.
According to Texas A&M researchers, plant-related hobbies help reduce anxiety and stress, decrease depression, bolster memory retention, enhance self-esteem and improve “happiness and life satisfaction.”
Modern science has affirmed the merit of being outdoors, but the value was recognized centuries ago, Silver-Liberati explained.
Jewish teachings, both biblical and rabbinic, describe the importance of planting seeds, avoiding grafting and caring for nature. Another tradition, she continued, articulates a similar sense.
The great Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero once sent a letter to his bookish friend Marcus Terentius Varro. In it, Cicero discussed metaphysical principles and what was “possible” in the world. Before concluding, Cicero wrote, “If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete.”
As pollinators made their way through Silver-Liberati’s outdoor space, she told the Chronicle that Cicero’s quote perfectly sums up the morning conversation.
“I’m sitting out here drinking coffee,” she said. “It’s like a retreat.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.