Q&A: Meet a Master Gardener

Growing up in Bethlehem, Consuelo Almodovar spent her walks home from school gathering bouquets of flowers. That love of nature — and especially of colorful blooms — endured, eventually landing her in the Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program.

The program offers training and support to plant lovers across the state, who in turn serve as volunteer ambassadors and educators in their own communities. The result is a powerful network of green thumbs who bolster Pennsylvania’s gardening culture, whether it’s by manning a gardening hotline, speaking to civic organizations and schools, or executing community beautification projects.

Bulb & Bloom spoke with Almodovar about the genesis of her home garden in Allentown, her passion for native plants, and her favorite spots to find inspiration.

Bulb & Bloom: Was gardening a part of your childhood?

My parents really weren't gardeners. My mother especially did not garden. She didn't like dirt or insects. I was a Girl Scout, going camping and out in nature. So, I kind of am unique in my whole family — my niece calls me "the earthy aunt."

Do you remember the first gardening project that you ever tackled?

When I moved into my house, over 30 years ago, there was an older couple across the street. He came over and said, “Why don't you put in a garden?” I said, “Well, I don't know what to do.” He had a beautiful vegetable garden and gave me tomato seeds and other plants. I would go over and look at their garden and fall in love with the pretty flowers. So, he kind of inspired me. Little by little, I just kept growing things.

Are there any other resources you’ve used to improve your skills?

I have lots of gardening books and magazines. And with this master gardener program, you can't help but meet like-minded people. We all share ideas and visit each other's gardens and help each other.

Are there any particular books that have been your bibles when it comes to gardening?

When I got started into all this, the Rodale Institute was a really interesting place. They had workshops and programs, and they had their little gift shop. I have so many Rodale books. Then as far as native plants — and that's really where I’m at now — you have to mention Douglas Tallamy and his book, Bringing Nature Home. It really highlights the importance of native plants and planting for biodiversity. Also, we have a really good master gardener manual. There's a chapter for everything.

So tell me a little bit about your experience with the Penn State Extension Master Gardener program.

It's not a garden club. It really is about sharing what we know or what we've learned with the public. We participate in so many events. We have a Garden Hotline where people call in and ask their questions and we provide information. I have a pollinator demonstration garden. We hold all kinds of workshops and try to educate people about the importance of gardening for pollinators. We hit all the topics. And the good thing is that [the master gardeners] always have State College. If we don't have the answers, then we go to the people who do, and then relay that back to the public.

Has this been an important way for you to connect with other gardeners?

Definitely. It's like-minded people. We don't bore each other, whereas I’d be talking all about plants to my sisters, and they'd say, “Enough of that already.” We can share stories or give each other planting advice. And then we like to share experiences — if you did a project, what worked? What didn't? How was it perceived? It's a good way to build new friendships and connect with other people. Somebody might refer me to a school teacher who wants to do a project for kids.

Do you have a favorite public garden in the state? Or a favorite place that you like to go to get inspiration?

I pretty much love all the gardens. And I have to say my little pollinator garden is my favorite right now — it’s a demonstration garden at Burnside Plantation. We were invited to put a garden there and that's where I do most of my volunteer work. For ideas, I like Longwood GardensChanticleer. All those places are beautiful. We have the Lehigh Gap Nature Center which has a lot of native plant gardens and a lot of vegetation. We're lucky in Pennsylvania! There are so many different places, even little hiking trails or community gardens that pop up all over.

What will you tackle next?

Right now I'm looking for our new queen bumblebees because they'll be the first ones to come out. I have a pussywillow that was in bloom and bees were on it, but with this cold weather I'm kind of hoping they went back into hibernation. So I'm out scouring my yard looking for my ground nesting bees and hoping that they're doing okay. That's one problem with climate change — our insects and our flowering plants are becoming out of sync. The plants are blooming and there are no pollinators out, or there are pollinators out and the plants aren't blooming.

What are the first things you’ll tackle in April?

I don't rush into spring cleaning because we still have a lot of overwintering insects and different things that stay in the leaf litter. I have some native seeds that I planted and will be checking on those. Then, you know, it's inevitable that I'll head to the nursery and buy more plants that I'll happily find homes for.

Learn more about the Penn State Extension Master Gardener program and how to apply on their website.

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