March is one of my favorite months of the year. The weather is just right for a little bit of spring cleaning and a lot of gardening. And I’m not alone when it comes to catching plant fever this month; there are community events and festivals across the state that will be celebrating the wonder of gardening and offering just the right ‘fix’ for your plant obsession.
Probably the most grandiose of all gardening events in March is the EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival. Celebrating its eighteenth year, the festival showcases nearly one million plants, from annuals to perennials, topiaries to herb gardens, butterfly plants to vegetables. If you’ve never been, it’s really worth the trip.
My reason for highlighting the EPCOT Flower & Garden Festival, though, is a bit different than you would think. Yes, the gardens are beautiful, the flowers are amazing, the shows are spectacular and the Disney characters are everywhere… really. But my favorite part of the festival is what happens in a place called Garden Town.
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the park, Garden Town is the hub of the Flower & Garden Festival. Inside this futuristic gold dome is a wide array of activities for all – young, old, beginning gardeners and avid plant geeks. As you enter the doors to Garden Town, however, you won’t be greeted by EPCOT personnel. Rather, you’ll be welcomed by Florida Master Gardener volunteers. These volunteers, representing the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), come from all parts of the state to answer your gardening questions, from plant identification and selection, to recommended cultural controls for plant pests and diseases.
And don’t think for a minute that they can’t handle your inquiries! Master Gardener volunteers are trained by horticulture extension agents and specialists at the University of Florida and are experts in their own right. When they’re not donating their time helping out at events and places like EPCOT, they’re providing invaluable services to county extension offices by answering phone calls, assisting walk-in clients, teaching programs and maintaining demonstration gardens. With more than 4,000 volunteers across the state, Master Gardeners provide research-based information and education to help homeowners tackle the most daunting lawn and garden problems.
Wearing green aprons and sporting the blue and orange Florida Master Gardener logo proudly on their chests, Master Gardener volunteers will be available from 10 am to 5 pm every day of the 75-day long garden festival at EPCOT. If you have a question about a plant or particular garden in the park during your visit, the Master Gardeners can help. If you have a general gardening question that you’re just dying to ask – well, they can assist with that too. And if you need directions to the nearest bathroom… they’ll definitely point you there.
Another bonus to attending the festival is the chance to hear entertaining and informative talks by one of several horticulture extension agents (like me) from the University of Florida IFAS. Extension agents are county-level faculty members that provide timely information about lawns and gardens to the general public through educational programs, workshops, articles and blogs, fact sheets, websites, webinars and so much more! Topics that will be covered during the festival this year include how to create a backyard wildlife habitat, fabulous tropical plants, Florida-Friendly Landscaping™, outdoor water conservation tips and tricks, and composting and garden recycling tips.
The ultimate end to the educational outreach efforts of the Florida Master Gardener Program and the Extension Service is to extend the vision of the University of Florida – IFAS, all the while protecting and sustaining natural resources and environmental systems, enhancing the development of human resources, and improving the quality of human life through the development of knowledge in agricultural, human and natural resources and making that knowledge accessible. And the best part about it? They’re not trying to sell you anything!
The old adage says you should starve a fever, but if you’ve got gardening fever this month, I say you should feed it with all the cool events and opportunities to learn new things! To find out about garden- or plant-related events happening near you, contact your local UF-IFAS Extension office (http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map/).