By Georgetta L. Morque

A visit to the home of Ed and Beth Matthews typically starts with a tour of the backyard garden. Depending upon the season, one will find a variety of edibles, such as juicy tomatoes, large cucumbers, kale, carrots, fingerling potatoes, peas, robust garlic, and prize-worthy pumpkins, as well as light and dark purple lilac. What started as a small project of Ed’s some 25 years ago has grown little by little to nearly 1,000 square feet of meticulously maintained garden areas and an 11- by 11-foot compost pile, which is treated with the same care as the plants.

Now recently retired and an empty nester, Ed has taken his passion for gardening to a new level at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteer Program in Elmsford. Last fall, he enrolled in the intensive 75-hour course work, which consisted of lectures by experts on topics such as insect identification and plant pathology, plus homework and tests. “It really put science first and forward,” said Ed, who found the quality of teachers impressive. He also enjoyed being around a wide spectrum of people from gardening hobbyists to farm and orchard owners.

He has just begun his requirement of completing 100 volunteer hours over the next two years. Every Tuesday, along with 20 other gardeners associated with Cornell, he volunteers at Hart’s Brook Park and Preserve in Hartsdale, handling whatever the needs of the day demand. He says it’s fun to be in a spot with a greenhouse and work side-by-side with more experienced gardeners. Once the requirement is met, trainees like Ed become Master Gardener Volunteers who perform community outreach at schools, garden clubs, farmers’ markets, and more.

Ed had previously taken classes in Botany for Gardening and Botanical Latin at the New York Botanical Garden, which he said gave him the necessary vocabulary for the more intensive Cornell program. Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he never had opportunities for gardening and basically learned on his own over the years in Rye.

At home now, he’s getting ready to put tomato plants into a new spot, that will be covered for protection from deer. The seedlings have been growing in small pots that sit on top of a heat mat near the dining room window. Adjacent are marigolds and nasturtium planted conveniently in a plastic toboggan. In the den, in brown paper shopping bags, are organic fingerling potato plants from Vermont waiting for bigger roots and assurance that all damage of frost is gone.

Outside in the main garden plot, garlic is growing and will be ready for picking in July. The plants started from German Hardneck garlic, which is available at farmers’ markets and has a stronger taste than the grocery store variety. Ed will plant the bulbs for the following year. Asparagus, which started from seed packets three years ago, have been growing in an area next to the house. They must be eaten quickly, while still fresh.

The compost pile is near what was once home plate for backyard baseball, a favorite pastime of the Matthews’ sons, Brogan and Leo, and their buddies. Ed uses a mix of leaves, grass clippings, eggshells, egg cartons, coffee grounds, and the woody bottoms of asparagus. Not a fan of newspaper or food, which some gardeners include, Ed prefers items that decompose and won’t attract animals. He enjoys turning over the compost and believes it helps the plants considerably.

Finding gardening fun and good for his head, Ed says: “I’m eternally grateful when I’m out there.” So are his many neighbors and friends who seek and receive his advice.