November 30, 2021

Program fosters community in neighborhoods

Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Natalie and Geoff Peppel of Cortland are part of the new Cultivating Communities garden program.

Natalie Muka Peppel doesn’t come up with a grid to plan out her flower beds.

“I wake up on a Friday. I tell myself I am going to make a new garden and I just go for it. That’s my planning strategy,” Peppel said. The Cortland woman calls herself a beginner gardener.

“I don’t know where to put me on the spectrum,” she said. “I see things I like and go for it … I’m always learning and trying to make it better.”

Natalie and her husband, Geoff, both 30, are part of the Cultivating Communities program of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. The Master Garden Volunteer outreach program promotes gardening in a neighborhood, said Claudia Hitt, an extension horticulturist.

“The objective is to bring folks together as a community as they learn and share gardening education and experiences. Neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.

Hitt said it’s a pilot program this year that has faced its challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Master gardener volunteers were intended to be mentors, she said.

“We cannot yet meet face to face,” she said. As restrictions on gatherings lift, Hitt hopes to meet with the 11 families enrolled in the program.

Gardens can be made of vegetables, flowers or landscape plants, Hitt said. The program runs through the harvest, and education follows after that. Hitt conceived the idea for the program.

Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Natalie Peppel of Cortland looks over one of her flower beds May 26.

“I wanted to be able to reach out to educate anybody who wanted to learn about how to garden,” Hitt said. “The community idea came about when I visited the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Rochester and learned about their Blocks in Bloom program. That program and the Cornell Seed to Supper program have low-income criteria. I did not want to have that. I wanted the education to be available to everybody.”

Molly Andrejko of Cortland, an art teacher at St. Mary’s School, signed onto the program. She is new to gardening and wanted to be confident growing her own food.

“It will be neat to have veggies, herbs, flowers, tips, tricks and stories to trade throughout the growing season,” she said.

“I’d like to have more than enough so that our two sons could have a little fruit and veggie stand in the front yard,” Andrejko said.

She and her husband, Ted, aim to make the most of their small, city plot.

“We grow fruits and veggies that our kids like, hops up the side of the house and some flowers. Blueberry bushes serve as our front hedge, raspberry shrubs line the house, and we’ve built a raised bed out front,” she said.

Peppel is a speech pathologist at Tompkin-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services and her husband is a regional director for the Franziska Racker Center.

They’ve been in their Cortland home three years. When they bought the long parcel, it had no plants. They put up a fence and started planting trees and making flower beds along the perimeter of their yard.

“My mom and Geoff’s mom are very helpful,” Peppel said of Cheryl Muka and Erin Peppel. “Those two women are anything every gardener needs. … They are really great to run ideas by.”

The two supply them with plant clippings galore, too.

Peppel and her mom installed a stone patio, nestled in gravel, over a May weekend.

Photos by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Natalie said this patio was something she made with her mother, Cheryl Muka.

“It’s something I never want to do again,” Peppel said. Trying to get the uneven stones to jive was a challenge.

Peppel plans on setting up a raised bed for vegetables and may put some among her flowers.

“We have planted six trees so far,” she said. That includes a Rose of Sharon, dogwood, weeping cherry and katsura trees.

“I like climbing plants. I have a lot of clematis, she said. “And some poppies. Poppies are beautiful.”

Iris, a favorite of her mom’s, is in her plot, as is wild trillium. Lamb’s ear can get invasive, but Peppel likes it, so she is careful to weed.

The soil is good on her lot. Not too many rocks. Not full of clay. She and Geoff will install two 60-gallon rain barrels, one on either side of the house, to keep roof water from flowing onto the patio. And water, used for the plants, will not go to waste.

Gardening is a learning process, Peppel said. “Every time I go to buy a plant, I ask a lot of questions.”

She tries to envision how the plant will evolve in the next few years.

“I tend to be impatient. I overplant and have to transplant,” Peppel said. “I am learning to be patient.”

Cultivating Communities allotted each family $50 to buy plants. “We were able to choose vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs,” Peppel said.

People learned ideal growing conditions.

And plants native to the area are encouraged, Geoff Peppel said.

Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Geoff Peppel of Cortland said May 26 he’s killed this Japanese maple around five times and it keeps coming back. It’s one of his favorite trees.

“The cooperative extension program is cool. We met one time (with the) coronavirus. For young couples like us, to have someone with a lot of experience that will come and help, it’s actually free tutelage,” he said.

“Nat has a better eye for the garden,” Geoff Peppel said. “I trust her instinct.”

“Sometimes people ask me how to do this. They say they can’t do it. I think everyone should try,” Natalie Peppel said.

“I enjoy making my little plot on the Earth more beautiful,” she said. “I enjoy all aspects of it.”

Except weeds.

“If you can get into a pattern of walking around every day and picking, it’s not going to be overwhelming. I just have to do it.”