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Master gardener to speak to a growing audience

Two squash plants grown from the same seed pack on the same day, one flourishing, one struggling illustrate the difference in soil constituents. The flourishing green plant was grown in soil of a higher pH.Gretel Anspach

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, the Walpole Public Library will host a talk on urban gardening by Gretel Anspach, a lifetime master gardener with the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association.

“Urban gardening is about growing food and ornamentals in small spaces,” Anspach stated in the announcement of her presentation. “Whether you have a huge yard without the time or desire to tend it all, or an apartment with no outdoor space at all, this talk will give you tips and techniques to start and maintain a garden you can call your own.”

The program will take place on Wednesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. Walpole Public Library community room, located at 143 School St. No registration is required to attend.

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Anspach, who has helped to establish and maintain two food production gardens that have provided fresh produce for food pantries over the last 10 years, is a trustee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society as well as a retired systems engineer for Raytheon and an MIT graduate in mathematics.

Master Gardener Gretel Anspach. Gretel Anspach

“The thing they all have in common is logic,” she said of her interests. “And communicating to people about problems and solutions.”

With the spring planting season underway, many backyard and apartment gardeners — whether first-timers or veterans — have perennial questions about when to plant annuals (such as vegetables and flowers) and annual questions about how to care for perennials (roses, shrubs, trees, etc.).

Asked about the worries of first-time gardeners (as well as those who have already got their hands dirty) about when to plant, what to plant, and where to plant it, Anspach answered, “You’re doing this entirely for yourself. The best answer is what works for you.”

She buys seeds online to plant on loaned farmland for the Marlborough and Maynard food pantries, she said, but sees no reason to discourage home gardeners from buying seedlings from nurseries or growing from locally purchased seeds.

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“There’s a lot to be said for instant gratification,” Anspach said. If you buy plants from a nursery, that may help narrow your choice to a few workable options as well as support a local business.

As for when to plant, while veteran gardeners may already have seeds for vegetable crops such as peas already in the ground, and seedlings for other plants under grow lights, Anspach said mid-April is not too late to start plants from seed either indoors or in the soil of the garden bed. Soil temperature, however, is important for many vegetable plants. Tomatoes and peppers require temperatures local soil may not reach until late May or June.

To find comprehensive advice on when to plant vegetables, she recommends consulting the extensive schedule posted on the website of Robbins Farm Garden, a community plot in Arlington. That schedule calls for planting pea seeds during the first week of April. But tomato plants should go in the ground the first week of June.

If you’re planting from seed, she said, follow the advice on the seed packets. You can still start tomato seeds indoors in mid-April and transplant them when the weather warms. Peppers grown from seed need 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting.

Anspach offered a general rule of thumb for the sunlight requirements of food plants. Plants such as leaf lettuce need less sun to make leaves. Root vegetables need “a medium amount” of direct sunlight. Plants with edible flowers, such as cauliflower, need more sun. Plants that fruit, such as tomatoes, are those most in need of direct sunlight. Cherry tomatoes, being smaller, can get by on less sun than large tomatoes.

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Many flowering plants, both annuals and perennials, also need lots of sunlight. Urban gardeners may face problems of shade from buildings, trees on their own property, and from neighbors’ trees. If shade is a challenge, she suggested, “think more in terms of planters. There may be spots in your yard that do get enough sunlight, but they’re not all together in the same place.”

Urban gardeners seeking a sunnier plot than their own yards or terraces in which to grow vegetables and flowers requiring full sun should look for a community garden or a neighbor willing to loan space for a shared garden. “The little old lady three houses down who used to have a vegetable garden,” Anspach suggested. You can propose to grow on her property and share the produce. “Do ‘neighbor things,’” she urged.

She also offered a piece of advice that backyard gardeners are often slow to follow. You can’t tell what nutrients your soil needs, she said, without getting a soil test from a land-grant university. First off, she said, the test will tell you how much lead is in your soil and whether the amount is problematic.

A soil test also reveals the balance of needed elements. If you have added compost to your planting beds, she said, your soil may be high in phosphorus because animal manure, typically a major ingredient in compost, concentrates phosphorus. You may need to add nitrogen to create better balance.

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It may help to add “a little bit of a snack” to the soil, such as lime, a good source of nitrogen and phosphorus, to help plants flower more strongly.

What also helps beginning garden efforts, Anspach said, “is doing what you want to do. If you’re having fun, you’re doing the right thing.”

As for acquiring “ornamentals” — flowering plants, shrubs, and trees — she places a strong emphasis on native plants.

“The big deal,” she said, “is that natives are the best support for the ecosystem.”

Keep away from anything invasive, such as burning bush. She offered a useful clue as to whether a shrub or perennial flower will flower in a shady spot: “Most of the plants that grow in shade tend to be white.”

She also suggested a popular native plant that will flower in shade, bluestem goldenrod, whose stems offer clusters of yellow flowers.

“If you go to a nursery,” she said, “spend time standing near the asters” — a late-blooming perennial that provides a lot of nourishment for honey bees. “If the bees are all over one of the asters, that’s the one you want.”

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox2@gmail.com.