Skip to content

Gardening growing with help from ‘masters’

With people having time on their hands while at home during the COVID-19 crisis, Canadian County OSU Extension is seeing more interest in gardening.
Horticulture educator Courtney Keck and her team of volunteer master gardeners are helping people get started in gardening or cultivate their skills.
The master gardeners are indeed masters, veterans of decades of growing their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and trees.
Two of them are Debbie St. John and Carolyn Balson.

Debbie St. John is pictured with her cherry tomato plants at her Yukon garden. Her greenhouse, where she grows tropical fruit trees, is in the background. Photo / Chris Eversole

St. John and her husband, Don, have lived on a large lot on Second Street in central Yukon for 40 years.
The lot is dominated by a tall, wide American elm tree.
Over her four decades of gardening there, St. John needed to find a way to avoid the tree’s sprawling roots.
Her solution?
Plant primarily in containers in a section of the lot that is far enough away from the tree to get about six hours of sunlight.
St. John grows plants including cherry
tomatoes, grapes, elderberries, peppers, eggplant, beans and even a cold-tolerant banana tree.
She also maintains a greenhouse with orange, lime, lemon and papaya trees.
She starts papaya trees and some other fruit trees from the seeds of fruit she buys at Walmart.
St. John got her love of gardening from her grandmother — Rose Yockers, a native of Germany who immigrated to Kansas, where St. John grew up.
“My grandmother also taught me to compost all the food waste except meat, including eggshells,” she said.
In a shaded section of the lot with few roots, St. John plants vegetables that grow in shade, including melons and pumpkins.
She speaks at the Mable C. Fry Public Library, at the Extension Office and elsewhere, and she maintains the Gardening with Deb Facebook page.
It gets up to 1,100 hits for popular posts.
“I teach people that anyone can grow a container garden, even if they live in an apartment or a retirement home.”
The easier way to garden is to plant in a bag of Miracle Grow soil.
“Because I teach about it, people call me the bag lady,” St. John said.
She’s delighted that people are gardening more.
“They want to grow things instead of risking vegetables that may be tainted by E.coli, and they want to get their kids involved,” she said.
The increased gardening reminds her of the “victory gardens” people grew during World War II.
“That food fed the house,” she said.

Balson started intensive gardening around 15 or 20 years ago on the lot that she and her husband, Ken, own on Evans Road just north of the Canadian Valley Technology Center.
“We grow almost all the fruits and vegetables we eat,” she said.
“I don’t grow corn or cranberries, so I buy some of them for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The work was a challenge before she retired.
“It took more time than I really had, but I enjoyed feeding my family and communing with nature,” she said.
While Balson’s son and daughter are out of the house, she shares her harvest with them and their families when she sees them.
Her garden has a section of berries, including blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.
Her vegetables include peas, green beans, asparagus, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, peppers (from sweet to hot) and lima beans.
“My family loves lima beans, so I grow lots of them,” she said.
Her spices include oregano, thyme, sage and mint.
Balson freezes her vegetables as well as dishes that she cooks from them.
She cans items such as pickled beets and cucumbers, and she keeps vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash in her root cellar.
The garden had grown over time.
“I just got into it,” Balson said.
For help, go to the Canadian County Master Gardeners Facebook page, call 262-0155 or email

Leave a Comment