Skip to content

Greening our brains and our thumbs: The many opportunities in the Valley to increase your garden knowledge and skills

By Pat James

Originally Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 29, 2024

After moving from the city into a rural home with land 25 years ago, I was excited that the property was mostly bare ground that I could bend to my will and create beautiful gardens over time. As a kid, I’d helped in the garden a lot, so how hard could it be? Let me count the ways!

I was excited about an unknown plant that covered the few existing garden beds with its profusion of bright green leaves that framed plumes of white blossoms that spring. I even mentioned it to my skeptical workmates who kept asking for pictures. They had worried looks on their faces. Still, I felt so lucky that it was so pretty, and so abundant in my otherwise barren yard. That hubris resulted in decades of frustration. The plant was goutweed, which also goes by dozens of charming names that include bishop’s weed, ground elder, snow-on-the-mountain, dog elder, and my personal favorite, garden-plague.

For years I tried, and failed, to eradicate the goutweed that, with my encouragement, filled my garden beds, escaped into nearby gardens, and seemed intent on taking over the rest of the county. One might forgive my ignorance, except at the time I was the education director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. My colleagues commiserated in my shame, and offered lots of ideas but little actual hope for eradicating the stuff. As one colleague said, “The reason I’m such a good gardening teacher is because I’ve made every gardening mistake there is. Twice.”

I finally escaped my goutweed problems by pulling up stakes and moving to western Mass, where I knew better than to encourage the pretty green volunteers in my new gardens until I knew who they were. It turns out that having a green thumb means developing a green brain! So save yourselves, and take advantage of the many opportunities in the Valley to increase your garden knowledge and skills. Here are a few great free and low-cost opportunities:

The Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association is holding three Spring Symposia in Westfield, South Deerfield and Lenox this coming March and April. Each symposium offers a variety of practical workshops for gardeners led by master gardeners and horticulture professionals. Topics include seed starting, planning a vegetable garden, gardening with native species, insect and worm identification, pruning, composting, container gardening, gardening for birds, permaculture, and yoga for gardeners. You can also learn more about becoming a master gardener.

The symposia are a great way to jumpstart your garden season as you shop for garden tools, seeds, books and more while you mingle with other gardeners itching to get their hands in the dirt. The $30 fee per symposium covers all workshops and refreshments. Registration information is on the Master Gardener website: If you need some quick information about organic approaches to plant problems, land care, dealing with pests, or how to eradicate noxious weeds, contact the master gardener email hotline at You’ll get a fast response with clear, well-researched information.

Many of us look forward to the Smith College Spring Bulb show for a preview of spring. This free event starts March 2 with over 9,000 bulbs brought to flower by students and staff of the Smith Botanical Garden. The opening lecture by Dr. Banu Subramaniam, “For the Love of Plants: Plant Worlds in the Shadows of Empire,” reflects on how gender, race, class, sexuality and nation shape the foundational language, terminology and theories of the modern plant sciences, and how botanical theories remain grounded in the violence of their colonial pasts.

An afterschool program at JFK Middle School on creating meals with fresh produce, aptly named Club Food Fight.

Grow Food Northampton’s (GFN) 2024 education programs are well underway with school-based programming for Northampton Public School first through third graders that will include field trips to the GFN Community Farm later this spring. There is also an afterschool program at JFK Middle School on creating meals with fresh produce, aptly named Club Food Fight! Grow Food Northampton’s bi-monthly Winter Farmers Market at the Northampton Senior Center also offers programming for children during the remaining markets on Feb. 24, March 9 and March 23.

The March 9 Winter Farmers Market at the Northampton Senior Center will also feature the 2024 Grow Food Northampton Seed Share, which is free and open to the public

The March 9 Winter Market will also feature the 2024 Grow Food Northampton Seed Share, which is free and open to the public. Thanks to donations from Gardeners Supply of Hadley and Wanczyk Nursery, the Seed Share promises a massive assortment of free seeds. Anyone who wishes to donate saved seed may drop them off at the Senior Center by 10 a.m. that day. The Seed Share also offers free workshops on seed starting, planning and planting food gardens, as well as fun programs for kids. For more information visit:

Throughout 2024, Grow Food Northampton will continue to offer a broad range of workshops on gardening, cooking and land care for adults and children. March 23 will kick off its Climate Adaptive Gardening Series at the final Winter Farmers Market, and this will be followed by a year-long series of workshops on building garden and gardener resilience as the climate continues to change. Topics include no-till gardening and soil health, climate adaptive seeds, an overview of permaculture, plant pathology and climate change, as well as a deeper look at the history and current state of flooding of the Mill River.

Young ones and their caregivers can join a garden-themed story time and cooking activity during “Cook and Read with Grow Food Northampton” on April 16th at Forbes Library. Also planned are a writing workshop for gardeners, a field trip to learn about community garden birds and their habitat, as well as hands-on cooking lessons later in the season to make the best use of what we grow in our gardens!

And, as we continue to build relationships with local farmers, gardeners, and land stewards of color, look out for more opportunities to learn about food access and sovereignty, culturally relevant growing and cooking, and more in-depth conversations about how racism has shaped the reality of our food and farming system.

For information on all Grow Food Northampton education programs, check the website at

So, my gardening friends, there are many opportunities to avoid my shame and save your back from the hopelessness of eradicating whatever garden plague might come your way. Learn ways to keep your garden, your ground and yourself healthy. Go to a symposium, join a workshop, email a hotline, share some seeds, breathe in the scent of blooming spring bulbs, and get your green brains and thumbs going!

Back To Top