Cyndi McGill at the Dunwoody Community Garden.

For Cyndi McGill, gardening is in the blood. 

McGill has always had a green thumb. She grew up in Florida, learning the trade from her mother and her grandparents. Now living in Dunwoody, she keeps the tradition going. In 2015, McGill became a “master gardener” through the University of Georgia Extension, and now volunteers at the Dunwoody Community Garden and Orchard, where she also serves as chairperson.

McGill is set to give a free master gardener talk at the community garden on April 9, where she’ll discuss garden pests and diseases and how to treat them. In advance of the talk, Reporter Newspapers spoke with McGill about her interest in gardening and how to become involved as a beginner. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you become interested in gardening? 

Cyndi McGill: Oh, my goodness. I think it’s genetic. My mother was a gardener, my grandparents were gardeners and farmers. Even though I am retired from the technology industry, I’ve always been a gardener at heart. When I retired, the first thing I wanted to do was go through some additional training to learn more about it and be able to volunteer.

What sort of training did you have to do? 

CG: There are quite a few of us that are associated with the [Dunwoody Community Garden] that are what are termed “Master Gardener Extension Volunteers.” We go through a fairly rigorous three-month training program through the University of Georgia Extension. In turn for that training, we agree to give back time every year to volunteer in our communities. So my volunteer site is the Dunwoody Community Garden.

What are some of the best plants to grow in a garden in Georgia?

CG: I’m going to start with one that we get asked about all the time, because Georgia is the “Peach State.” Peaches are a little tricky to grow, especially in this area … they take a lot of work and a lot of investment. So when people say, I’d like to grow fruit, there are a few that grow beautifully here, and that would be figs and blueberries. 

Do you have a favorite plant or something you like to grow in your garden?

CG: For flowers, I think my absolute favorite would be peonies. I’m getting more and more interested in native plants, and I have some blooming in my garden now that are called woodland poppies – a beautiful yellow poppy that are gorgeous. And of course I love to grow vegetables and herbs. I do a lot of canning, so I grow a lot of peppers. We’re pretty much supplied with pickled jalapenos all winter, and jellies and jams and things like that.

Where do you usually buy your seeds or plants from? 

CG: I buy quite a few from local nurseries, such as [Pike Nursery]. There are a few native plant nurseries up in the North Fulton/Cherokee County area that I like to frequent. But right now, we have such a gardening community that we do a lot of sharing of plants between friends that are gardening, as well as plants that are grown in our greenhouse at the garden.

On Saturday, you’re going to be talking about garden pests and diseases. What are the most common ones you see? 

They really fall into three different types of things. Plants can have problems because they’re just not cared for properly – the soil isn’t right, they’re not in the right place, they’re not getting enough water. If you don’t have pollinators, like bees, to pollinate the plants, you’re going to struggle. I have my top list of insect pests here. Mostly aphids are a big problem. We have a problem at the gardens with bean beetles.

The greenhouse complex and barn at the Dunwoody Community Garden and Orchard.

As far as actual plant diseases, how much time do you have? How we approach the class on Saturday is – and we are totally organic as a garden, most of our members garden organically as well – is that plant problems … unless you’re really observing it every day, taking a walk through your garden every day and paying close attention, it’s going to be hard to tell where the problem is coming from. So that’s what we want to create an awareness of, and teach people what to look for, and how to solve problems before they become too much of a problem.

What are some of the best ways to treat those problems organically? 

CG: It has to do with encouraging beneficial insects. At any one time in my backyard here in Dunwoody, there may be 1,000 different types of insects – maybe 20 of those are detrimental to plants. The vast majority of insects are actually beneficial to plants. They’ve got a nice symbiotic relationship. We want to encourage beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, that eat tons and tons of aphids. You want to see those in your garden. 

We want to teach people how to keep problems from happening in the first place. Sometimes that’s as simple as building a little protective barrier around the stem of the plant to keep a boring insect from going in. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting a very lightweight – what we call a floating row cover,  which just looks like gauze – over your plants to keep flying insects from coming in. [There are] lots of different ways to do this, and only as a last resort do we use any type of pesticide – that’s a last resort, believe it or not, and all the pesticides that we use are organically based. So no artificial chemicals. 

What’s one tip you would give to gardening beginners?

CG: Start simple. Go through some basic education about what will help you be successful in the garden. We did a class at the [Dunwoody Community Garden], I think it was two months ago, what we called “Gardening 101.” That class is out on our website. It talks about having the soil correct, putting the right plant in the right place, making sure that you select plants that are good for your area. Try not to be too ambitious when you’re first starting out. Things that are great to start out with are things like peppers, something like that. As your experience grows and you become more confident, you can branch out from there. But the key in all of it is preparation.

The Dunwoody Community Garden is located across from the dog park in Brook Run Park at 4770 N. Peachtree Road. Master gardener talks happen monthly and the garden is always looking for volunteers, whether it be at their greenhouse, donating produce to the food bank Malachi’s Storehouse, or volunteering in the Butterfly Garden.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.