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Program Finds the Green Thumbs in Government Workers

Gardening students, including organizer Jervon Ottley, second from left, surround extension specialist Joey Williamson, in orange shirt, as he identifies garden pests.Wednesday was the final class in a six-week program that taught its participants something basic – how to produce some of the food they eat.

The course was offered to government employees by the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the government division of personnel. It was part of the CIGNA Health and Wellness program. Cigna is the government’s insurance carrier.

Jonette Darden, of VITEMA, had a flight to catch, but that didn’t stop her from attending the last class. She just brought her bags with her. Darden was mildly distraught at the results of her recent efforts.

"My cucumbers are fine," she said, "but the basil and black-eyed peas just didn’t make it."

That could be the result of many things, including her soil, said Carlos Robles, CES specialist and assistant professor.

"Yes," Darden replied, "the soil, but not that four-letter-word we word we never use: ‘dirt.’"

"Right, never," Robles said with a grin.

The course was the brainchild of Jervon Ottley, capital analyst in the personnel division, with Robles’ encouragement

"Cigna offered us an opportunity to sponsor a project which would benefit employees’ health while reducing insurance costs," Ottley said.

"I’d watched the ‘HomeGown’ garden show on WTJX, which is produced by CES and the Department of Agriculture," Ottley said, "and I got the idea of educating employees in growing their own food. And it’s really caught on. I spoke to Carlos Robles and the Department of Agriculture, and they were all for it. We’re going to have a course on St. Croix in June, and then another on St. Thomas . Everybody is so involved."

The students presented samples of their gardening problems to Wednesday’s instructor, Joey Williamson

"You have to bring these in within 24-hours so we can identify the problem," he said, while holding an insect immersed in alcohol in a jar. "Now, this is a corn earworm," he said. "It was brought in in time and in the proper container."

Not a pretty creature, one student accurately observed.

In a Power Point presentation, Williamson talked about integrated pest management, comprising sustainable pest management and eradication. Management is preferable to pesticides, he said, though he noted that some organic pesticides can be useful and not harmful.

"What is a pest?" he asked. "Any organism that is detrimental to humans, including birds, bats, insects, and, in some cases, other humans. You have to know a plant’s natural enemies, it’s hosts.”

Williamson distributed a pest-management handout for home vegetable gardens, listing chemical controls which can be used together with optimal natural, cultural, and biological controls, ordered from the mildest to the most toxic. For instance, he noted, one of the least toxic ways to deal with aphids is to spray on a solution of Ivory soap. The most toxic, and not recommended by Williamson, is spraying Malathion.

Then, he took the class outside to inspect the CES garden, which was in full radiant bloom, everything from kale to tomatoes, peppers and bok choy.

Williamson looked at the lush green tomato plants, and discovered … an aphid!

"Now, one or two aphids won’t matter," he said. "You have to determine how much your plant can withstand."

The course was taught by CES instructors Robles, Dale Morton and Albion George. With one hour a week, it started out with benefits of gardening health to the spiritual.

"Before we got started, we got our feet wet with the basics, like location, water, time and materials," Robles explained.

It covered soil, types of fertilizers, organic versus inorganic, building a garden, raised beds, irrigation methods and installation, seed selection, storage, plant spacing and sowing seeds of various sizes in containers. The class concluded Wednesday with everything you can learn about pest management in one hour. It turns out, that’s quite a lot, the students agreed.

The course comprised six classes, but the students – all government employees from personnel, VITEMA, finance, health and the superior court – seized on that hour, absorbing everything they were taught, Robles said. He congratulated all 15 students, the pilot class, on fine work and encouraged them to continue growing their new pursuits.

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