By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A green thumb for teaching

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterRay VanBlaricom learned gardening techniques from his father long ago, but learned the why’s in his Extension Service master gardeners class. It taught him how to grow stronger plants with less waste.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Ray VanBlaricom learned gardening techniques from his father long ago, but learned the why’s in his Extension Service master gardeners class. It taught him how to grow stronger plants with less waste.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterVanBlaricom tends to the plants in his long, narrow garden. He chose the varieties to give him blooms for most of the year.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
VanBlaricom tends to the plants in his long, narrow garden. He chose the varieties to give him blooms for most of the year.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Yamhill County Master Gardener Ray VanBlaricom, who dedicates huge amounts of time to helping others grow plants, is his own garden.

At his home in McMinnville’s Shadowood area, VanBlaricom raises flowers and foliage in a 6- by 35-foot strip. One end is in deep shade, the other in full sun.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “I garden from one end clear to the other.”

He grows mostly perennials, from bulbs to shrubs.

 The shady end features hostas, fuchsias, hellebores and cyclamen. The sunny end features roses, yuccas, coreopsis, coneflowers, Shasta daisies and black-eyed Susans.

Annuals in pots serve as accents. One double-petal white French lilac, jealously guarded against nibbling deer, will bloom for the first time this spring.

VanBlaricom said he chose the plants in his garden so he’d have something in bloom from January, when the cyclamen opens, through late fall.

He has no lawn.

 “It’s such a treat to sit on my deck and watch the mowers drive by to other homes,” he said, happy that he and his wife, Leslie, have downsized and left grass-cutting behind.

VanBlaricom grew up watching his father grow food.

“Dad was a stupendous gardener,” he said. “He’d grow everything. At harvest time, my grandmother, aunts and my mom got together in the kitchen and canned enough for everyone to have all winter out of Dad’s garden.”

One spring, young VanBlaricom took his toy logging truck out to the garden and clear-cut a patch of corn, loading the stalks like logs. He was proud of what he’d accomplished.

But his mother had a different reaction. “Boy, was she upset,” he recalled.

It turned out OK. His corn-logging effort couldn’t top his father’s gardening skills, so the family still managed to harvest plenty of ears.

“I always helped Dad, but never really learned the skills of a good gardener until I took the master gardener course,” VanBlaricom said. “Now I know why Dad did what he did.”

For instance, he said, his father spread chicken manure on the garden in September, even though planting wouldn’t occur until spring. He now knows his dad let the fresh fertilizer mellow over the winter.

And his father mulched his garden extensively, which VanBlaricom does today to keep weeds down, preserve water and protect plants from temperature extremes.

“Mulch is absolute magic,” he said. “Dad knew that.”

VanBlaricom had wanted to take the master gardener course for years, but he couldn’t fit it in while still working as a grader with the Columbia River Log Scaling and Grading Bureau. “I could never get my boss to let me take my vacation just on Thursdays,” he said, noting that the Extension Service classes often are offered all day on a weekday for several weeks in a row.

When he retired, taking the course was first on his list. “I wanted to be more productive as a gardener, cut costs and cut losses,” he said.

It worked. In his first year as a master gardener, he said, he saved enough by not buying chemicals to pay for the course.

These days, he buys a little fertilizer and uses a bit of Roundup to kill weeds on his driveway. But most of his gardening depends on natural preparations.

To repel deer, he sprays mint oil and rosemary oil, or a mix of oil, vinegar and dish soap. He feeds the soil with compost and mulch from Northwest Greenlands.

He heaped the mulch onto the lifeless clay at the Shadowood house and let it sit for a year before tilling it in and planting. His dad would have been proud.

In addition to doing his own, albeit limited, gardening, VanBlaricom is on the Yamhill County Master Gardeners’ public education, communications and promotions committee. He devotes much of his time — more than 4,400 hours since he joined the program in 2003 — to answering gardeners’ questions and providing information about gardening. 

He chaired YCMG’s annual plant sale for four years and continues to help with it each spring. This year’s sale will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the traditional site — the Adec Building on the Yamhill County Fairgrounds.

He loves arriving at the Adec Building the morning of the sale. “Walking in at 7 in the morning, that first smell ... it’s like walking into a perfume counter,” he said.

In April 2012, VanBlaricom and fellow master gardener Kyle Hunter started a gardening show on McMinnville’s KLYC Radio. They started with a 15-minute broadcast on Fridays, taped so it could be repeated on Saturdays. Then, in November, they went to a one-hour live format and began taking questions from callers.

“We loved it,” he said. “We met wonderful people and had some really entertaining calls.”

He said callers asked good, basic gardening questions, such as when and how to prune roses, what to do about moss and what to plant in the shade. Their calls were a springboard for offering advice about everything from starting annuals in the utility room to dealing with pests to tending raised beds.

“Kyle and I worked together very naturally and covered dozens of topics,” he said.

VanBlaricom was sad to see it end when KLYC suddenly went off the air in March. He’s hoping to revive the show on public access television through McMinnville Community Media.

He wants to reach as many people as possible, whether it’s via TV, radio or in person. His goal is to make growing plants fun and productive for everyone.

“I do it to try to take the mystery and anxiety out of gardening,” he said.

VanBlaricom would like to see more people get their hands in the dirt. They could start seedlings in the utility room and grow them in pots or a small place in the yard, for instance.

When something dies, you shouldn’t give up, he said. You should just replant.

“With an 8-by-24-foot garden, you could feed four people year-round,” he said.

VanBlaricom noted that onions, beans and leafy greens, among other plants, will grow most months in Oregon with the right techniques. One of his friends has two 4- by 8-foot hoop gardens, topped with half-circle structures covered with removable plastic, and started harvesting radishes in January.

VanBlaricom doesn’t grow vegetables in his home garden anymore, just “things that entertain me.”

He said, “I spend so much time at the farmers’ market answering questions in the master gardeners’ booth, it’s easier just to go to the next booth and buy produce. Let them fight the aphids for me.”

He does do some vegetable gardening, though. He helps another master gardener grow winter squash, tomatoes and potatoes, most of which goes to the YCAP food bank.

He’s also teaching his five grandchildren about gardening. They help him pull weeds, competing to see who can tease up the longest root.

Grandson Parker, now 11, helped him create morning glory shish-ka-bobs — vines trained on kabob sticks — for the YCMG plant sale a few years ago. “Parker’s going to be a gardener,” Grandpa predicted.

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

The Oregon State University Extension Service plans to recognize the McMinnville School District and two McMinnville master gardeners at an awards event set for Wednesday, April 10, at the OSU Alumni Center in Corvallis.

The school district and Cathy Burdett, president of Yamhill County Master Gardeners, will share the Extension Service’s Cooperator Award. Ray VanBlaricom, who has contributed more than 4,000 hours as a master gardener volunteer, will receive the 2013 Friend of Extension Award.

The Extension Service honors individuals, businesses and organizations that render outstanding service and support of Extension programs.

The school district has partnered with the agency to implement a science, engineering and technology after-school program since 2009. The district supplies facilities, snacks and computers, markets the program and registers students.

With the help of volunteer coaches, robotic teams have been created at five of the district’s six elementary schools. Nine 4-H McMinnville school teams participated at the regional tournament at the Evergreen Space Museum last fall with four advancing to state.

The district is also collaborating with the Extension Service in the SNAP ED Nutrition Education program. SNAP served about 1,100 students in 2012.

VanBlaricom is being honored for contributing time, energy and expertise, making a significant impact on the OSU Extension Service in Yamhill County. Over the past decade, he has logged 4,429 volunteer hours with master gardeners.

He and another master gardener started “To the Root of It” on KLYC Radio, broadcasting gardening advice and answering questions weekly until the station went off the air. He also has been instrumental in garnering funds and in-kind donations for improvement projects at the Yamhill County Fairgrounds.

VanBlaricom won the Cooperator Award in 2008.

Burdett is known for her outward-looking and supportive leadership style.

After retiring from a long career with the Yamhill County Jail and sheriff’s office, she chose to help others through boosting educational programs for the master gardener program. She also works with her local garden club and other organizations.

“Her selfless and professional manner led to many leadership positions and a strong support for Oregon State University educational goals,” according to the award committee.

She has served in nearly every capacity for the local master gardener chapter. She also has been educational chair for the statewide Oregon Master Gardener Association. As the statewide historian for the OMGA, she just completed a publication on the organization’s history.

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