UC Master Gardener director Pam Geisel retires after 32 years

Jul 16, 2013

Shortly after Pamela Geisel joined the University of California Cooperative Extension as an environmental horticulture advisor in 1981, she started a Master Gardener Program in Fresno County. UC had launched the new gardening program in Sacramento and Riverside counties the previous year. In 2006, Geisel became director of the UC Statewide Master Gardener Program and expanded its reach from serving home gardeners in 24 counties to 45 counties in California by the time she retired in June.

“Pam helped the Master Gardener Program grow into a fabulous organization,” said Beth Teviotdale, who has been an active master gardener volunteer in Fresno County since retiring from UC Cooperative Extension in 2004. “It’s a whole new order of magnitude from where it was to where it’s headed. Pam’s vision and energy and ideas really made this happen.”

UC Cooperative Extension now has 5,600 master gardener volunteers. In exchange for the training and materials they received from the university, master gardeners volunteer to share their home horticulture and pest management knowledge with the public. Over the past year, the volunteers contributed a total of 326,521 hours, giving gardening advice through workshops, websites, newspaper columns and over the phone.

Geisel, a Bay Area native, moved to Fresno to attend Fresno State University. 

“There were two things drawing me there,” Geisel said. “There was this great class called ‘Man and the Natural Environment.’  I always loved the outdoors and this class was a semester in an outdoor classroom with backpacking, hiking, etc.  Also, I got a job with the National Park Service in Yosemite as a naturalist and Fresno was close to go to college in the winter and to work in the park in the summer.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in plant science, at Fresno State. 

“Since it was an ag school, I just sort of fell into the plant sciences and, specifically, entomology,” she said.

After earning her master’s degree in 1980, Geisel took a part-time job at a nursery in Fresno. “The nursery job really hooked me on ornamentals and landscape management,” she said. “I just happened to be reading the Fresno Bee when I saw the ad for my UCCE position and I knew that it was the perfect job for me.”

In 1981, Geisel began her 32-year career with UC as a UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Fresno County. She wrote a weekly gardening column “Growing Things,” which was published in the Fresno Bee, and hosted a weekly gardening show on Fresno’s PBS channel.  In 1993, she leased an acre of land from the City of Fresno for the master gardeners to develop Garden of the Sun.

“It was a vacant lot,” Teviotdale said. “They got rid of the trash and made a jewel of a demonstration garden.”

For the past 20 years, the master gardener volunteers have maintained Garden of the Sun and continue to use it to teach classes. The garden includes a variety of distinct sections, such as a 75-variety tomato garden, a children’s garden, an All American Selections demonstration garden, turf grass, fruit trees, a perennial garden, a garden for the disabled and a covered outdoor classroom facility.

In 2002, Geisel received an award for outstanding achievement from the Friends of Extension for projects she conducted in Fresno County. 

Master gardener programs in each county had operated independently. When Geisel was appointed director in 2006, she began to create a statewide structure with a unified identity. She brought continuity to the program by standardizing the training. She developed a statewide website with resources for the master gardeners. With the help of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programmers, she created an online volunteer management system so each county can keep track of volunteer hours and the master gardeners can sign up for events, manage projects, hold online discussions and store documents and photos.

She was a contributor to the ANR bestseller “California Master Gardener Handbook” and has published 50 peer-reviewed articles and dozens of leaflets related to gardening. For the last two years, she also served as interim director for UCCE in Glenn County.

In retirement, Geisel plans to spend time traveling with her husband Ralph Plemmons. An avid bicyclist, Geisel also hopes to become a cycling coach. She has been granted emeritus status by UC leadership and intends to continue to serve Glenn County residents as a master gardener volunteer.

By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach