Master Gardeners go digital, cultivate community online

Apr 20, 2022

When stay-at-home orders went into place in March 2020, many of us took up newfound pastimes and reprioritized the tasks that filled our days. It wasn't all about baking sourdough bread and fulfilling TikTok challenges - the pandemic also ushered in a new wave of novice gardeners looking for help and advice on how to delve into home horticulture.

The perfect group to aid in this mission was the UC Master Gardeners, a program that has focused on sharing research-based information about gardening and pest management with the public since 1980. At the start of the pandemic, Master Gardeners were suddenly bombarded with a higher volume of calls and emails seeking gardening advice. This public service and outreach program under the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) is usually administered in person by participating UC Cooperative Extension county offices, but COVID forced Master Gardeners to rethink their strategy for disseminating critical horticulture resources. Volunteers across the state showed continued to extend information by using new digital platforms and technology, efforts that have helped the program stay connected to California communities.

Gardening resources in Spanish

One significant digital resource developed by Master Gardeners during the pandemic has been the addition of gardening videos in Spanish. The majority of resources offered through the program are only in English. But according to the 2019 census data, the most common non-English language spoken in California is Spanish; 28.8% of the overall population are native Spanish speakers. An internal UC ANR grant to develop online educational resource materials in other languages proved to be the perfect opportunity to expand gardening resources for Spanish speakers.

With a spirit of collaboration, Master Gardener volunteers, local community organizations and partners, and UC News and Outreach in Spanish staff created and released a series of food gardening videos in Spanish. In addition, they are working on translating the entire California Master Gardener Handbook (the chapter dedicated to food gardening is already completed).

Visit the statewide UC Master Gardener YouTube channel at to access the playlist of videos in Spanish. These videos are available for sharing on social media, websites, or anywhere the program reaches the gardening public.

Digital Superstars

The Spanish translation project has provided aid to countless community members looking to start gardens during the pandemic, but hope and resilience during COVID-19 are arguably even better exemplified through individual volunteers who have spearheaded digital initiatives through the Master Gardener Program. Some volunteers stand out as digital superstars. 

Allen Buchinski joined the program in 2003 with a love of gardening and its sense of community. Buchinski has played an instrumental role in developing and maintaining the UC Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County's website ( He aided in bringing the program's help desk online, and he also coded an online storefront for selling seedlings and scheduling pick-ups. 

“The help desk has been especially interesting during the past year because of the pandemic,” says Buchinski. “We needed to adjust our processes to work from home as well as deal with a 50% increase in the number of questions. We answered more than 2,100 questions from March 2020 to February 2021!”

While Buchinski's expertise focuses on web development, digital communication also relies on social media. Social media expert Michele Willer-Allred joined the UC Master Gardener Program of Ventura County in 2020 and became co-chair of the communications committee shortly after.

 “Social media has been a great tool, especially with promoting our virtual workshops and interacting with other Master Gardeners throughout the country. But there is so much more we want to do,” explains Willer-Allred. “We plan to start an email newsletter; create educational gardening videos and virtual tours of local gardens; profile more of our amazing garden volunteers; and go outside our county and visit with other UC Master Gardener Programs. We also hope to increase our reach to a broader, more ethnically diverse audience, as well as younger gardeners in our community, since they are indeed our future!" 

Long-time volunteer Rita Evans has been an active UC Master Gardener volunteer in Fresno County since 1993. When the pandemic hit, the county office closed, and most volunteer activities ceased. Evans immediately came up with a plan for how volunteers could stay connected and continue to earn hours. 

“When the pandemic hit, our online refresher course was born. It is a 16-session 'refresher' using the UC Master Gardener Handbook with our own UC Master Gardener volunteers being the featured speakers,” explains Evans. “It is providing a path for volunteers to earn their required hours, to socialize virtually with a study buddy, and to refresh their horticulture knowledge ... it's a win-win.”

Buchinski, Willer-Allred and Evans are a few digital superstars shining among many volunteers who have given countless hours toward increasing access to gardening resources for communities across the state. Their efforts, in addition to the Spanish translation team, are true stories of hope and resilience during this pandemic and represent the beginning of a new era of increased access to resources.