Master Gardeners add style to substance in classes held throughout the state

  • April 1, 2007
    • CONTACT: Jeannette Warnert
    • (559) 646-6074
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  • Eclectic objects can add interest to a small garden.
    Eclectic objects can add interest to a small garden.

    You can control slugs in the garden without pesticides, make good use of burned-out light bulbs, create a sense of space in a small backyard and enlist chickens to keep black widow spiders at bay.

    The University of California Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners make it possible to adopt a wide variety of practical ideas like these for routine landscape maintenance and unique garden style in classes held regularly throughout the state.

    Volunteer Master Gardeners were first recruited by UC Cooperative Extension 27 years ago in Riverside and Sacramento counties to extend UC’s research-based gardening information to the general public. Eventually 36 California counties followed suit, training experienced gardeners on preserving water quality, reducing pesticide use, pruning trees effectively, and preparing soil, irrigating and managing fertilizer properly. Currently about 3,200 certified Master Gardeners volunteer in California.

    The Master Gardeners staff booths at fairs, farmers markets and nurseries. In many counties, they answer call-in gardening questions. Master Gardeners have developed extensive and beautiful demonstration and teaching gardens in some localities, including Fresno, Ventura, Nevada and Sacramento counties. And they offer a wide variety of classes to the public.

    The classes aim to further the Master Gardener’s mission by encouraging Californians to maintain sustainable landscapes with the least-toxic pest management and fertilization methods available, according to the statewide Master Gardener coordinator Pam Geisel.

    “We train our Master Gardeners extensively so they can present science-based information,” Geisel said. “We also rely on the personal expertise of our volunteers. That’s why we like our Master Gardeners to have previous gardening experience.”

    A five-year Nevada County Master Gardener, Lizette DeMiranda-Cussins realized there was a need for a class on gardening with disabilities after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma three years ago. She endured chemotherapy, which cured the disease but left her with lingering numbness in her hands and feet.

    “I am so passionate about gardening, hardly anything will keep me away from it,” DeMiranda-Cussins said. “The experience brought to mind the gardening challenges faced by disabled people.”

    She and fellow Master Gardener Jay Warner identified tools, created a demonstration garden and developed a workshop to help people with physical limitations continue gardening.

    “We bought two four-foot-long animal feeding troughs and drilled holes in the bottom for drainage,” DeMiranda-Cussins said. “We filled them with good soil, added a trellis and are demonstrating an intensive gardening system.”

    The two-and-a-half-foot high troughs give access to people using wheelchairs. Other impairments can also be addressed in garden planning, according to DeMiranda-Cussins.

    “You can plant highly perfumed plants – like honeysuckle, jasmine or rosemary – to orient people who are vision impaired,” she said. “Using sound, chimes and fountains, for example, also helps the vision impaired.”

    Sharon McCray of San Jose has been a Santa Clara County Master Gardener since 1992. She started gardening as a 10-year-old, when a neighbor lady offered her space and guidance to establish her first garden.

    “I was hooked. I have pretty much gardened my entire life,” McCray said.

    As a Master Gardener, McCray has for years taught “The Real Dirt on Garden Soil,” shedding light on a part of the garden mostly obscured by the garden itself. Though soil is out of sight, it should never be out of mind, she said.

    “It doesn’t matter what you plant, if you haven’t taken care of that key element, you can’t succeed,” McCray said.

    She emphasizes composting and recommends adding manure to tree leaves and prunings, grass clippings and old plants. McCray favors the manure she can get at a rabbit rescue shelter in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

    “You can plant right in it. It’s not as volatile as steer and chicken manure,” she said. “My neighbor has chickens and I do use their manure to add microorganisms to my compost pile. That works really well.”

    And, in a pinch, McCray uses another method to give her compost a boost.

    “I pour a can of beer on the pile. The yeast in the beer seems to get things going,” she said.

    McCray suggests her pupils use coffee grounds liberally in the garden as a top dressing. Large quantities of used grounds are available free at many coffee shops. In addition to adding organic matter, the caffeine leftover in the grounds helps control slugs and snails.

    “A 1 percent solution of caffeine kills snails,” she said. “If you scatter coffee, they ingest the caffeine and they die. And besides, when it rains or after watering, the whole garden smells like a fresh cup of coffee.”

    Andrea McDonald, a Fresno County Master Gardener for 10 years, teaches “Chicks in the City,” a subject she has learned a great deal about from experience.

    “We were overrun by snails,” she said of her own home garden in Fresno’s Tower District. “I tried everything – putting out beer, crushing them, using snail bait. Then I came across an out-of-print book with a new idea: keeping chickens. I thought it was worth a try.”

    She researched chickens and made sure to purchase females to avoid the noisy and aggressive roosters. The birds were more than she hoped for.

    “They ate all of the snails and all of the other bugs in my yard,” McDonald said. “The roses don’t have aphids and even the cat doesn’t have fleas.”

    McDonald’s popular class includes information on the history of chicken domestication, chicken physiology, different personalities in the different breeds, and how to care for the animals from infancy to adult.

    Sally Potts, who graduated from the Fresno County Master Gardener training program four years ago, advises homeowners to add interest and dimension to small gardens with hedges, potted plants, divided spaces and found art.

    “I break up the space, so the eye can’t tell you where the yard begins and ends. I use height – an old ladder, trees, trellises – and eclectic objects that give the eye something to look at,” Potts said.

    Even if a tree dies, such as during last winter’s hard freeze, the leftover scaffold can hold up a climbing rose or other vine, she said. An old chair nailed to the fence can support a draping potted plant. Watering cans, tea pots – almost any vessel with drainage holes – can be used as a planter to add originality. Fresno Master Gardener Marcia Rosenberg has found that even old incandescent light bulbs with the filaments and fittings removed are a delightful diversion hung in a row with ribbon, filled with water to root plant cuttings.

    “Developers are building more houses per acre. The yards are so small, people don’t know what to do,” Potts said. “I teach them a small space can be just as pretty as a big space.”

    See the individual Master Gardener Web sites for information on local classes:

    Alameda * Amador * Calaveras * Contra Costa * El Dorado * Fresno * Kings * Lake * Los Angeles * Marin * Mariposa * Monterey * Napa * Nevada * Orange * Placer * Riverside * Sacramento * San Benito * San Bernardino * San Diego * San Joaquin * San Luis Obispo * San Mateo * Santa Barbara * Santa Clara * Santa Cruz * Shasta * Solano * Sonoma * Sutter * Tehama * Trinity * Tuolumne * Tulare * Ventura * Yolo * Yuba *

    For more information on the statewide Master Gardener program, see  or e-mail