- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Since 1977, Lazaneo has been the UC Cooperative Extension advisor for San Diego County urban horticulture, a job aimed at educating the county’s residents about plant selection, pest control and other cultural practices that protect the environment and ensure safe and successful gardens and landscapes.
During childhood, Lazaneo tinkered in his family’s backyard gardens, first planting bean and popcorn seeds from the kitchen pantry.
“Amazingly, they grew and produced an edible crop,” Lazaneo said. “I was hooked.”
Lazaneo has faced physical challenges in his life and career. As a 17-year-old high school student experimenting with fireworks, he shook a jar of chemicals to tragic effect. An explosion took off his right hand at the wrist and most of his left hand. Lazaneo also was born with a degenerative eye disorder that resulted in lifelong deteriorating vision and blindness in 2002. However these disabilities did not bring him down.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Lazaneo took a retail nursery sales position in San Jose.
“I discovered that the thing I enjoyed the most was educating customers about plants.” Lazaneo said.
He returned to college, earning a master’s degree in horticulture and a teaching credential in vocational agriculture at UC Davis. While looking for a permanent teaching job, a serendipitous contact led him to a temporary position with UC Cooperative Extension in Sacramento County, where administrators encouraged him to pursue a career with the organization. In 1977, he successfully applied for the urban horticulture position in San Diego County.
Around this time, an idea that took shape in the state of Washington was beginning to garner interest in California: Provide gardening enthusiasts with first-class training in horticultural methods in exchange for their commitment as a Master Gardener to share that information with others in the community. Lazaneo decided to offer the volunteer program in San Diego County, the second-most populous county in the state and a location which boasts a mild climate ideal for gardening year-round.
About 120 gardeners applied for Lazaneo’s first Master Gardener class in 1983, from which he selected 32 well-qualified individuals. The volunteers underwent 16 weeks of rigorous training with Lazaneo and other UC academics, including experts in integrated pest management, soil and water management, fruit tree, and vegetable culture. All members of the first class passed the final exam. San Diego’s newly certified Master Gardeners helped staff the UC Cooperative Extension booth at the county fair and answered phone inquiries from the public about plants and pests.
The application process has been competitive each time a new class of volunteer Master Gardeners was trained. Today, more than 220 active Master Gardeners staff well over 40 educational exhibits each year, and answer 5,000 phone and email inquiries annually. Another 55 Master Gardeners will complete the training program before Lazaneo retires.
In addition to working with homeowners, the San Diego Master Gardeners have maintained an active outreach program with schools interested in providing garden-based learning to their students. A group of Master Gardeners, with Lazaneo’s oversight and editing, created an elementary school curriculum, “Plant a Seed - Watch it Grow,” and offered to serve as consultants to schools that wished to develop gardens. On May 23 the School Gardens program was awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the San Diego Science Alliance.
“Our volunteers currently consult with more than 200 schools in the county each year,” Lazaneo said.
In the last few years, the Master Gardeners have also turned attention to community gardening. They have conducted workshops on how to start community gardens and worked with other gardening groups to change zoning regulations that will give county residents more community gardens.
Lazaneo also collaborated with the horticulture department at Cuyamaca Community College in El Cajon to study vegetable varieties that are best adapted to local growing conditions, including tomatoes and asparagus. He conducted a study in cooperation with Sunset Magazine evaluating floating row cover cloth for maximizing plant growth and deterring pest damage on vegetables.
“We used the quarter-acre community college plot for 12 years,” Lazaneo said. “When we harvested surplus tomatoes, we donated them to the food bank.”
Throughout his career, Lazaneo has written a gardening column for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He said he will continue writing during his retirement. He also plans to write answers to local residents’ most frequently asked questions to post for the San Diego Master Gardener website.
In addition to these activities, Lazaneo said he looks forward to having time for growing specialty plants in his home garden and for more reading, hiking and fishing.