- Author: Brenda Spoelstra
I became a University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardener in San Bernardino County in January of 2019. I had learned about it from a friend who is an instructor with the UCCE Master Food Preserver program. She knew I liked gardening and suggested I look into it to see if it was something I would like to do. At the time I was working for a City Parks and Recreation Department in Planning and Design and my interest was increasing public open spaces and parks and gardens, knowing how essential they are to a healthy lifestyle. In another way, I was looking for an opportunity to get involved in the community. My interest in gardening and garden design just seemed like a natural fit for the UCCE Master Gardener program.
Within the UCCE Master Gardener program, I have volunteered in the San Bernardino School District (SBUSD), informational tables at farmer's markets, and more recently, with a non-profit after school program in Redlands called Micah House. There are two locations but the Micah House program on Oxford Street has been my main connection in the community, working with the mothers of after-school students on their vegetable boxes.
(The UCCE Master Gardener program would like to express gratitude to Micah House Executive Director Alison Anderson and the Chapel Street Micah House team for opening their doors to allow us to offer our 18-week training class there. In turn, Master Gardeners partnered with Micah House staff, families of their after-school program, and the community at large to transform a grassy area in their front yard into a lovely drought-tolerant garden through a grant from the Inland Empire Resource Conservation District.)
In one of my first UCCE Master Gardener activities with the SBUSD, I quickly became aware that it would be imperative to know Spanish well if I wanted to contribute to the UCCE Master Gardener mission to, "develop and extend practical research-based information in agriculture and natural resource to the residents and workforce of San Bernardino County." The US census states that 54% of San Bernardino County is Hispanic, and that 37% of the population speaks Spanish as their first language.
Thus, the story of how I needed to re-learn Spanish led to becoming the on-site UCCE Master Gardener at Micah House on Oxford Street. It began when I reached out to an extended family member who previously taught an immersive Spanish program and is the program director at Micah House on Oxford Street, for Spanish tutoring. After a couple of sessions, she asked if I might be interested in leading some gardening workshops in their vegetable beds started by the previous program director. Well of course! One hiccup. The mothers I would be instructing in gardening speak only Spanish and I want this to be inspiring, not complicated.
In the fall of 2019, with interpretation help from the program director, we set off together in planning the cool season vegetable garden with four mothers of children in the program. We were able to discuss the appropriate cool season vegetables and they selected the desired plants to grow over the winter. None had grown any of their own vegetables but were superb at gardening techniques such as weeding and planting. Much of gardening workshops can be a physical demonstration and then accomplished by the attendees, and I'm thankful for that because at this point my Spanish is still not up to a working standard!
With Spring coming, the program director had an idea how to include the children. We had an activity for them to plant seeds in recycled egg cartons, to be grown indoors as starts for the Spring garden. Again, the mothers were in the lead with selecting the warm season vegetable types and decided on a salsa garden.
With the help of the seed supply in the UCCE Master Gardener office, the kids were able to plant onion and jalapeno peppers. The mothers decided what to plant, install, regularly maintain. Harvest from the vegetable boxes are generously shared with their neighbors. Even with a few Spanish words, my sub-par communication skills seemed to go a long way with building rapport within the community and the workshops seem to be exciting for the kids and the vegetables are growing well! Fast forward to January, they are now harvesting cilantro, radish, lettuce, kale, and soon beets, carrots, and broccoli.
I like the personal benefits of gardening, doing something outdoors while getting a little exercise. Also, the learning and the organizational skills built on from one season to the next as you learn more about how plants behave in changing seasons. Watching plants form and develop over time makes it an activity of patience, as well, along with the maintenance lessons and mistakes. Before becoming a UCCE Master Gardener, I had experience in developing my backyard from a dead lawn to trees, shrubs, and flower garden (along with vegetable patch gardening). I believe the most outstanding thing I learned is the number of people volunteering in the community and the free resources UCCE Master Gardeners provide. I had not heard of the program up until then, and I think the program has many more ways to develop and transform in the coming years.
What I like best about the UCCE Master Gardeners program is the access to the science-based peer reviewed information regarding growing, pest management, and resources on plants and their requirements. It gives more confidence to the advice and recommendations I give in the community, which supports the work, rather than just relying on someone's personal experience with gardening. I think the first thing I would ask people interested in becoming a UCCE Master Gardener is whether they have a personality that likes to engage with the community. You can't stay sheltered away from the public while being a UCCE Master Gardener and you can't just have an interest in more information to be an arm-chair expert without experience. We test our knowledge in the community with questions they have or with activities which go along with instruction.
You may not have a natural desire for teaching, but you will need to have some interest in passing along knowledge with an open mind and appreciation for varying levels of experience in others. I tell people just because I have the UCCE Master Gardener badge does not make me a master of gardening -- it's the process of mastering, which never ends. I have a list of community service, both domestic and international. I've been involved with a City's Arts commission, 5k founder and organizer, an overseas director's assistant on a construction project, installed California Native gardens, community garden volunteering, and various past volunteer work with churches and work.
The purpose of this brief article is, even though you may think a little isn't enough, your efforts extended to the community can go a long way and grow into something you may not have planned. Stay open to opportunities and activities; you just never know where 'yes' will lead you.