- Author: Debbie Ledoux
When Loleta first learned she had been chosen for the Monthly Master Gardener Spotlight for March, she said she didn't think there would be much of interest about her to put in the article. I soon came to the realization that this was Loleta's humility speaking. I found in talking with her that she has had many interesting life experiences, all while developing a huge knowledge base of gardening experience and training.
Loleta grew up in a small town in Illinois where she met her husband Pete. After she and Pete got married, life got very interesting for them! Pete was in the Air Force and they travelled around the world together for much of their lives. As Loleta and Pete traveled from place to place, she always had a garden wherever they lived. She would plant a garden knowing that she and Pete would move onto the next place within a few years and she would eventually leave her garden behind. Throughout their travels, Loleta learned a lot of gardening tips and tricks through her own research and good old-fashioned trial and error. She very generously and humorously shared with me some successes and failures that she learned in some of the many places she has traveled to and lived.
UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener Loleta Cruse
One of the most important gardening lessons Loleta learned during her travels is that gardening in California is nothing like gardening in the Midwest where she grew up. While living in Sacramento, she learned that calendulas are easy to grow in Sacramento in the winter, but she never had any luck growing them elsewhere. Loleta was able to really indulge and further develop her interest in growing things when she and Pete moved to their current home in the San Bernardino area.
Loleta accepting Certificate of Appreciation from Master Gardener Coordinator Maggie O'Neill
Loleta has been a UCCE Master Gardener in San Bernardino County for over 25 years, and, as she says, “the rest is history.” One of the most interesting projects that Loleta participated in her early days as a UCCE Master Gardener was “YIMBY” otherwise known as the “Yes, in My Backyard” program that Janet Hartin, Area UCCE Horticulture Advisor, UCCE San Bernardino County Co-Director and Master Gardener Program Manager initiated with the support of several Master Gardeners including Loleta, who earned Master Composter status after completing additional training. These ‘doubly certified' Master Gardener/Master Composter volunteers mentored community members who were interested in backyard composting, even visiting their homes to get them started with their own composting projects. Due to safety concerns, the home visits were discontinued but the training in this area continues by many current Master Gardeners who share their extensive knowledge on soil health and composting with San Bernardino County gardeners.
Loleta also participated in a project with UCCE Master Gardeners Jackie Brooks, Robert Simpson, and other volunteers as part of a multidisciplinary research team that measured the impacts of gardening on 82 first and second-grade students at Norton Space and Aeronautical Academy, a charter school in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in San Bernardino. It was a team effort, with UCCE Master Gardener Anita Matlock donating the irrigation equipment for the project. Loleta's many years of experience as a schoolteacher and School Counselor were very helpful in guiding the students on planting vegetables and tending the garden. Some of the students came from gardening families, but many did not. Many of the children were very surprised that vegetables that came from the grocery store started out as tiny seeds! When the broccoli, greens, and peas matured, they loved harvesting and eating fresh produce right in the garden. During the summer, students, families and even some teachers and staff kept the garden weeded, watered, and properly cared for. The study found that students participating in planting and caring for the garden had greater levels of concentration and group cohesiveness compared to students participating in other group activities. These positive outcomes corroborate research from several other studies around the world linking enhanced mood, feelings of self-worth, enhanced cooperation with others, and even higher standardized test scores and grades to school gardening.
If you call the San Bernardino County UCCE Master Gardener phone helpline on Tuesdays from 9:00-11:00 AM, there is a very good chance that you will reach Loleta (Ann) Cruse. She thought it would be interesting to work on the helpline, so she gave it a try to see how she liked it. Lucky for callers, she liked it from the beginning and has been providing excellent research-based information to anyone who calls since! Loleta managed the helpline, which included developing a record-keeping system and recruiting Master Gardeners to address inquiries from gardeners throughout the county, for many years which has greatly contributed to making it the success that it is today. (More and more inquiries come directly into the e-helpline (firstname.lastname@example.org) since photos of garden woes can be attached.)
Loleta Hard at Work in the UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener Helpline Office Providing a Caller with UC Research-Based Gardening Information
Loleta's most recent gardening project has been replacing her lawn with drought-tolerant mostly California native plants. She and Pete covered the lawn with cardboard, then added mulch on top of the cardboard in June and let it sit until November. After sitting under cardboard and organic mulch from June to November the grass died and they began putting in their mostly California native plants garden. They sunk unglazed terracotta flower pots about 18” away from each plant to serve as an olla. An olla is an old Spanish method of watering plants. Loleta thinks they probably may not have filled the ollas as often as should have. True to Loleta's spirit, challenges are opportunities for learning and everything turned out great with most of the plants now thriving. She is already planning ahead for her next gardening project which will be to plant drought-tolerant California native plants in a park strip with an existing large tree.
Loleta Preparing to Plant Her Drought-Tolerant Garden at Her Home
I was interested in learning more about Loleta's use of cardboard as a mulch in her lawn so I asked her how she learned that method. She told me that she attended talks given by Lisa Novick, Director of Outreach and K-12 Education for the Theodore Payne Foundation and learned about using cardboard as a mulch. As Loleta said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” and it was certainly true for Loleta in meeting Lisa.
Loleta's Drought-Tolerant Garden
Work of an Artist, Work of a Gardener.......Or Both?
Her love of gardening is interwoven with her many memories of travel to different places she has lived. Garden sights and scents are associated with her memories, each place a different gardening experience that she carried to the next place she and Pete were transferred to. When they lived in Japan, Loleta loved the beauty of the azaleas and scented camellias. When they returned to the United States from Japan, they were stationed in Sacramento. With the memory of the beautiful plants she saw in Japan still fresh in her mind, she planted a scented camellia. And four years later, when they moved onto the next place, the camellia was still thriving from Loleta's care.
To know Loleta is to know that she has a wonderful sense of humor and way of looking at the world. She told me that she learned the meaning of “grass roots” when she tried digging up Bermudagrass by back door to one of their homes. She also learned that lizards eat bugs, but there aren't enough lizards to eat all the bugs in the garden. While stationed in San Antonio she learned that it's really hard to grow plants in caliche soil which is a layer of soil cemented together by calcium carbonate that's almost like concrete. San Antonio was one of the few places that she was not successful in growing a lot of plants. However, as gardeners know, we learn as much from our mistakes as we do from our successes. And then there was Las Vegas! That was where she learned that even though it's blistering hot in the summer, it also freezes in the winter, creating some unique gardening challenges. She did have some success with roses in Las Vegas! The most painful lesson she learned, though, was if you ‘top' (an often preached sin in our Master Gardener class) beautiful 15 feet Yew tree down to 4 feet it will die . . . quickly.
I think all gardeners know the pain of losing a plant that you have lovingly cared for. Loleta said “The pain is even greater if you are the one who murdered the plant. However, you shouldn't give up on any plant until you have killed it at least 5 times.” I call that a gardener's loving persistence and Loleta's wonderful sense of humor! A yard in one of the first homes that Loleta and Pete bought was filled by the previous owner with a whole array of plants that were placed without much thought about their needs, mature size, or how they would look together. When Loleta and Pete looked at the house for the first time, the realtor asked, “Do you like gardening?” Loleta replied, “HA, of course!” As she shared with me, gardening is a puzzle to be solved and she has always liked solving puzzles. Even though gardening in that yard was a struggle with the array of mismatched plants, poor soil, the heat, and the bugs, Loleta never gave up trying to solve another gardening puzzle.
Her persistence and love of sharing what she has learned with others is one of the many virtues that make Loleta a Superstar Master Gardener! Loleta told me that in the gardening world, there are gardeners, and there are artists. And she said, “I'm a gardener”. Gardening can be considered both an art, concerned with arranging plants harmoniously in their surroundings, and as a science, encompassing the principles and techniques of plant cultivation. She sent me the following picture of the garden at her home. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Loleta's garden looks like a work of art backed by scientific gardening principles.
Loleta and Pete are life-long learning gardeners, regularly attending many gardening workshops and talks. They have attended talks at the East Valley Water District in Highland, the Waterwise Community Center at Chino Basin Water Conservation District, and a couple of weeks ago they attended a meeting of the Redlands Horticultural Improvement Society. They rarely miss a presentation on California Natives, and they always learn something new at each talk. Throughout her many years with the UCCE Master Gardener program, Loleta has participated in nearly every program activity, providing research-based knowledge to the public. She has shared her knowledge at myriad UCCE Master Gardener events including information tables, workshops and seminars. She has mentored numerous students and her fellow Master Gardeners in the joys of gardening.
Loleta sent the following photo to me with a message, “Not a great photo, but great photos of me are harder to find than unicorns.” I think you will agree that this is a great picture of Loleta looking happy in her garden. The UCCE Master Gardeners of San Bernardino County are thankful to Loleta for her many years of gardening knowledge that she so generously shares with us all, her persistence, patience, humility and wonderful sense of humor!
Loleta at Home in Her Drought-Tolerant Garden. I Think We've Found a Unicorn!