- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Successfully supporting farming, homemaking and youth development with science-based solutions during UC Cooperative Extension's first 60 years in California prompted UC Agriculture and Natural Resources leaders to consider other ways the same concept could improve American lives.
One of those was the development of the UC Master Gardener Program in 1980, which recognized the need for science to inform sustainable and safe home food production for healthy diets, physical activity, education and mental well-being.
Over the years, the program has trained tens of thousands of UC Master Gardener volunteers to support residents of more than 52 California counties with environmentally sound ways to manage garden pests, reduce water use and grow fruits and vegetables. Today, there are more than 6,000 active UC Master Gardener volunteers.
Each of the 52 counties within the UC Master Gardener Program has unique projects that support its community needs, from reducing water use in home landscapes, diverting green waste from landfills and creating pollinator habitats to support pollinator populations. All counties answer gardening questions for free using a telephone hotline or email inquiry system. Master Gardener volunteers in many counties support community, school and demonstration gardens to share knowledge and spark inspiration. All focus their efforts on education.
To make still greater gains in outreach efforts, the UC Master Gardener Program enlists community partners that share its values. For example, the UC Master Gardener Program in Contra Costa County works with the County Department of Behavioral Health, Bi-Bett Corporation, Eden Housing and the Veteran's Affairs campus to provide gardening lessons to older adults, behavioral health patients and veterans.
“Gardens bring people together, regardless of race, color, age, sex, disability or religion,” said Missy Gable, statewide director of the UC Master Gardener Program. “Our volunteers in Contra Costa County carefully identified key gardening topics and the best delivery options for a variety of learning styles.”
The lessons covered vegetable gardening, soil health, composting, supporting pollinators and garden pest management.
UC Master Gardener volunteers in San Diego County worked with residential memory care communities and Alzheimer's San Diego to offer sensory gardening activities to people with dementia. The ‘Reminiscence Gardening' project in San Diego County was funded with a community grant and donations.
“Participants explored herbs, fruits and vegetables to activate the senses of sight, touch and smell,” Gable said. “In doing so, they worked their brains and their bodies, connecting their senses with memories, all the while also working on fine motor skills and muscle tone.”
In Santa Clara County, UC Master Gardener volunteers developed science- and nutrition-based field trip activities to present at their demonstration garden and, with local grants, help pay to transport children from low-income neighborhoods to the garden for a day of hands-on learning.
Children learned about the plant life cycle and planted sunflower seeds to take home and watch grow. They tasted vegetables and discovered the benefits of eating fresh produce of many colors. After learning how to collect insects and identify them, UC Master Gardener volunteers invited them to release beneficial insects at the park.
“UC Master Gardener volunteers encouraged the children to return to the garden with their families to share their experiences,” Gable said. “Children are often an important driver of both food and recreation choices for families so encouraging them to continue their gardening journey is key to seeing change at the family level.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, when many families and children had to stay at home for their protection, interest in home gardening surged. UC Master Gardener volunteers and coordinators sought out safe ways to reach new gardeners with research-based information.
In Calaveras County, UC Master Gardener volunteers provided gardening kits for school children distance-learning at home. UC Master Gardeners in San Bernardino County offered monthly gardening sessions via Zoom to their community. UC Master Gardeners in Contra Costa and Alameda counties donated vegetable transplants to students and families in the Oakland Unified School District. In Santa Barbara County, volunteers taught local residents how to grow an abundance of high-demand fruits and vegetables for food banks.
“Our volunteers didn't skip a beat,” Gable said. “They live and work in the communities we serve, so they can identify where needs are and connect with like-minded partners to provide the widest possible distribution of trusted gardening information.”
The UC Master Gardener Program and other UC ANR statewide programs rely on donor contributions. To learn more about how to support or get involved with the UC Master Gardener Program in your community, visit mg.ucanr.edu.