- Author: Margaret J O'Neill
What motivated you to be a University of California Cooperative Extension San Bernardino County Master Gardener?
I first heard about the Master Gardener program on a camping trip. A family friend's mother was a “Master Gardener” in Northern California, and I remember thinking “what is that!?” and “how cool is that?!?!?!” After that initial introduction to the program, I started meeting more and more people who had been involved with the program and UC Cooperative Extension and I needed to find out more! At the time I was caring for my grandmother and had two really young kiddos at the house, so I didn't really think I too could become a Master Gardener, I just thought it was something that I could do “one day.” My grandma lived to be 100 and just after she passed that day came! I saw an ad in the newspaper highlighting the program and saying the application was open and I thought, let me just try, I might actually get in….and somehow felt it was a sign from my grandma that “now was the time!” I had always loved gardening and grew up in a family who gardened to get fresh veggies, gardened for beauty, gardened to support wildlife and who had gardened for therapy….it was in my blood! I would always notice plants as I would travel and hike and would always find myself answering gardening questions for my friends. I had no idea there was a program out there that encompassed all I loved about gardening and science and also was focused on giving back to the community. So when I did get accepted to the program I was over the moon, and when I attended my first class it was next level exciting!! I shed a few tears on my way home from that first class because it brought together all of my life experiences in a way that made sense. I had worked for a small company in Davis and raised insects, I had worked as a scuba dive guide and lived on a small island where people still really lived off the land, and I had spent many of my grandma's last years with her in the garden, seeing how through all the loss she experienced in life the garden kept her going and renewed her soul. These jobs and roles, that didn't seem to have anything in common all became important to my new role as “Master Gardener” trainee. All of my experiences and knowledge that seemed so random, now all found uses in the program, and it made me feel complete and I knew that I had found a home in the program as a volunteer.
What were some of the projects you enjoyed as a Master Gardener (and wish you still had time to do as the Program Coordinator)?.
I really enjoyed all aspects of volunteering for the Master Gardener program but found a real liking for working information tables and presenting. It was so cool to share gardening information with people and be able to help people trouble shoot their gardening issues, but beyond that see the spark in people's faces when they started talking about their backyards, or their herbs they had growing in the window, or the plant that their great aunt gave them. At information tables people who just be passing by and I would say “Do you like to garden?” and some people would say “Oh yes” and get excited right away and others, who were not sure what my angle was, would be a little more guarded, and say “Yes” or “Maybe I do but I have a black thumb” but as I would ask them a few more questions they, too, would get animated. It became abundantly clear that no matter someone's age, or background or economic status, that gardening was a common interest, and it was always a topic that sparked passionate responses in people. They may rave about their herbs or curse gophers, but either way they were all of the sudden animated and deeply engaged in the topic of gardening, and it energized me so each and every time I could I would work an event!
Another volunteer project that I was really interested in was to help spread the word about citrus greening disease. I grew up in a small citrus grove and have many memories of the sweet smell of blossoms and fresh fruit off the trees. When I found out how citrus in Florida had been so devastated by the disease, I wanted to know what I could do to help protect our citrus trees and the best thing I could do was educate the public! The Master Gardener program gave me the opportunity to really make a difference, and just like working at information tables and presenting I could see how people got so engaged when I started talking to them about the disease and they wanted to know more about what they could do! Without the Master Gardener program I felt like I was just one person trying to get the word out about protecting trees, but as part of a larger group of Master Gardeners we worked as a team to get information out and keep the public up to date.
Seed saving is also a topic near and dear to my heart, and starting our San Bernardino Regional Seed Library as part of the Master Gardener program was another one of my favorite volunteer activities! It's amazing to see a pea go from a hard little seed to a plant and then save seeds from it. It made me feel so much more accomplished as a gardener and also made me feel connected to thousands of years of humanity since growing and saving seeds is what we have done for generations. Sharing education on seed saving with the public as a Master Gardener is such an amazing experience because you can see someone begin to feel more self-sufficient and empowered when they learn and practice seed saving. The pandemic has also highlighted why seed saving can be such an important life skill for all of us to have, and knowing how to grow a seed brings someone one step closer to food security.
What motivated you to apply for the Master Gardener Coordinator position (we're so glad you did!)
When I became the Master Gardener Program Coordinator for the UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener program, it took my love of the program to the next level. To watch our group of volunteers come into the program I could see the same life changing transformations going on in them that I recognized in myself. So many people talking about growing up in a family who gardens, or that had turned to gardening when they had losses or health issues. I could see that these groups of people, who on the surface seemed to have very little in common, end up having so much in common: their real love of gardening, their wanting to make the planet a better healthier place for generations to come and their drive to elevate the community. Every one of the Master Gardener volunteers in the program inspire me because here they are, working, raising families, caring for loved ones and, with all of that going on in their lives, they also want to make time to share what they know in their heart: that gardening, growing some of your own food, creating habitats for pollinators and wildlife and making sustainable gardening choices all lead to a sense of joy and fulfillment that I think only gardening and growing can bring.
Being a volunteer before I was the Coordinator really helped put me in the shoes of the volunteers. I knew what it was like to be nervous about an upcoming presentation; I knew what it was like to spend a Saturday working an event and what it was like to answer gardening questions (or say “That's a great question! Reach out to our helpline so we can do some research for you and get you an answer!”). I knew what could cause volunteers anxiety and also what parts of volunteering were so rewarding. This helps me coach them through their struggles, and also helps me remind them about how good it feels to help someone with a gardening question that they haven't been able to solve, or to do a presentation and see people get excited about gardening! Since I remember my first days of class and that feeling of all of my random jobs and experiences came together, I could also help volunteers who would not be sure if they were really up to the task of being an official “Master Gardener” see how their diverse experiences (that on the surface might not seem like assets to the program) were really part of the key to them successfully teaching and sharing gardening with the public.
Do applicants to the Master Gardener program need to have a strong background in gardening to be successful volunteers?
While having gardening experience is a great thing as a Master Gardener, it's really not the most important part of being a Master Gardener. Learning to garden well is a life long journey, so the Master Gardener program, with all of the training it offers, will help you grow your skills as a gardener, and teach you many different aspects of gardening. What volunteers really bring to the program is themselves. Their mish mash of life experiences, talents and interests. We have many volunteers who are great at organizing or program development and administration, so when trainees share their “non-gardening superpowers” we say “Great! we have jobs for you!!” We do lots of public facing events, presentations and demos, but without those behind the scenes folks it couldn't happen. We also have trainees who share how gardening helped them overcome loss or a serious health issue. For those folks we say “Great!” because they can show people how gardening can heal their heart and help them find joy and health in life. Then we have those folks who come into the Master Gardener program with a love of community and want to “be the change they want to see in the world,” and to those people…you guessed it…. we say “Great!” because that is one of the cores of our mission as Master Gardeners, to take peer reviewed research and information and get it out to the public in ways that can create positive and lasting outcomes for families and communities. We also have those people who have a skill level to present research and scientific topics in a way that makes it seem doable and relatable…..for those members of the public who think “I want to do that but it's too hard, or “I have a black thumb” we can help share vital information in a way that doesn't seem intimidating or out of their reach.
What are some non-gardening ways Master Gardeners impact people?
The UCCE Master Gardener program really brings in all aspects of humanity in a way that has such a positive outcome. We all need to eat, and wouldn't it be cool to know how to grow some of your own food? We all want to live on a healthy planet, so would it be great to know how we can make a difference in our yard or home for a healthier planet? We all experience anxiety and struggles and wouldn't it be great if there was a garden coach there to help those who are struggling see that the garden can heal them too? Well, that's what we are as Master Gardeners…….people who can help the community with all that! I always say “We are like batman waiting by the phone” to answer all of your questions about pests and watering and growing, and it seems kind of silly to say that….but really we are there for the public, waiting to support them in all of their gardening efforts, and ready to help them find success in their gardens!
`Last year we made an Earth Day video and my opening line was “I am proud to be part of a program that celebrates Earth Day everyday” and it's so true! For those of you out there considering reaching out to the Master Gardener program to ask your plant questions, but you think they might be silly questions, or you don't want to bother us, just know the only silly question is the one you don't ask! We are excited to help you with your growing and love a challenge, so no question is too basic or too complicated, so send an email! Also, for those of you considering applying to the Master Gardener program but aren't sure if its right for you, this is my advice: if the program seems interesting, then it's already right for you! The skills you don't have yet as a gardener you will develop in time, and seeing that spark in people who have shared something about their garden with you, or who have had gardening questions answered, is one of the most rewarding things I have experienced
Coming from the role of passionate Master Gardener volunteer into a leadership role has given me a unique perspective on what it takes to get projects in the community done, and what it takes to provide guidance for volunteers. First and foremost, having been a volunteer for several years makes me feel a deep appreciation for the commitment volunteers make to the training course to become a Master Gardener, and also the commitment it takes for volunteer's families to support those efforts. While we do what we can to make the class work with the students, it's still an 18 week course, and that's a definite time commitment! Once trainees finish the coursework, it takes some time to figure out how to “Master Garden!” While many of our Master Gardeners have been teaching their friends and families for years, it is a little different to lead gardening presentations and projects. And yet, despite all of the things Master Gardeners need to learn to teach and empower the community, our volunteers do it with pride and commitment. To say I am proud of our volunteers would be an understatement! The wealth of knowledge that they bring from their previous jobs and life experiences make their contributions unique and diverse. The volunteers in our county (and I'm sure other counties too!) show their heart and selfless dedication to improving the environment and the community every day and it is really remarkable to watch!
In San Bernardino County we are always listening to the needs of county residents and trying to see how we can help improve food security and environmental, physical and mental health through gardening. We have begun teaching monthly classes in Spanish to expand our outreach and look forward in the next few years to expanding beyond Spanish into other languages as well. We feel it is important that when you are learning you have access to information in the language you are most comfortable with. While many community members do speak English it's important that we meet them where they are comfortable so the learning can be most effective. We also try to encourage all interested members of the public who think it's a good fit to apply to the Master Gardener program so they can represent the communities they live in, and let us know how we can bring gardening in all its forms into their local neighborhoods. Representation matters and we want communities to see their fellow community members as gardeners and garden teachers so they can see themselves in their teachers.
What are some of your current passions to move the program to the next level?
My dream is to get gardens into every school in the county and to support community gardens that might one day be in every neighborhood. It has been wonderful to see the number of community gardens that have started going into the county during the pandemic and I hope this trend continues! Our Master Gardener volunteers are at the heart of our outreach, supporting our efforts behind the scenes to being the face of our program, and we also have our many community partners to thank as well. Our community partners include various County departments and Inland Empire Resource Conservation District. Other deeply valued partnerships are with the many water districts in the county, school districts, “Healthy Communities” initiative staff, city staff, teachers, principals, church leaders, parents, non-profit organizations, business leaders, farmers market managers and community members that connect us to projects they vision. We couldn't help people make all the positive changes and impacts made through the Master Gardener program without them!
I look forward to continuing to build relationships with our local communities throughout the county so that we can get everyone to grow a little of their own food, whether it be in small spaces or big; save resources and improve the environment though sustainable gardening practices; and have improved mental and physical health through gardening…..because I can tell you there is nothing better then poking around with my plants after a long and stressful day!! The relationship we can build with plants, the care we give them and the way they make us slow down and observe will make us better parents, better children, better community advocates and better community members over all! If you are able to get out and garden in anyway, I say “Go for it,” and if you need our support, our wonderful Master Gardener volunteers are here to help! Just email the helpline at firstname.lastname@example.org