- Author: Melissa G. Womack
In April, we celebrate National Volunteer Month and Week (April 17-23), honoring all of the contributions that volunteers make in our communities. All week long, the UC Master Gardener Program will feature stories of exceptional volunteers, or Gardeners with Heart, making a difference in California. This year we recognize our community connection leaders, harvest helpers, and environmental stewards. The passion and support of UC Master Gardener volunteers have been and continue to be essential in the program continuing to serve our mission.
Please join me as we celebrate and share our Gardeners with Heart and their remarkable stories, projects, and impact. Today, we celebrate Gardeners with Heart, who are harvest helpers who empower their community to grow food at home, in school and community gardens—connecting gardeners with resources, knowledge, and support to have a successful food garden harvest and improved access to nutritious fresh produce.
“Becky Bednar is an example of a UC Master Gardener who fully embraces the program's mission, teaching others how to grow their own food,” says Maria Murrieta, program coordinator in San Luis Obispo. “She continually encourages others to go out to the community – to meet people where they are – to provide gardening information.”
Becky transferred to the UC Master Gardener Program of San Luis Obispo County from Los Angeles, where she was introduced to the ‘Grow LA Vegetable Garden Initiative' training. As a beginning gardener, she participated in the workshops, which inspired her to join the program and start teaching food gardening workshops.
Realizing there was a need in her new county, Becky led the effort to start a Victory Garden project in San Luis Obispo County. “The Victory Garden project is a way of bringing gardening to the community. I enjoy helping beginning gardeners learn the basics of edible gardening using hands-on methods. With a little encouragement and hand-holding, the Victory Gardeners become enthusiastic gardeners, hungry for more gardening knowledge,” explains Becky. “I enjoy hearing about their gardening projects and seeing their progress. We encourage participants to continue to work together informally by volunteering at the Victory Garden and donating harvest to the local food bank. We also hold monthly workshops with featured topics of the month as a way of staying in touch.”
After great success with the first Victory Garden location, Becky identified a second location in the town of Oceano to offer food gardening classes where the program had not previously had a presence. Thanks to Becky Bednar's positive energy and initiative, the UC Master Gardener Program has had an opportunity to improve and expand outreach to make resources accessible to more county residents.
Christy Gray joined the UC Master Gardener Program eager to learn more about gardening and make a difference in her community. Over the past five years, Christy has been involved in many important projects in San Bernardino County. “She was instrumental in establishing our Seed Library program,” says program coordinator Maggie O'Neill, “which has a major focus on education around growing food from seed and learning all about seed saving.” Since then, she has continued to support fellow UC Master Gardener volunteers and projects across the county, taking on a leadership role at many of the program's community gardens. Christy has long been a community garden advocate and supported several community gardens in the inner city San Bernardino area.
In addition to being a UC Master Gardener, Christy completed a farmer-training program run by a local community garden. She wants to take what she has learned to help the county residents address food insecurity by working with several community gardens to help expand their outreach and grow food on a larger scale that can be shared with people in need.
Christy has a passion for helping elevate others and is dedicated to helping teach people about growing their own food at home and in community gardens. She is amazing at highlighting not just the food growing aspects but also the mental health aspects of growing food and how places like community gardens can be a hub where building and collaboration can happen.
moved to Sonoma County after teaching in elementary and middle schools in Gilroy, Calif. for 30 years. She lives with her husband on a property in unincorporated Santa Rosa that the family lovingly calls ‘The Farmstead' where they grow vegetables, fruit trees and berries with their 12 laying hens and a border collie.
Tobi Brown joined the UC Master Gardener Program and quickly got involved in the leadership of its food gardening specialists project. Food gardening specialists provide advanced training in sustainable food gardening to UC Master Gardeners, host public education at several demonstration gardens, conduct workshops, and offer consultations to schools and community groups interested in food gardens across Sonoma County. The food gardening specialist group created a monthly Zoom event called ‘Veggie Happenings through Tobi's leadership.' Each installment is a one-hour video packed with useful, science-based, and timely information with demonstrations on current food gardening topics, all oriented around the seasons.
In her other role, Tobi collaborates with community partner Harvest for the Hungry, a non-profit that provides food for food pantries. “Tobi's knowledge and her eagerness to reach out and teach Sonoma gardeners to grow food is epic,” says UC Master Gardener Anne Haddix. “Her friendly guidance is always focused on the best sustainability practices.” We're grateful for the passion Tobi brings to all of her UC Master Gardener volunteer efforts. Her energy is infectious and results in new food gardeners far beyond Sonoma County!
Hillie Salo encourages every gardener she meets to “plant seed, save seed, share seed.” Hillie has focused her volunteer efforts with the UC Master Gardener Program in Santa Clara County on helping people learn how to grow their own food and save seeds. When the pandemic broke out, access to plants, seeds and gardening supplies became challenging to find. Inspired to help her neighbors, Hillie gathered seeds and put them in a box on her street to share. A neighbor's letter expressing their gratitude motivated Hillie to bring the idea of a more permanent seed share to Martial Cottle Park, a public park dedicated to showcasing local agriculture.
A Seed Share is a centralized location or place where the community can share seeds and gardening knowledge. In early 2021, UC Master Gardeners partnered with the Santa Clara County Parks, Slow Food South Bay, and the Boy Scouts of America to bring a Seed Share to Martial Cottle Park. Hilo shepherded the project for almost a year, seeking approval from the program's steering committee and Martial Cottle Park. “Sharing seeds is a wonderful opportunity for a community to build resilience around growing and sharing food. Sharing seeds builds diversity and adaptability into local seeds; strengths needed in the face of climate change,” says Hilo. “Seed Shares bring a risk-free opportunity to new and low-income gardeners.” With the success of the Seed Share in Martial Cottle Park, the goal now is to build a network of Seed Shares at all of the program's demonstration gardens.
It has been a year now since the Martial Cottle Park Seed Share has found a home greeting its visitors as they enter the UC Master Gardener Demonstration Garden. Halo is looking forward to repeat customers at the seed share, where those who had success last year are returning to both contribute and acquire something new. “More often than not in the modern garden, plants we grow are harvested at maturity and people never see the full life cycle of a
plant,” explains Hillie, “What does a plant that has gone to seed look like? You might be surprised. Seeds grown in the Full Life Cycle Garden find their way into the Seed Share and quarterly seed swaps, creating new opportunities.”
During National Volunteer Month (April 1 - 30), the UC Master Gardener Program celebrates its 6,216 incredible UC Master Gardener volunteers and their contributions to California communities. Throughout the month, we will feature stories of special volunteers or Gardeners with Heart from across the state who use their skills to improve program delivery. Gardeners with Heart are volunteers nominated by their local county leadership as community connection leaders, harvest helpers, and environmental stewards. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for National Volunteer Month and Week!
Special appreciation to UC Master Gardener Program coordinators Maria Murrieta(San Luis Obispo) and Maggie O'Neill (San Bernardino) and volunteer leader Hillie Salo (Santa Clara) for their contributions to this story.
To see additional Gardeners with Heart - Harvest Helpers, view blog post: National Volunteer Month: Gardeners with Heart – Harvest Helpers (Part 1)