Master Gardeners to Master Your Community Garden

Looking for advice on the community garden scene? Need suggestions on what to grow? Not sure how to grow it? Wondering when to start those seeds in the greenhouse or the garden?

Community Garden

Community Garden (Photo credit: Plan for Opportunity)

These are all excellent questions for a garden guru … how about your local Master Gardeners?

Every state may have slightly different requirements for their Master Gardeners-in-training to complete, but there is usually a volunteer component which a Master Gardener would love to fulfill as part of your garden program.

The American Horticultural Society offers links to Master Gardener programs in each state in the US (as well as programs in Canada) which you can find here. The University of Vermont is the coordinator for my local chapter, and these gardening experts have played a role in many of the community and school community gardens in Vermont.

But don’t expect that you can switch to auto-pilot just because you get connected with a Master Gardener. Last week, I had the opportunity to review an evaluation of school and community gardens that received assistance through Friends of Burlington Gardens. According to the report, several of the garden programs enlisted the help of a Master Gardener, but some of the gardens were more pleased with this relationship than others.

Why? It may be the result of too little direction provided to the Master Gardener. Without a defined role, how can these experts know where they should dig in?

Without clarifying the role of a Master Gardener – or any type of volunteer – that person’s unique abilities may never be known and benefited from. This communication about the expectations of the volunteer is needed by both parties. We all have some amazing resources in our communities which we won’t effectively utilize if we don’t ever sit down to figure out what those resources are.

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Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12

Gardening Programs: Fueled by Volunteers

How does a nonprofit like Friends of Burlington Gardens become a success? Of course, there are grants and other benefactors to help the organization monetarily, but I believe the real glue of an organization like this is the volunteers.

I got a phone call from one of the coordinators from the FBG in the short days before a children’s workshop event, with a last-minute request to assist her with one of the activities. I agreed to come, and helped with a workshop where kids made incredible fruit and vegetable sculptures (and snacks).

From what I could gather, most of the adults in attendance were volunteers with little experience or familiarity with the children’s mini-conference. Each group of children that circulated through our workshop came with one or two volunteers. Most of the time, these volunteers looked exhausted – especially in contrast to the excited kids – and half of the volunteers left during the workshop, perhaps using the time to recuperate. These volunteers were generally younger women who, perhaps like me, were looking for a chance to do volunteer work while getting exposure to children’s activities and anything remotely connected to nutrition or local foods. I got the feeling that these volunteers had never helped out for this event before since many seemed unsure about the time allotted to each workshop, and because many of these volunteers seemed somewhat uncomfortable improvising activities for the antsy children who finished their food sculptures early.

This is an example of how FBG (and the associated organization who created the children’s mini-conference) rely heavily on volunteers to make their events a success. FBG certainly has a core of volunteers who regularly offer help at events such as these, but other volunteers may be recruited through networks with related local organizations. For instance, the local food cooperative allows its members to receive discounts by volunteering with FBG.

The organization is always in need of more volunteers. I helped out at the office today and felt guilty leaving because there were more tasks to complete, and, sure enough, before I left, I was coaxed into helping at another event this weekend.

The volunteer is essential to this organization’s survival. But is it only because they are a body completing a task? Absolutely not! If you can think of a similar nonprofit in your hometown, try to imagine for a moment how that organization would differ if run only by a full-time staff of the same five or six or more people. How would that organization differ from how it was run when maintained by only one or two staff members plus a steady flow of volunteers? What are the benefits of each of these scenarios? To what extent is the community’s connection to the organization lost without the volunteer? I would argue that the steady flow of volunteers who help FBG are the foundation to its mission to serve and interact with the community.

FN 2/20

How to Stay Hip in the Local Food Movement

“This is Sandra*… SHE grew up on a FARM!”

This is how I was introduced to Sandra, the author of a new memoir of life growing up on a dairy farm. Sandra is a retired schoolteacher who now spends her time with her hobbies: writing and taking photos of gorgeous farmland in Vermont. I met Sandra at the Seed Starter Workshop a couple of weeks ago during my volunteer hours with Friends of Burlington Gardens. She grew up on a conventional dairy farm as a kid, but, without my making any remark about conventional versus organic, she was quick to denounce conventional practices, citing the use of DDT during her youth as the cause of her cancer.

Enough about Sandra. This post is not actually about her. It’s about how she was introduced by one of the coordinators of the workshop. I cannot get the words out of my head.

“This is Sandra … SHE grew up on a FARM!”

The tone of Sandra’s introduction implied that the woman was a celebrity. It was as if the purpose of attending the Seed Starter Workshop was not to honor the gardener within each of us, but instead to admire those who had already ‘been there.’ Yes, there is wisdom to be gained from the older generation of farmers and I respect this, but that was not how this appealed to me. This was trendiness: Sandra’s presentation implied “cool”-ness. This was meant to validate her among a room of young, rugged gardeners and avid foodies, and it implied we were all proponents of the same local food trend – er, I mean, movement.

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, and small-scale food production have always had a home in ag-friendly Vermont, but now these practices are becoming more mainstream. For some, purchasing local food from farmers’ markets is trendy which hopefully won’t fall out of fashion any time soon. For others, it’s an expression of personal values. Many of us fall somewhere between these extremes. Is it worth being bothered over why we all end up supporting the same food movement?

*name changed

FN 2/13

Seed Starting Workshop: For All Ages?

In anticipation of warmer weather and softer soils, Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) hosted its first annual seed-sprouting event to get kids ready for spring gardening. The event was conveniently held at the same time as the neighboring winter farmer’s market, but it was an awkward juxtaposition to see plots of soft summer grass, a badminton net, and a lemonade stand in the drafty basement of a municipal building.

This Saturday was my first time working with FBG, and my job was to help kids plant seed starters in small plastic drink cups. I introduced myself to my host, and then was promptly put to work setting up a workshop table with the plastic potting cups, labels, a watering can, soil, and a few dozen seed packets. I worked the earlier half of the event, when traffic was slowest, but I helped about 8 or 10 kids plant their soon-to-be fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

If I were stranded on a desert island where I committed the rest of my life to teaching kids how to make their seed starters, and I only could bring one kind of seed… I would bring watermelon seeds. These seeds are big and easy to tuck into a soft bed of soil, and kids loved the idea of growing this juicy fruit. Whenever a child was too shy or quiet (or distracted by badminton games) to pick a seed, I pushed the Moon and Stars watermelon seed.

Although some of the very youngest preschool-aged kids needed plenty of direction and were rather timid, the older elementary-schoolers dug into the project with little hesitation. At one point, three girls were planting their seeds together and making their own tags (which they all labeled with their names, rather than the plant’s). The girls planted 2-3 starters a piece and followed the reading instructions on the plant packages with me.

Many of these girls must have planted starters before, I thought. How could this be such an intuitive process to them? Sure, Mom helped some with directions, but the kids piled soil into their potting cups and dropped in seeds without asking many questions. I thought my job would be more about directing shy children all day and prodding them to try planting, but it was just the opposite: I had trouble keeping up with watering the plants for kids as they finished up! I suspect most adults would be much more timid to create starters, out of fear of making a mistake, maybe burying a seed too deep in the dirt or spilling too much water into the cup. These children, on the other hand, had no fear of mistakes or the knowledge they lacked. At what age do we decide gardening is only a task for the master gardener?

FN 2/6