Learning From the Gardening Masters
Sommer Cartier has a passion for urban agriculture and community development. She has worked with Good Neighbor Gardens, an urban sharecropping garden program, creating school curricula for their garden-based learning programs, and she has started a new garden in her current position as branch manager of National City’s Payne Family Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego. Over the last couple of years her path intersected with several Master Gardeners, including mentor Judy Jacoby, whom she credits with turning her on to the idea of becoming a Master Gardener herself.
“Even though they don’t say they are involved in community development,” Cartier said, “that’s what they’re doing, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
At 35, Cartier is one of the youngest and newest Master Gardeners in San Diego County. A graduate of the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County’s 2016 class, she has stepped into a number of roles as a volunteer. She was one of the organization’s spokespersons to generate interest in the group’s annual plant sale . She also works with school gardens, and according to Master Gardener Program Coordinator Scott Parker, “Her focus is making gardening available to all.”
If you belong to a garden club, have visited the Balboa Park or Flower Fields demonstration gardens, strolled by the Master Gardener booth at the San Diego County Fair, or are involved in a community garden, you may have encountered a Master Gardener—and not really understood what they do and how they earn that title.
Master Gardeners are trained in the science and art of gardening to go out into their communities as volunteers, advising and educating the public on gardening, pest management, and horticulture. In San Diego County, they’re trained and supervised by the University of California Cooperative Extension. San Diego’s program launched in 1983 and currently has about 324 members. Classes are held every two years, with around 50 people per class, culled from about 150 applicants. A $225 fee covers text books, classes, and field trips—with scholarships for those who can’t afford to pay. Since 1983, the program has graduated 18 classes. New graduates are required to donate 50 volunteer hours but have no extra educational requirements. After that, it’s 25 volunteer hours and 12 educational credits each year. Most, said Parker, do much more.
“Master Gardeners are volunteers who want to give back to the community—and they do that by offering expertise,” he said. “They’re a resource to help individuals with better gardening and pest management in San Diego County. As a result of that, they’re going to help the citizens of San Diego maintain and improve our environment.”
Master Gardeners work with more than 400 schools as garden consultants, Parker added. They’re a resource for all 90 community gardens in the county. They staff up to 100 annual “Ask a Master Gardener” booths, from local block parties to the San Diego County Fair. They run a gardening hotline and answer questions from the public. They staff demonstration gardens. They work the annual day-long Spring and Fall Seminars at Balboa Park in conjunction with their plant sale, which helps generate income to support their programs.
And they participate in smaller specialty projects. Master Gardeners created a partnership with the San Diego County Probation Department, creating an outdoor garden for the young women housed in the Girls Rehabilitation Facility in Kearny Mesa, each receiving a gardening handbook created by the volunteers. They’ve also had a presence for years at the Braille Institute where they’ve now been asked to teach a semester class in gardening, as well as look at creating policies and procedures for accessibility in gardening.
Joyce Gemmell is one of San Diego’s first Master Gardeners. She works with community gardens in El Cajon and has volunteered more than 3,000 hours to the program, writing a monthly column for the organization’s Clippings newsletter, teaching classes on growing vegetables and working at the San Diego County Fair information booth.
“I love the camaraderie of being a Master Gardener,” she explained. “We all have the same interest in growing things. I love to talk to people about veggies and encourage them to grow them. I was raised during the Depression and believe people should know where their food comes from and how hard it is to raise enough food for a family.”
Master Gardener Giana Crispell is a 2014 graduate. She saw a recruiting bookmark calling for Master Gardeners and from there completed an application.
“I’ve gardened all my life, starting at age 10,” she said. “And all my life I’ve volunteered—for Girl Scouts, Special Olympics, and other charities. They call you in for an interview and want to know what your interests are. They don’t want you to go to class, get all this knowledge, and then open a nursery. The main purpose is to educate the public.”
Crispell, a retired financial planner, described a six-month curriculum that includes a handbook, quizzes, daily labs on topics like how to prune and how to propagate, and expert speakers—all culminating in a long, open-book final and team garden design charrette. After graduation, she said, you choose a committee or more to join—there are some 40 committees in the San Diego organization ranging from school gardens, new class selection, and earth-friendly gardens to communications, the hotline, spring and fall seminars, the San Diego County Fair, and demonstration gardens.
“There’s a huge demand for school gardens,” Crispell, who has accumulated over 400 volunteer hours since becoming a Master Gardener, noted. “There’s more demand for school garden volunteers than we have Master Gardeners.”
Currently, there’s a big diversification push by the San Diego group. When asked to describe a typical Master Gardener, Crispell joked “a retired school teacher.” But, she said, actually they come from all walks of life. That may be true professionally, but a look at the gender and ethnic mix of members shows that 84 percent are women —45 percent are white, 2 percent are Black/African American, 5 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are American Indian. Another 43 percent are listed as “undetermined.” And, many are retired.
Sonya Prestridge, the organization’s current president, said they’ve made it their goal to look for men who are eager to join and to look for younger people. They’re also looking for more ethnic diversity, especially given the international communities they serve.
“For the last two Master Gardener groups, we focused on Hispanic, Ethiopian, and any of the groups that tended to be in various regions in San Diego County,” she explained. “One of the things we’d like to do in 2018 is see if we can recruit someone who can speak Arabic.”
For Prestridge, the allure of being a Master Gardener is simple. “It’s being able to help somebody make their garden grow. It’s just so exciting when someone asks you a question and you talk it through and get them in the right direction. When they send you a note telling you how much you helped, you walk on air. If you can help somebody have a better garden, it’s just amazing.”