Above: One day’s harvest from Cobb County’s Plant a Row for the Hungry. Photo courtesy of Renae Lemon.

Master Gardener programs offer the chance to grow and connect

As a Master Gardener coordinator for Cobb County, Renae Lemon helps to select, train, educate volunteers who teach others to be better gardeners.

“Being a Master Gardener coordinator is life-changing; it’s like Master Gardener church,” she said. “We’re here to give back and to educate. We use the information we learn from the University of Georgia so we can teach the correct gardening practices.”

The Master Gardener program originated in the Northwest in the 1970s and came to Georgia to UGA in 1979. It attracts people who want to stay active, meet others who share their passion for gardening, plants and landscaping — and who want to find a way to offer their gardening experience to the community.

The Cobb County Master Gardeners, hosted by Lemon at her home, make hypertufa pots after an hour-long instructional workshop.
Photo courtesy of Renae Lemon.

“I had four specific objectives in mind when I applied to the Master Gardener program,” said Cobb County volunteer Mike Sumpter, 68. “Stay engaged in something that keeps the mind working after retirement, meet people (as I just relocated here), contribute to the area through volunteer work and learn the area by getting out and about. Master Gardeners has helped me achieve all those objectives by miles.”

There’s more to the Master Gardener Extension Volunteer position than technical knowledge of horticulture, landscaping, gardening, vegetables and pollinators. “These volunteers have a heart for teaching and giving; it’s just a beautiful thing.” Here Lemon paused and laughed. “Can you tell I love my job?”

As a Master Gardener coordinator, Lemon plays an integral role in the volunteer training program designed to help University of Georgia Cooperative Extensive staff educate and certify Master Gardeners. Most of them go on to offer their knowledge and service to organizations and projects like annual plant sales, the butterfly release at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in DeKalb County or Cobb County’s Row for the Hungry.

Elinor Cook, 71, a five-year DeKalb Master Gardner said she was surprised by the extensive nature of the courses and exams, particularly in regard to the more science-oriented aspects of the material. Raised by a mother who taught at garden clubs, judged flower shows and passed on her knowledge not only of landscaping, but of growing, freezing and canning vegetables, Cook was no stranger to gardening life.

Master Gardener Elinor Cook.
Photo by Julie E. Bloemeke.

“Who knew that I would have to go back and do organic chemistry, which I hadn’t done since college, just to understand soil?” she said. Yet Cook was not intimidated. For her, it was more of a refresher course. “Just because you know how to put stuff in the ground and make it grow doesn’t mean you understand the soil. There was a lot of technical stuff to learn but it only reinforced what I already knew,” she said.

Paul Taylor, 74, a trainee from DeKalb County, echoed Cook’s sentiment. “I’ve been a bit overwhelmed because it’s been long time since I’ve studied,” he said. “And I’ve never studied much scientific stuff and some of this is very, very detailed.”

Sarah Brodd, an Agriculture and Natural Resources County Agent and DeKalb Master Gardener Coordinator, is particularly proud of the diversity of projects the volunteers have undertaken in DeKalb County. They’ve taught and taken classes — some open to the community and homeowners, others reserved for the volunteers — on native Georgia plants, vegetable gardening, how to amend soil [by adding material to improve it for plants], mosquito control, pollinators, invasive plants and seed saving workshops, among others.

Volunteers also host a four-home Garden Tour each year where they showcase their gardens and landscape expertise for other DeKalb extension volunteers. They also take part in plant sales and mobile farmers markets and sponsor butterfly and ladybug releases at locations such as the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

Cobb Master Gardener Extension Volunteers participate in Plant A Row for the Hungry, county garden tours and plant sale fundraisers, to name a few.

Outreach is also a large part of the emphasis; Lemon has helped pull together an increase in education and gardening awareness. “When I began in 2013, we were helping four schools in Cobb County, now we’re in 58 Cobb county schools,” she said.

Lynda Anderson serves snacks and sandwiches during the Master Gardeners’ certification event.
Photo by Julie E. Bloemeke.

Cobb extension volunteers also have built two brand new community gardens — Hyde Farm Community Garden in Marietta and Reconnecting Our Roots in historic Marietta — in the last four years; there are five total.

The Hyde Farm Community Garden project began with 40 4 x 8-foot plots. Lemon was hardly surprised at the popularity of the endeavor. “Within 30 days, the 40 beds [we built] were already rented,” Lemon said. “We had a waiting list, so we turned around and added 10 new beds. We now have 50 families in East Cobb with beds, and there’s no waiting list, but by the end of the week there could be.”

Lemon notes that there are two beds devoted to veterans, two more that are dedicated to the disabled and are handicapped accessible, and two others that are used by those living with Alzheimer’s. To Lemon, these beds have a special significance. “To get in the sun and fresh air, to smell the rosemary, to taste the vegetables, it helps stimulate the brain,” she said. And it helps families feel more connected, to each other and to the community.

Dr. Helen O’Shea, 81, who has been a DeKalb Master Gardener Extension Volunteer for 10 years, enjoys getting to know members of the community, particularly when she is volunteering on phone duty. She helps answer gardening or landscaping questions, and she says it’s important to listen and engage with the person on the other end of the line.

“The teacher comes out,” O’Shea said. “Look for data before conclusions; ask questions of them before you come up with an answer.” One of the more frequent calls extension volunteers get is how to keep squirrels out of the trees. However, as Brodd observes, unfortunately this is something the extension volunteers are unable to help with.

“The seniors I work with inspire me so much,” Lemon said. “Some have more energy and physical ability than I do because they’ve lived in the garden, stretching and bending. I’ve got volunteers that are well into their 80s and they still show up at the projects that they work on every week.”

She added that some volunteers may be limited by physical constraints, but then they’re active behind the scenes, writing articles for the newsletter, helping to organize garden tours or selling tickets. “They’re going to stay involved,” Lemon said. “If they’re not pulling weeds and planting, they’re going to figure out a way to make our organization what it is today.”

Where to Dig for More

In Cobb County, Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, mark the annual plant sale, while Sunday, May 13 is the home garden tour. For specifics, visit cobbmastergardeners.com.

Upcoming events in DeKalb include 2018 Horticulture Homeowners Classes and Family and Consumer Science Classes. Get further details at extension.uga.edu; click on County Offices, and then DeKalb County.

In North Fulton, Saturday, April 28 is the annual Garden Faire and fundraiser at Bulloch Hall in Roswell. For more information on North Fulton Master Gardeners and events, visit nfmg.net.

Gwinnett County’s upcoming events include the annual plant sale on Saturday, April 28 in Lilburn. Go to gwinnettmastergardeners.com to learn more.

Julie E. Bloemeke

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.