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Extension > Source > Master Gardener program helps Minnesotans give back

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Sowing seeds of success

Cambridge Community Garden plot-holder Betty Seims gets some seedling transplant help from Isanti County Master Gardener John Nordin and two budding horticulturists.

Extension's Master Gardener volunteer program helps Minnesotans give back in their communities.

More than three decades after its founding, Extension's Master Gardener program is as fresh as its vegetables. Since 1977, the statewide program has become a go-to source of information—interpreting and disseminating University of Minnesota research to the public, helping address the state's critical needs, such as access to fresh food and protecting natural resources, and growing green thumbs in communities throughout the state.

Betty Seims is not one to plant squash. It takes up too much space and chokes out the other vegetables. But Jeanette Fryhling, with whom Seims manages two plots in the city's community garden, has an idea. "There's a young man who has a plot in the garden. He plants a traditional Native American Three Sisters garden: corn, then beans, which grow up the corn, and squash surrounding."

Such knowledge sharing among generations is common at the Cambridge community garden, established in 2009 as a joint venture between Master Gardeners, the Isanti County Environmental Coalition and the City of Cambridge. "It was originally a vacant piece of land, owned by the city," says John Nordin, Master Gardener volunteer and community garden cofounder. "Three years later, with 60 plots and more than 100 participants, it feels like a carnival. It's a happy place."

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer agrees. "I refer to it as a 'victory garden' because it has been such a victory—for the people who work so hard there and for the entire community," she says. "It brings together young and old."

The Cambridge community garden is just one example of Master Gardeners giving back in their communities. In its 35th year, the Master Gardener program continues to thrive, attracting new members each year and proving essential to the state, the University and the public. It has 2,269 active members whose dedication is apparent in having passed an extensive certification process: an interview, 48 hours of classroom training, and a minimum of 50 hours of volunteering.

From there, the real work begins. "Communities drive our agenda," says Julie Weisenhorn, state director of Extension's Master Gardener program. "Whatever education or information communities request, we fulfill from manning hotlines and answering online questions to running diagnostic clinics and information fairs, teaching classes, and helping establish community gardens."

Additionally, they work with University of Minnesota scientists and educators, tending research plots, collecting data, and interpreting results for the public. "That's a core value of our program," says Weisenhorn, "to connect the citizens of Minnesota with University information and show them how to apply it in their daily lives."

It's no small action. This can mean great advancements for the state's critical environmental needs, such as protecting natural habitat, identifying and eliminating invasive species, and avoiding chemical runoff and water waste.

At the Cambridge community garden, Master Gardeners share such information alongside members' tips on a bulletin board, helping Seims and Fryhling grow the fresh vegetables they provide the senior activity center each week. Extra produce often fills a bin close to the road for community members to help themselves.

"The garden is wonderful for seniors," says Seims. "I love the feeling that I'm doing something worthwhile for our community."

To find out more, visit Extension's Master Gardener program.

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