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University of Minnesota Extension

Garden Mentors bring know-how to Saint Paul Public Housing Agency

March 12, 2019
Roger Hintze helping man and woman with seed selection
Roger Hintze, U of M Extension Master Gardener Volunteer, discusses seed selection with Garden Mentor participants in St. Paul.

In a community center on a windy hill in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, a group of residents from Saint Paul Public Housing Agency (PHA) gathered with University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners Jamie Aussendorf, Roger Hintze and Lesley Perg.

It was a single-digit winter day, but the topic was how the residents could beautify their surroundings, grow their own food and make their high-rise apartments and town homes feel more like home. They will do this by becoming Garden Mentors.

The Garden Mentor program is modeled after Extension Master Gardeners and led by Master Gardener volunteers. Master Gardeners are trained intensively in good horticulture practices by University of Minnesota faculty and Extension educators. Jamie Aussendorf, coordinator of Master Gardeners in Ramsey County, developed the program with Saint Paul-Ramsey County Public Health and PHA three years ago to improve access to garden training to public housing residents. Residents who apply and are accepted into the program participate in six training sessions (15 hours) and a field trip to a local garden.

Everyone contributes

Everybody brings unique talents to their community, and Master Gardeners help to bring them out among this group of PHA Garden Mentors. Three of the participants in this year’s training are refugees from Myanmar with farming experience. They were eager to learn American gardening techniques.

Phil Lee with residents
Phil Lee, left, brings farm and garden experience to being a Garden Mentor at Seal Hi Rise.

Another Garden Mentor, Phil Lee, is good with flower bulbs and interested in pollinators and healthy foods. He leads classes on forcing bulbs for indoor beauty at Seal Hi Rise. “Phil supplied residents with tulips, daffodils and crocus bulbs,” says Betsy Christensen, Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) Grant Coordinator at PHA. Lee got the bulbs through his high-rise’s membership with MN Green, a program of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. SHIP funded PHA community gardening starting with three pilot sites in 2012.

Lee wants to get more PHA resident gardeners from across 20 sites connected to each other and to the larger gardening networks in the area. “I told Phil we could all work together to figure out how to build these connections,” says Christensen.

Peaceful gardening builds community

Community gardens can present social challenges as well as horticultural challenges. Garden Mentors learn how to manage conflicts in shared spaces with help from the Dispute Resolution Center.

Garden Mentors Group Photo

Working together peacefully is a common theme. Garden Mentors take on leadership and facilitation responsibilities in their neighborhood community garden. They also act as liaisons to the PHA Resident Council. Garden Mentors receive ongoing training from Master Gardeners and participate in other outreach events at PHA throughout the year.

The Garden Mentors currently work the gardens at six high-rises and one town home development. One Garden Mentor completed leadership training to further his garden skills, another is working toward a horticulture degree, and another is applying for Extension Master Gardener training.

The Garden Mentor program is a joint effort by Extension Master Gardeners, Ramsey County, the St. Paul Public Housing Agency (PHA), and the St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Department. PHA has 16 high-rises and four family site town home developments with community gardens.

Master Gardener profile: Roger Hintze

Roger showing plants

In 2017, Roger Hintze helped start the Garden Mentor program to develop garden knowledge and leadership in underserved communities.

“I love meeting diverse groups of people with  rich histories of gardening experiences,” says Hintze, who has been volunteering for 20 years and serves on the Master Gardener committee for diversity and inclusion in Ramsey County. “Community gardens are an important asset to underserved communities. They increase access to affordable healthy food and strengthen self-reliance and positive social connections among neighbors.”

The Garden Mentor Program grew from Hintze’s five years of teaching at two PHA high-rise gardens and the earlier Make It Bloom initiative. Three organizations brainstormed ways to better support all sites.

Hintze grew up on a farm near Spring Valley, Minn., where he developed his passion for plants. He has a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota (1966) and spent two years with a volunteer organization in South Vietnam as an agriculturist. He worked in a nursery wholesale firm for 42 years. He has spent much of the past 20 years donating his time to helping those with little share what they have and make more.

“The Garden Mentor program morphed into what it is today from Roger's efforts and Make It Bloom,” says Jamie Aussendorf. She also gives credit to her predecessor, Sarah Jaycocks, Ann Tranvik from Public Health, and former PHA employee, Yen Tran.

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