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Extension is expanding its online education and resources while in-person events and classes are canceled.

Gardening is food for body and soul

illustration of woman in front of garden holding tools and a box of harvested vegetables
Illustration: Stephanie O'Donnell for U of M Extension

Gardening might be the best thing we have going during what has become a very difficult year for communities everywhere. There is more demand for vegetable growing education than perhaps since the Victory Gardens of World War II.

Some colorful flowers could help cheer us up a bit, too.

"Gardening is therapy for me and it’s much more than that for people who are struggling," says Lorrie Rugg, Extension Master Gardener volunteer program coordinator in Steele County. "We want to help them grow food to feed themselves and their families."

Healthy food that is sustainably grown is one of the seven priorities for Master Gardener education. They can’t teach in person right now, but Master Gardener staff and volunteers are still helping, leading and guiding us into the season.

Creative and generous options for canceled plant sales

Woman putting plant in container to carry away.
Master Gardener volunteer at the 2019 Hennepin County plant sale

Plant sales that help fund the Master Gardener program and provide outreach can’t proceed, at least not on schedule.

Anoka County volunteers had to cancel their plant sale but will honor their commitment to local growers by generously paying for the order out of their own pockets and donating the plants. 

"Anoka County Parks will use about half of the plants," says Jamie Spanks, program coordinator. "The remaining plants will go to Minnesota Green, a program of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society that distributes donated plants, seeds and supplies to community and public gardens throughout the state."

Hennepin County volunteers and Master Gardeners in other counties are donating their plants as well.

Bonding through crisis—and zinnias

A field of zinnias with several butterflies.
Zinnias are pollinator-friendly symbols of endurance and remembrance, as well as being affordable and easy to care for. Post your zinnias on social media this summer with hashtag #ZinnesotaNice.

Terry Straub, Extension horticulture educator and Hennepin County Master Gardener program coordinator, started a "Friday Yak" to gather volunteers virtually every week.

One idea that came out of it was a community-building campaign to promote zinnia gardens. Caroline Hallstrom, a Master Gardener volunteer, created a video about zinnias showing how to plant them and asking gardeners to take photos of their zinnias this summer and post them in social media with hashtag #ZinnesotaNice. 

"They're affordable to all levels, they're easy for all skills and they're as diverse as our community," Hallstrom says. "Zinnias symbolize endurance and thinking about friends we can't physically be with right now."

Growing food in former flower pots

Olmstead County seed library lobby.
Olmstead County Seed Library

In Olmsted County, where Master Gardeners actively manage over 25 projects each year, one new project builds on existing work with the Rochester Public Library that created The Seed Library.

This year, the River Trails Girl Scout Council will plant the seeds in pots that usually display flowers in hopes to inspire more container-grown local food. Master Gardeners will help with the project, called Silver Seeds, mentoring Girl Scouts on their proposal and signage, seed starting and soil health.

"The Seed Library project now uses online ordering, with all volunteers following stay-at-home orders," says Jane Barton, who leads the 11-member volunteer board with co-chair Tom Bellinger and has the assistance of county Extension staff.

Vegetables for everyone

The Master Gardener program has been training volunteers using a toolkit called "Vegetables for Everyone" that offers new learning opportunities and resources to share virtually with communities. It fits well with the concept of Victory Gardens while acknowledging that not everyone has access to a yard and all the right tools.

"There is a regeneration of the spirit of trying things on your own right now," says Christy Marsden, Extension educator based at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Marsden and her Extension colleagues are doing everything they can to make sure volunteers have the tools to help people succeed at growing vegetables in any space.

Community gardening

Master Gardeners lead many community and schoolyard gardens. Policies that ensure their health and safety keep them physically away from the plots, but Lorrie Rugg, Master Gardener coordinator in Steele County, is coordinating among local partners to prepare the 21 plots in the community garden her Master Gardeners lease from Riverland Community College.

She’s also using her time now to secure grant funds to make the garden accessible from a wheelchair.

"We know the current situation won’t last forever, so we are investing in long-term improvements to make the garden a better space for everyone," she says.

Webinar Wednesdays and Saturday morning Q and A sessions

Kristy Mock, Master Gardener coordinator for Carver and Scott Counties says, "We’re definitely plowing ahead! Our volunteers have really grabbed on with online education for the public. The group introduced Webinar Wednesdays and Saturday morning sessions on topics like vegetables for Victory Gardens, composting, healing with nature and more."

Native grasses and emerald ash borers

Benton County pivoted from their traditional horticulture day to a free online gardening seminar featuring Mary Meyer, an Extension horticulture specialist who literally wrote the book on native ornamental grasses in Minnesota.

Katie Drewitz, Extension educator and Master Gardener program coordinator, will offer a session on ash trees. "Since it's Arbor Month, we will talk about the emerald ash borers eating through ash trees in many Minnesota counties," says Drewitz.

Drewitz will also talk about soil and soil testing as the first presenter in a four-webinar series in May, Gardening from the Ground Up.

Bringing fruit and vegetable growers together 

"As local Extension educators, when we come across hardship, we know how to step up." That’s Katie Drewitz’s observation, one brought to life in an April 7 fruit and vegetable production seminar that brought together Master Gardeners, commercial fruit and vegetable farmers, backyard growers, and beekeepers.

Drewitz teamed with Robin Trott of Douglas County, Adam Austing of Wright County and Karen Johnson of McLeod County. More than 100 growers took part in the live event, and more than 200 registered to check it out later. Extension educators Annie Klodd and Natalie Hoidal, joined by entomologist Gary Reuter, led the instruction.

Reading seed packets for better garden success

Robin Trott is a horticulture educator in Douglas County who recently broadcast a Facebook Live event from her own home to decipher seed packet information for more than 600 viewers.

She also narrated a presentation on flowers and color theory on YouTube. Says Trott, "I am so impressed by my colleagues and my stakeholders. Everyone is reaching out, checking on each other and helping each other. I love that I live and work in such a caring community."

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