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UC Master Gardeners of San Diego celebrates 40 years of service to community

Vincent Lazaneo stands in a field with strawberry red rhubarb (1983). Photo courtesy of UC Master Gardeners of San Diego County.

For 40 years, the University of California Master Gardener Program of San Diego County has upheld its mission of providing research-based information about home horticulture and pest management to the public, while earning and sustaining the community's trust in doing so.

“People trust UC Master Gardeners to provide accurate advice on gardening because they are trained by UC ANR [UC Agriculture and Natural Resources],” said Vincent Lazaneo, emeritus urban horticulture advisor and the first UC Master Gardener program coordinator for San Diego County.

The UC Master Gardener program, a public service and outreach program under UC ANR, is administered by local UC Cooperative Extension offices and outreach is provided by trained volunteers.  In 1983, the UC Master Gardener program of San Diego County started with about 30 volunteers. Today, more than 350 volunteers serve the program, which is now managed by program coordinator Leah Taylor.

In San Diego, UC Master Gardeners have had a significant presence in schools, where they encourage an appreciation for plants and our planet; at the county fair where they field hundreds of questions related to plant care; and in community spaces such as Balboa Park and the Carlsbad Flower Fields where they staff demonstration gardens.

“Having the UC behind us is huge,” said Anne Perreira, UC Master Gardener and current president of the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County. “It opens doors for us and gives us credibility.”

A UC Master Gardener inspects plants during the 2023 Annual Plant Sale at the Office of San Diego County. Photo by Rob Padilla.

'Dual citizenship' status expands capacity for support

When Lazaneo started the UC Master Gardener program in 1983, he felt the need to establish a formal association or 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that would support the program.

Unsure of what the future held, Lazaneo believed that nonprofit status would increase the UC Master Gardeners' flexibility regarding project development, community engagement and financial planning. After 10 years, the UC Master Gardeners of San Diego County were approved as a registered nonprofit organization and became simultaneously known as the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County.

“It can be confusing for people when they hear that we're a UC program and an association,” explained Taylor. “It's like ‘dual citizenship' in a way, and I think the most important thing to know is that our status as a nonprofit and affiliation to UC work in conjunction to not only support the UC Master Gardeners and what they do in San Diego, but their ability to support UC Master Gardener programs in other counties.”

Leah Taylor passes out pamphlets to attendees at the 2022 Annual Plant Sale in Balboa Park. Photo by Rob Padilla.

Emphasizing the research-based approach

Taylor, who has been the program coordinator since 2021, said that the UC Master Gardener program is instrumental in extending the work of UCCE advisors. “If you're working on research and you need to get that information out into the public, we've got 350 UC Master Gardeners who are trained and available to communicate on your behalf,” Taylor said.

“For me it's like a multiplier effect: how many San Diegans can I reach by teaching a seminar on small-scale hydroponics? Maybe 20 or 30,” said Gerry Spinelli, UC Cooperative Extension production horticulture advisor for San Diego County. “But how many can I reach by training 20 or 30 UC Master Gardener volunteers on the same topic? Maybe 200 or 300.”

Spinelli, who also advises the UC Master Gardeners for San Diego County, said that the group has been instrumental in data collection and disseminating information to the public, particularly in urban underserved areas.

Lazaneo recalls the UC Master Gardeners establishing a partnership in 1983 with Cuyamaca College in El Cajon. The college's Horticulture Department allowed the UC Master Gardeners to develop a research garden on campus. After setting a perimeter, building a fence, installing irrigation lines and rototilling the soil, the UC Master Gardeners planted different tomato varieties that were used in a statewide study assessing plant performance for home gardens.

In addition to educating and equipping the public, the UC Master Gardeners of San Diego County have contributed to research efforts on specific crops, including the development of a new artichoke variety, Imperial Star, with guidance from Wayne Schrader, former UCCE vegetable crops advisor for San Diego County. 

The research garden, which was used for more than a decade, also aided in research efforts evaluating asparagus varieties, horned cucumbers called “Kiwano,” a fruit similar to melon called pepino dulce, sweet peas, rhubarb and many others. Similarly, the research garden has contributed to trials for soil solarization and chemical treatment to control root knot nematodes and expanded understanding of powdery mildew's impact on summer squash.

Carol Graham manages the "Ask a Master Gardener" booth during the 2022 Annual Plant Sale. Photo by Rob Padilla.

Evolving with the times

Out of 170 applications, Lazaneo selected about 30 individuals to be a part of the first class of UC Master Gardeners for San Diego County. Carol Graham, who is still active today, was in the original cohort that formed in 1983.

Graham said that “times have certainly changed,” and one of the changes she's noticed since joining UC Master Gardeners is the proliferation of insects. “I don't remember pests being a severe issue when I first started. Now, you've got all kinds of bugs that have moved into the county, causing people to overuse and misuse pesticides,” said Graham.

Graham's 40 years as a UC Master Gardener have given her an opportunity to teach people how to overcome their phobias of bugs and how to use pesticides safely and appropriately. Furthermore, her role as a UC Master Gardener has allowed her to teach others how to grow their own food in hopes of enhancing food security in the county, something she cares deeply about.

The UC Master Gardeners also have changed the way they communicate over the years. DeLayne Harmon, vice president of member services, is well-versed in the program's history.

“Before we began tracking our volunteer hours online, do you know what the UC Master Gardeners did back in the day?” asked Harmon, who joined UC Master Gardeners in 2020. “They wrote everything down by hand, with pen and paper!”

“It's easy to have the mentality that's like, ‘This is how we've always done things,'” said Harmon. “But the UC Master Gardeners know that there is always room for improvement, and we welcome opportunities to be better.”

Gerry Spinelli (left) and Anne Perreira (center) accept a proclamation from the County of San Diego declaring July 1 as "Master Gardener Day" during the 2023 Annual Plant Sale. Photo by Rob Padilla.

Giving back and putting people first

The UC Master Gardeners of San Diego County are eager to improve access to fresh food in schools. Recently, the UC Master Gardeners were given a $5,000 grant by the Sage Garden Project, which will be used to partner with schools in under-resourced communities.

“We want to be in places where the people don't know about UC Master Gardeners,” said Perreira, the association president. “We realized that there are a lot of students who don't know what fresh food looks like and we want to change that.”

In 2022, the UC Master Gardeners transformed a landfill into a demonstration garden, now called the Paradise Hills Native Garden, which they also maintain. “It's beautiful and there are walking trails for the community to enjoy,” Taylor said. “The native garden is in a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of green space, and to have something so beautiful, that encourages community gatherings, it's a good thing.” 

Looking to the future of the UC Master Gardener program in San Diego, Taylor says that she wants to continue making an impact in the community and having the UC Master Gardeners be that driving force.

Grateful for Taylor's leadership, Spinelli said that he is excited about the program's impact on food education, particularly in food deserts.

“We are blessed with a climate that allows year-round food production, and with the science-based knowledge offered by the UC system, our UC Master Gardeners can provide San Diego County residents with the tools to grow local, healthy, nutritious, safe and environmentally friendly food for their families,” Spinelli said.

When reflecting on how far the UC Master Gardeners of San Diego County have come, Perreira – who has been a UC Master Gardener since 2016 – emphasized how important it is to continue their legacy of doing good in and with the community. “We've got a diversity of skills within our group and I'm ready for us to expand our capacity to create change. What we do and what we say have to mean something!” she said.

To read this story in Spanish, visit: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=59028

Posted on Wednesday, December 13, 2023 at 9:24 AM
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Family, Pest Management, Yard & Garden

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