Celebrating Master Gardeners!

Jul 10, 2020

By Penny Pawl, UC Master Gardener of Napa County

The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County turn 25 this year. It is hard to believe that Master Gardeners have been active in the county that long.

Dean Donaldson was the county farm advisor in 1995. He decided to launch the program to help relieve some of the demands on the UC Cooperative Extension office in Napa.

The Master Gardener program originated in Washington State in 1972 when the farm advisor there decided he was not able to handle all the calls from home gardeners. The advisor-trained volunteers were tasked with answering home gardener questions using research-based information.

Since that time the program has spread to all 50 states, and Canada has adopted a similar program. In the U.S., Master Gardener programs operate under the auspices of land-grant universities, such as the University of California. Each California county manages its own program developed for the needs of its local home gardeners and climates.  

There were 20 people in the first Napa County class. Every class since then has had between 19 and 25 students. At present, Napa County has 160 active certified Master Gardeners. More than 2,000 people have participated in the program since it began.

To become Master Gardeners, people are trained over several months. They receive 50 hours or more of classroom training by knowledgeable instructors who may be university faculty, industry professionals or even Master Gardeners with specialized knowledge. The goal of the training is to impart basic information in gardening subjects and the research skills needed to answer questions from the public.  

Initially, the main need in Napa County was for volunteers to staff a help desk, answering questions from home gardeners with gardening problems. In the early days, homeowners called the help desk or visited in person. Today, most questions arrive via e-mail. We have a large library of reference books, and we consult resources online, such as University of California publications. We are an information resource for local home gardeners; we do not visit home gardens to work or consult.

Slowly the program in Napa County grew, and Master Gardeners developed new ways of reaching the gardening public. We have staffed a table at local farmers' markets and at events such as Earth Day, and we have contributed a weekly column to the Napa Register since 1999. Occasionally, we write for other publications as well.

Napa County Master Gardeners developed a demonstration garden and expanded the types of public workshops we give. We have collaborated with city and county agencies on composting workshops and water-wise workshops that many people have attended over the years. Our first workshop on composting with worms drew only three people; today, the same topic draws 15 to 20 attendees.  

Every year, the Master Gardeners' field-testing committee tests different varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers and records its results. This database helps local gardeners know what varieties perform well in different parts of the county. We operate a speakers bureau and our members often do presentations for garden clubs and other groups. Our mobile help desk can be found at different local nurseries in spring, when home gardeners need advice on growing the plants they've just purchased.

Napa County Master Gardeners lead a monthly discussion group on gardening and nature at Napa's Senior Center. We have a Latino outreach committee and a school garden taskforce. Our tree walks are very popular and are a direct outgrowth of the book, Trees of Napa County, written by the late John Hoffman, a professional arborist and member of the first Master Gardener class. The book has been revised and is still for sale by Napa County Master Gardeners.  

In the past, we organized a biannual garden tour for the public. Today, we host an annual Fall Faire and a popular spring tomato sale. Working in groups, Master Gardener volunteers plan and execute all these activities.  

To maintain their certification, Master Gardeners must complete 12 hours of continuing education each year and volunteer 25 hours in the community. All of these activities allow Master Gardeners to develop their own gardening knowledge and experience while helping home gardeners become more successful.

Alas, our plans to celebrate our 25th anniversary have been put on hold, along with many of our public workshops and in-person monthly meetings. Nevertheless, we continue to educate the public through our newspaper articles, blog, Facebook page, Instagram and website, and we will continue to serve the community.  

Food Growing Forum: Join Napa County Master Gardeners on Sunday, July 26, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., for a free Zoom forum on “Watering, Irrigation and More.” This forum on food growing will continue monthly on the last Sunday of every month, with future topics announced soon. To receive the Zoom link for the July 26 forum, register at http://ucanr.edu/FoodGrowingForum2020.

The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide University of California research-based information on home gardening. To find out more about home gardening or upcoming programs, visit the Master Gardener website (napamg.ucanr.edu). Our office is temporarily closed but we are answering questions remotely and by email. Send your gardening questions to mastergardeners@countyofnapa.org or leave a phone message at 707-253-4143 and a Master Gardener will respond shortly.