Voices of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Project Leaders & Community Partners

Faith and Jane–EMG project co-leaders at Upper Valley Haven

By Libby Weiland

Ongoing Extension Master Gardener (EMG) projects are taking place at community and school gardens across the state. Click here to read more about the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Program and how to get support from EMG volunteers. For this article, we discussed the successes and challenges of the program with EMG project leaders and community partners at four Vermont community-based gardens. Read below for a snapshot of each of these projects and advice from the people who make these sites run.

Benson Heights Community Garden – Benson, VT – Christina Shaw, EMG volunteer

Christina Shaw, EMG volunteer, got involved with the Benson Heights Community Garden after hearing from her mother that the housing community she lived in was having difficulties setting up a new vegetable garden space.  She contacted the Rutland Chapter and set up the project once she realized the residents were dedicated to the garden and that their food security and community fellowship goals tied in perfectly with the Master Gardener program.

As project leader, Christina works with the residents to advise and aid, primarily through education.  She holds regular garden walk-throughs with the residents throughout the season to identify problems such as pests and diseases and to answer questions about care, maintenance and harvesting. Additionally Christina administers a modest annual budget for seeds and tools and serves as the contact person between Benson Heights and the UVM Master Gardener Program.

School and EMG project leaders share about their program at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School

Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, Crops By Kids – Barre, VT – Deb Curtis, EMG volunteer

Approximately  six years ago Barre Town Middle and Elementary School (BTMES) contacted the UVM EMG program seeking volunteers to support their school gardens. To establish gardens on-site and prepare the garden beds, the school set up a work party with EMG volunteers. Since this first day, the project has continued to be supported by EMG volunteers, in collaboration with school staff and teachers.

Deb Curtis took on the role of EMG project leader about four years ago after working as a co-leader with another EMG. She got involved with the project because her children had gone to school at BTMES years before and she also had interest and background working with children. Three years ago Deb’s role expanded into her current position. She continues to volunteer as an EMG in addition to getting paid a coach salary to serve as garden coordinator for the school, a role she took over from past dedicated teachers.

As EMG and garden coordinator, Deb provides educational opportunities in the garden for students as well as the broader community. During the summer months, she works with other EMG volunteers during a six week garden series held on Wednesday mornings, beginning in June.  This project is a great opportunity for EMG volunteers who want to work with children and families.

Upper Valley Haven Gardens – White River Junction, VT – Faith Alexandre, EMG volunteer

Faith leading a tour of the edible landscaping at Upper Valley Haven.

The gardens and edible landscaping at Upper Valley Haven (the Haven), a homeless shelter and social services center in White River Junction, were developed by an EMG already volunteering with the Haven’s After School Program. The organization was in the process of further developing the property and saw an opportunity to incorporate edible landscaping and gardens into their landscaping plan. EMGs and other volunteers were brought in to help with the initial plantings, and that effort has since grown into ongoing support for planning, expanding and maintaining plantings across the property.

Faith Alexandre and Jane Metcalf now serve as co-leaders for project.  They divide responsibilities–Faith provides her expertise for the vegetable gardens and Jane focuses on the fruit trees, small fruits, and perennial beds. They also oversee two weekly work sessions with EMG and other Haven volunteers, splitting up oversight for each day–Jane takes Wednesday afternoons and Faith takes Saturday mornings.

As project leaders Faith and Jane communicate with EMG volunteers, Haven staff, and Haven food shelf and Healthy Eating program volunteers after each work session about the work accomplished and what they’re seeing in the gardens. Additionally they budget and plan for the season with Haven staff, working primarily with the Director of Volunteer Services and the Coordinator of Food & Wellness Programs to help integrate the gardens with other volunteer opportunities and programs happening at the Haven.

Learning in the garden. (photo courtesy of The Garden at 485 Elm)

The Garden at 485 Elm – Montpelier, VT – Sheryl Rapee Adams, Community Partner

After a few years of relying on a single garden coordinator, The Garden at 485 Elm decided it needed to move to a shared leadership model and seek support from experienced gardeners in their community. They wrote a Kitchen Gardener’s International grant to put Hannah Morris, one of their gardeners, through the EMG course. Hannah had already completed the Extension Master Composter course and just needed to fulfill her volunteer hours.

Sheryl Rapee-Adams, community partner with The Garden at 485 Elm, saw that the UVM EMG and EMC missions dovetailed perfectly with the goals of their garden—commitment to developing gardeners as well as gardens, through community garden education. With support from Kitty Werner, Member Support for the Central and Northern VT Chapters, Hannah completed applications for The Garden at 485 Elm to become both an official EMG and EMC project site. The project was approved at the end of 2016 and is getting started with the 2017 season.

Plans for the project include a compost work day every Tuesday afternoon where Master Composter volunteers who need hours are invited to come and work side by side with community gardeners. Plans for Master Gardener involvement will focus on sharing expertise to improve the garden itself as well as to help increase gardeners’ confidence. For the 2017 season, the group would welcome another certified EMG to join the EMG project leadership team.

Advice from the Field

Making the Match between Extension Master Gardeners & Project Partners

Sheryl Rapee-Adams, The Garden at 485 Elm: When deciding whether to seek a partnership with Extension Master Gardeners, Sheryl found it most useful to ask “Do we share priorities?” Looking at her garden, “It was obvious that we were growing more than food. It’s really about community members growing food together in the garden; interacting in the garden and teaching new gardeners as they come in.”  Additionally the garden hosts workshops that are open to broader community, fitting perfectly with the EMG mission to educate the community.

Faith Alexandre, Upper Valley Haven Gardens: “The expertise of EMG’s helps both individuals and garden groups be more successful.” According to Faith, the success of their project lies in “making sure that the work of the garden is always contributing to the purpose of the Haven.”

Christina Shaw, Benson Heights Community Garden: “The resources at UVM available through the Master Gardener program are incredible. I rely on them especially when we’re facing a problem in the garden, be it blight or bug. Ann Hazelrigg of the Plant Diagnostic Clinic, for example, is generous with her time and knowledge and will respond to an emailed photo with great advice on how to deal with an issue. The Rutland Chapter, too, is supportive of community gardens and steps up with the funds to keep our modest garden blooming. We have raised beds, a four wheeled cart and a heavy duty hose reel for our aging gardeners due to their fund raising and generosity. These are items that make all the difference to senior gardeners but would be difficult to afford otherwise. Our residents are proud of their association with the Master Gardener program and they know we’re available if needed to help them succeed.”

Supporting EMG Volunteers: Advice from Extension Master Gardener Project Leaders

Faith Alexandre, Upper Valley Haven Gardens: Advice from Faith on setting up a work experience for fellow EMG volunteers: “Try to make the initial experience a good one; so that they connect with the work and the other volunteers. Did they make a friend that first day? Did they learn something? Did they achieve something and feel productive? Did they connect with the mission of the Haven?” Faith explains that if you make volunteers feel welcome then they want to stay connected. She and Jane also add all volunteers to an email list that helps them stay up-to-date on what’s happening at the Haven, in the gardens, and upcoming volunteer opportunities. As a result, the project has a group of dedicated volunteers that they can depend upon: “It’s not just a couple of us so I don’t worry if I can’t be there; I know that the other volunteers are perfectly capable of performing the tasks.”

Deb Curtis, Crops By Kids: As project leader, Deb always takes the time to share how thankful she is for the EMG volunteers she works with. She finds that they notice things she’s not able to catch in her busy role, like a squash bug infestation last summer. She shows her thankfulness by recognizing her volunteers when possible, as well as demonstrating her trust for them by encouraging them to follow their own interests in the garden.  “This is a beautiful garden space and takes dedicated folks to help with all aspects of the garden.”

Christina Shaw, Benson Heights Community Garden: When it comes to working with EMG volunteers, Christina’s advice: “I try to take whatever help comes our way with an open heart. I think being flexible about what, how and when ensures that people will give what they can, feel good about their involvement and want to return.” She also suggested that if you want more volunteers you can actively promote your project on the EMG listserv, show up at the local EMG chapter for the project meet and greet and introduce yourself to interns who need those 40 hours to become certified.

Common Challenges with Extension Master Gardener Projects

Christina Shaw, Benson Heights Community Garden: “Benson is rather off the beaten path so it’s sometimes difficult to find other EMGs willing to travel out of their way to help with the garden.  Deb Seward is an EMG near Rutland who is willing to go that extra mile and she is such a wonderful asset to our project.  I wish I could find more ‘Debs’, especially someone willing to get us started with a composting project on site.”

Faith Alexandre, Upper Valley Haven Gardens: For the sake of the project’s sustainability, one challenge she and Jane face is trying to figure out how to divide up responsibility; rather than just giving a task, engaging volunteers in leading a task.  “How do you break apart a project so that more of the volunteers can take on responsibility for something they’re really interested in and share the leadership?” The group did that successfully with their compost bins project—one of the EMG volunteers designed and built the bins; then taught everyone how to use them.

Deb Curtis, Crops by Kids: Although EMG volunteers are welcome to weed and water at the garden any time during the summer, the bulk of EMG work—educational programming—takes place at a time when many people are at work—Wednesday, 10am to noon. The group would like more volunteers, but need to figure out a new strategy for engaging a broader group.

What Can Project Partners Do to Make The Project Successful?

Faith Alexandre, Upper Valley Haven Gardens: Last year Haven staff hosted a garden volunteer appreciation brunch on a Saturday when all of the EMG volunteers could be there.  Faith shares: “It was good for volunteers to hear from the staff that their work is appreciated.”  Additionally Haven staff use the Haven EMG email list to reach out to the volunteers to thank them or tell a story about how the garden impacted their programs.

In addition to appreciation, the Haven gives lots of practical support to the garden. The Director of Volunteer Services arranges for additional volunteers for big work days in the gardens, and the garden is a line item in the Haven’s budget—to pay for soil amendments, straw, plants, etc. “They’re so supportive and trusting of the things we want to do. They understand what our motivations are when doing this or that and trust our end-game.”

Deb Curtis, Crops by Kids: The school has teachers, staff members and families that provide additional commitment to the garden.  The development of Deb’s position as paid garden coordinator makes the programs possible and sustainable.

Christina Shaw, Benson Heights Community Garden: “[The gardeners] show up, every day, excited to get out in the garden, whether I am there or not.  They coordinate watering schedules and harvesting—they are the driving force of this project.  Their enthusiasm and dedication is the reason this project succeeds.”

Communication and courtesy are always key when working between different groups.” Besides Christina, the group has a resident Garden Coordinator at Benson Heights who is the onsite person other residents and staff can approach with questions and requests. “The Housing Trust of Rutland County has been very respectful of our garden space. When they wanted to add new beds outside of the EMG project, they contacted our resident garden coordinator for advice on how to do so without compromising our project.”

Click here to read more about the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Program and how your garden can get support from EMG volunteers.