Thank you San Diego Master Gardeners!

Last semester Julian Elementary was thrilled to receive a $500 grant to build a pioneer history raised bed in conjunction with the 5th grade teacher, Mrs. McFedries, as part of her social studies curriculum.  We used the money to buy heirloom seeds, wood, soil and paints.  Our garden teachers Kat and Emily did an awesome job overseeing all of the steps with Mrs. McFedries.

We chose to take out a raised bed that we inherited ten years ago and was falling apart.

Students cut and painted the new boards.  We decided to make this bed not only wider, but also twice as deep.

Tom, the head of our school maintenance staff, generously helped the students build the bed.

Meanwhile, students propagated their seeds from “Seed Savers Exchange” on every available flat space in the classroom and later in the garden.  Emily had researched and purchased historic varieties of beans, corn, squash, okra, cucumber and herbs.

It took a lot of soil to fill this beauty!  Small transplants were then placed in the new bed and covered in agrobon to protect the baby plants.

Finished product!  (We only need to add some length to the current irrigation.) The fifth graders “paid it forward” by planting herbs and vegetables for next year’s class, but since the junior high is adjacent to the elementary, they can also come back early next school year to enjoy the harvest too!  The smaller letters on the bed read “Thank you SD Master Gardeners!”


Farm to School and gardening in San Diego

I should have just pitched a tent at the San Diego County operations center last week because I was there for two different events, three days in a row.  Both make me glad I live in San Diego County where good things are happening in the farm/gardening world.

The first:  Let’s Go Local! Showcase.  This was a “meet and greet” between school district food service staff and local farms and distributors.  As I’ve discussed before, creating a Farm to School program is challenging because there are so many disconnected pieces to connect.  This innovative, model event sought to make the process easier by bringing the two sides of the conversation together—buyers and sellers in the transaction over school food.  Or as the Union Tribute* put it:

San Diego County has more than 6,000 small farms, including one-third that cultivate produce. But with no single broker between the growers and schools, the first step can be a logistical maze for districts.  The San Diego County Farm to School Taskforce, a subcommittee of the Childhood Obesity Initiative, helped bridge that gap on Thursday with a showcase at the county operations center in Kearny Mesa.  Representatives from about 30 school districts met with distributors and growers who set up booths that overflowed with produce in a farmers market-like setting on an upstairs patio.




Then on Saturday, I was a plant schlepper for the San Diego Master Gardeners Spring Seminar.  This is a full-day of workshops, lectures, cooking lessons (there was a singing chef!) and a marketplace of plants, gardening tools and garden art.  It was incredible, and I was proud to be a small part of it as an MG.





Master Gardeners are known for their birdhouse gourds


Master Gardeners also has a committee that makes birdhouses from recycled bits and pieces that they sell at events


Official t-shirt? Check. Name badge? Check. Broad-brimmed gardening hat? Check.

Union Tribune article

Plant espionage

Most of my Master Gardener public outreach hours are going to school gardens.  Recently, however, a service opportunity came up I couldn’t resist:  spying on nurseries to document how many invasive plants they have for sale.

Ok, not really spying.  It’s all done in the open as part of the non-profit organization Plant Right’s attempt to take “data collected from this survey to track California’s retail market for invasive garden plants over time. Having this information allows PlantRight to engage the nursery industry in building an effective program to stop the sale of these plants and replace them with environmentally safe alternatives. The survey itself is a data collection effort and not an outreach initiative.”  They asked Master Gardeners for help, and I gladly watched the webinar and signed up for a nursery in the general area of my other Saturday errands.

Imagine my disappointment when the training webinar said “No disguises necessary.”


In reality, I strolled around–a plainclothes amateur botanical detective— with my Plant ID guide of 18 targeted invasives to find.  I’m happy to report that the big box store to which I was assigned had none of them.  We were supposed to record other plants in the genus, though, so I jotted down some notes about a broom and vinca minor (vinca major was on the blacklist), took some photos and submitted my notes to their site.  A good afternoon’s work for a native plant vigilante.

To learn more about this cool effort, see

Harvesting ideas

Often when we stumble upon a good idea that we’d like to use we say we’re “stealing it.”  But someone once suggested we say “harvest,” an appropriate word for the borrowing of good ideas in school gardens.  I love to share our ideas—that’s one of the reasons I write this blog.  If someone finds inspiration or encouragement or how-to….well, I’m thrilled.

Today I got to see a wonderful school garden in Santee.  One of the main reasons I joined Master Gardeners program was to serve as a school garden consultant.  Today I attended my first committee meeting, which was held at Cajon Park Elementary.  Here are some cuttings I took away….

At some point I want to make a permanent sign with garden rules, so I’m always interested in what others have chosen to focus on:

They planted a clump of sugar cane in conjunction with a social studies unit on the triangular trade:

One of the best things I saw.  Do you recognize these trellises?  Repurposed playground equipment from back in the day.

In this garden each teacher has a named plot.  Whether a garden goes this route or not, ownership is always important.

One of the garden coordinators was working during the meeting.  She asked if she could include my kids who were with me for the day.  They planted, watered, measured a plot, harvested….  Garden coordinators are good at this—recruiting kids that are hanging around and giving them a job and teaching them something too.

Harvesting this!  Recycled juice jugs protect baby plants and keep them moist like a terrarium.

It’s so cool to walk across a school campus–mostly pavement and institutional buildings—and come upon an island of color and life.  It always makes me happy.

Me at my first meeting!  So much to learn, so much to ask!

Circle of knowledge, circumference of ignorance

Two weeks ago I took my Master Gardener final. Well, I attempted to take it.  God bless the working/studying/multi-tasking moms of the world.

I sent Chris to the zoo with the kids.

The last day of class we corrected the exams and took our first class picture.

And then today we had a fabulous party and received our certificates.

Upon completion, I must say that this is an OUTSTANDING program.  Thorough, well-organized, hands-on, professional—there wasn’t a lecture or a homework assignment or a lab activity that was a dud.  I feel honored to have participated, and I vow to make good on the “public service” end of the agreement that is at the heart of the Master Gardener program.

Just one small suggestion I’d make based on Pascal’s words about the larger the circle of knowledge, the greater the circumference of ignorance.  (Or when we know more things, we also have more cognitive surface area touching the edges of what we don’t know.)  We got a t-shirt to wear at volunteer activities that looks like this:

And I’d like to suggest that it be amended to read:

Ask a Master Gardener

but please go easy on me because really, there is a ridiculous amount to know about gardening, and I can be an absolute genius in one thing and still be an idiot in another and this program has laid the foundation for me to be a lifelong garden learner, eager to share what I learn with you…so just realize that I may know an answer but then again I may not and then I will do my best to find it….”Master” is a big word, I know, but I didn’t come up with the title. Thank you and have a nice day.

It would be a little wordy, but at least it would provide full disclosure.

Gardening: so complicated, so easy

Two weeks ago the topic in Master Gardeners was temperate fruit trees.  As we reviewed all of the things that can negatively affect fruit set, I had this overwhelming thought:

How does anything grow at all when there are so many things that can go wrong?

Really, a gardener could get freaked out looking into all of the variables that allow a healthy plant to grow.  Consider the odds against fruiting—abscission of bud and flowers, weather, competition, disease, insect pests, shade, improper pruning…..

But then this is also true:  you can buy a tomato plant, put it in soil, water it regularly and you will probably get a tomato.  And you will most likely be blind to all of the things that conspired together to make things go right.

I find that a lot of gardening—life itself?—is about holding these two things in tension.

1)  It’s complicated.  Lots of things can go wrong, and lots of things can go right.  As we meet hard stuff with courage and persistence and faith, we ought to meet the good stuff with some deep gratitude. I will truly never look at fruits and vegetables the same way again because everything I have learned has taught me that they are nothing short of miracles.

2) It’s simple.  I think it’s important to slow down and demystify things so that we don’t get overwhelmed and paralyzed by them—things like gardening and scratch cooking and raising children and car maintenance.  We ought not to overcomplicate things.  We try, learn, experiment, fail, succeed, and ultimately, make progress.  At the end of the day, we’ll probably have grown something good.

Exhibit A: a wisteria vine growing up our pergola:

And here’s the wisteria vine we planted six feet away, same soil, same orientation, same watering and care.

Yep, nothing there.  It died, and I have no idea why. See? Complicated.

But then there’s this: artichokes.

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries










Thumbs up for hands-on learning

We’re always talking about how good experiential education is for kids.  Hands-on instruction just seems to deliver content in a way that kids learn.  Or perhaps…all people learn?   In my master gardener training, we have five hours of class a week.  The mornings are excellent lectures, and the afternoons are often workshops/labs.  I have loved the experiential piece, reaffirming the vast possibilities for garden-based education.  Here are some snapshots of the experiential component of the Master Gardener program in San Diego:

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First Day of (Master Gardeners) School

Today was the first day of my Master Gardeners program so I thought I’d recreate a classic family photo.

Me on my first day of first grade.

Me on my first day of Master Gardeners training (with all of my teeth and no knee socks.  The 1971 Chevy Impala has been replaced by a Toyota hybrid.)

Master Gardeners is a University of California Cooperative Extension program that is offered every two years in San Diego County.  A 50 hour program with 16 classes over a five-month period, the program provides expert training to volunteers in horticulture and pest management.  Classes, taught by specialists, cover soils, irrigation, propagation, plant pathology, vegetables, sustainable practices, entomology, and much more .  Once training is complete and an exam passed, a person is a certified master gardener, ready to devote 50 hours to public education (with additional service and continuing education to recertify every year thereafter.)  One must apply with a written application and interview to be chosen to join the 56-person cohort.

When I went to the application orientation, I was encouraged not to be scared off by the term “master gardener,” instead viewing the experience as an opportunity to be involved in ongoing nonformal education and public service within a learning community.  After 2 1/2 years with our school garden, I have plenty of ideas and plenty of questions so I am ready to go! I am looking forward to a two-way flow of information from the MG program to our school effort, and from our school project back into public education. (One MG committee to serve with is School Gardens—this naturally is where I’m headed.)  In short, I feel privileged to be a part of the 2012 class and will be reporting regularly on what I’m learning.

For more information, visit