Connect: Master gardeners learn and serve

Ben Swedberg of rural North Platte loads a truck of produce from the CHOW garden, to donate to a local food pantry.

Master gardeners are making an impact on their communities, from landscaping to teaching, from tomato research to filling food pantries with delicious produce.

The program happens every year in the west central district of Nebraska, under direction of David Lott, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension horticulture educator. Participants attend classes and make their learning count in service to others.

Once participants have taken 40 hours of classes and given 40 hours of service over a two year period, they earn the title “master gardener.” They retain their certification by taking 10 hours of training and giving 20 hours of service each year.

Kathy Jacobsen, who has been a master gardener for about 10 years, said every year she learns something new. Her service projects include caring for gardens at Lincoln County Historical Museum and flower beds at Buffalo Bill high rise apartments where she lives. She also teaches gardening skills to children and adults. Among her favorite topics is “trash can gardening,” growing plants from things that are usually thrown away: the bases of celery stalks, avocado seeds, pineapple tops, etc.

Last year participants in west central Nebraska gave an estimated $69,000 worth of time in service in their communities, Lott said.

Forty people are taking the classes this semester; 15 in person at the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, and the others by distance learning on the internet.

Jo Ann Sorensen has been a master gardener for five or six years. After taking the classes, “you’re always in teaching mode,” she said.

She said she enjoys helping at fairs, teaching lawnmower safety to children at an annual safety day and the other opportunities for service.

Readers of the Telegraph enjoy the columns written regularly by Julie Jacobson, a longtime master gardener, too.

Master gardeners in Curtis help to maintain the landscaping at Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. Participants in Chadron helped with plant selection and planting around the hospital. Master gardeners in Imperial helped design and maintain a xeriscape (low water using) landscape at Chase County High School. In Cozad, participants do gardening projects with children at an after school program.

The biggest master gardener project in North Platte is a Choosing Healthy Our Way vegetable garden at WCREC. The gardeners grow the produce and donate it to Grace Ministries food pantry in North Platte. Last year they donated 2,626 pounds of food, The project is supported by a multi-state U.S. Dept. of Agriculture grant. The goal is to provide healthy food choices for low income individuals and families, and to combat chronic health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, Lott said.

The gardeners are also helping with a tomato research project that is now in its second year at WCREC. They are looking for ways to grow an old, heirloom variety called “Nebraska Wedding,” successfully. Nebraska Wedding bears orange fruits that were traditionally used as a garnish or decoration at weddings, or given to the bride as a sign of a prosperous marriage. The heirloom varieties tend to be prone to diseases, though, so they are being grafted onto the root stocks of newer, disease-resistant varieties.

Sorensen said the master gardener program has given her something meaningful to do and “I like it a lot.”

Lott said he is happy to give people guided tours of the gardens and research plots at WCREC. For arrangements, call 308-532-2683.

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