Glen explores impacts of Extension’s ‘gardens of learning’

A few years ago, Charlotte Glen, now a Pender County Cooperative Extension horticulture agent, was based at the New Hanover County Extension office, which operates the seven-acre New Hanover Arboretum. Her work there piqued her interest in exploring ways Extension could use gardens most efficiently as teaching tools. It was also during this time she began studies toward her N.C. State University Master of Science degree in Extension education, which she received in December 2010. Those studies included research on Extension gardens that culminated in the project she presented this past March at N.C. State’s Graduate Student Research Symposium.

Her symposium entry, “Gardens of Learning: N.C. Horticulture Agents’ Utilization of Demonstration Gardens,” grew from her curiosity “to learn more about how to effectively use a garden as a teaching tool,” Glen said. “Gardens require so much work and resources—money, volunteers, equipment – I wanted to understand more about the ways gardens could be used to enhance Extension programming rather than drain [resources].”

Glen hails from a farming family in Jones County. She began her undergraduate studies at N.C. State, but completed her work toward her bachelor of horticulture degree at Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1998. “My husband is from New Zealand,” she explained. “We met in Scotland, while both working at a public garden (I was an intern). We got married and moved to New Zealand when I was halfway through (undergraduate work), so I transferred to Lincoln and graduated from their program.”

However, she did return to pursue her graduate degree at N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and to work with N.C. Cooperative Extension.

In 2006, she transferred from Extension in New Hanover to Pender County, where, she said, the Master Gardeners were already in the process of developing a teaching garden at the Extension office. She joined that effort and then worked with them to create a second garden at the Hampstead Library.

It was in 2010 that she launched her study of the programming use of gardens by Extension across the state. As noted on her symposium poster, she wanted to show that with “their tangible, real-life nature and capacity for providing concrete experiences necessary for experiential learning, gardens can be effective learning environments for Extension programming.”

For the purpose of her study, demonstration gardens were defined as “plantings designed and maintained under the supervision of an Extension agent for the purpose of teaching horticultural and environmental practices as part of an Extension education program.”

Glen developed survey instruments and collected data over a four-month period, June to Sept. 2010. Her results included data from all of the state’s horticulture agents who currently utilize one or more demonstration gardens.

Among some 50 Extension-managed sites included were a mixed plant garden at the Alamance County Extension Center, a Buncombe County ornamental garden at Asheville’s N.C. Arboretum, an edible community garden on county property in Cherokee, a Moore County Courthouse ornamental garden, a 4-H edible garden on a Pasquotank farm, a mixed garden at Sampson County’s Extension Center and a Wake County Water Wise garden at the State Fairgrounds.

“I was surprised by the number of rural counties utilizing gardens, as well as the number of small vegetable demonstration gardens developed in the past five years – – these account for most of the growth in the number demonstration gardens since 2000,” Glen said.  “I was also surprised by the number of agents who have multiple gardens (eight out of 34, with three counties maintaining gardens at four different sites), and that 50 percent of gardens are located somewhere other than the Extension office (including other county property, state property and nonprofit locations).”

She investigated how the agents utilize their gardens by asking them the characteristics of the gardens; how the gardens are used in Extension education programs; what features, techniques and practices are employed to enhance self-directed learning; and what are the benefits and challenges of using demonstration gardens in their programs.

And what she found, she said, is that the three main impacts of gardens identified by the study were related to enhancing learning, engaging volunteers and developing partnerships. Meanwhile, the greatest perceived challenges of incorporating gardens into Extension programming are availability of time, money and volunteer support.

There will be be some useful applications of the study, she said, including the findings related to the need for volunteer involvement and a program-efficacy measurement tool.

Making volunteers “vested partners in the process is key to successfully maintaining a garden over the long run,” Glen said. “Also, for agents to feel like the garden is worth the effort (that it is enhancing their program rather than hindering it), they need a way to measure the impact – an evaluation tool that captures the gardens full impact on their program and their community. This is an area I am considering studying for my dissertation.”

Glen said that perhaps “the most remarkable findings relate to the roles of volunteers and extent to which they are responsible for making these gardens happen. Only one agent reported not having volunteers involved in their garden, while 20 reported that volunteers were fully engaged in all aspects of developing, maintaining and utilizing the garden. Also, when asked what was most needed to realize the vision for their garden, agents identified dedicated volunteers more than any other factor.”

So it’s no surprise that in naming her most significant or rewarding experiences in using demonstration gardens in programming, she said, “I can sum it up in one word – volunteers. Gardens are wonderful catalysts for volunteer involvement and it has been extremely rewarding to work side by side with volunteers to develop and maintain our teaching garden. It is amazing to bring a group of people together working on a common goal and to see what can result – my volunteers give so willingly of their time, plants, knowledge, creativity and more.”

Her study has solidified her belief in the ability of demonstration gardens to “increase and enhance learning and to engage volunteers and community partners. Having a garden is like having a laboratory – it opens up new possibilities for teaching and learning, as well as volunteer service.”

One of those new possibilities is self-directed learning.

“Self directed learning in a garden is much like learning in a museum – visitors can learn from the displays (plantings) if they are properly labeled and interpreted through signage or brochures,” she said. “Learning in a real life setting like a garden is also very memorable. By equipping gardens to support self directed learning agents are expanding the effectiveness of their efforts — the gardens can teach on their own, after office hours without an agent or volunteer present.”

Glen is currently incorporating several of the techniques identified in her study to enhance self directed learning into the Pender garden. These include interpretive signs, self guiding brochures and web resources. “I am also working with my volunteers to define goals and outcomes for the garden that will help us approach potential partners for support,” she said. “For example, instead of our goal being to just demonstrate vegetable production, it will be to increase local residents’ access to fresh produce and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

As for her down-the-road goals, she said, “I would like to work as a regional specialized agent if the opportunity were to arise and focus on sustainable landscape management.”

And while this demonstration gardens project is complete, she may update the garden list every few years to keep an up-to-date database of Extension gardens.

This summer, she’ll be submitting the findings to the Journal of Extension. Glen especially wanted “to thank each of the agents who participated in the study for sharing their time and experience.” — Terri Leith

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