When interest in community gardening began to spike a few years ago, Master Gardeners in Guilford County created a network that gives leaders of such gardens a way to connect with and learn from others while taking advantage of the wealth of gardening information available through Cooperative Extension.
Co-chairing the Community Garden Outreach program is 11-year Master Gardener veteran Jeanne Aller. The program “enables people interested in starting community gardens to know where to go to get information about organizing and maintaining such gardens,” she says. “From the network, they can get information on everything from where to get municipal compost to how to plan a three-season garden.”
And, Aller adds, the network “lets them know they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and they are not alone. They can talk to people who are doing or who have done the same thing.”
Through the effort, Master Gardener volunteers serve as mentors to community garden leaders, helping with such issues as finding the best site and knowing what to plant when. Master Gardeners also provide the leaders with frequent emails on timely gardening tips, along with a seasonal newsletter chockfull of advice. The idea, Aller says, is that the leaders then pass along the information to their members.
The network was created in 2008, when, according to agricultural agent Karen Neill, “the economy tanked and people began to see home vegetable gardens as a way to save on their food budget while getting physical activity and eating well.”
Today, there are about 40 garden leaders who are part of the network. Some of them have gardens at churches and senior living communities, while others have gardens in neighborhoods and housing complexes.
The Community Garden Outreach program overlaps with another Master Gardener success in Guilford County: a Speakers’ Bureau that delivers educational programming to civic and garden clubs as well as to the general public at libraries and other locations throughout the county.
The Speakers’ Bureau, chaired through 2011 by Master Gardener Kevin Dowling, also conducts a twice-yearly educational series, “Growing the Green Way.” The series is offered in partnership with the city Parks and Recreation Department and presented at Parks & Rec facilities. In 2011, the bureau reached almost 1,200 people.
Both the Community Garden Outreach program and the Speakers’ Bureau are growing, Aller and Neill say. New speakers are currently being trained to help take the classes to more people in more locations throughout the county, and Master Gardeners are working to develop a community gardening website.
Meanwhile, the Community Garden Outreach effort is growing in new directions: This spring, Neill and others in the community garden network have been working to launch Share The Harvest, a coordinated effort to distribute excess produce from community gardens and individual gardeners to agencies that will then share the food with people in need.