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The state’s nearly 3,500 master gardeners are used to being outside, but COVID-19 restrictions have put volunteers firmly online.

“We’ve been using Zoom for meetings and email to answer gardening questions from the public,” said Sandy Schumacher, who lives on Camano Island and is part of the Master Gardeners program management team. “The classes, exams and volunteer service needed to become a certified master gardener are now all done online.”

Volunteer garden experts have inspired and assisted home gardeners in Washington for decades. The program is a part of Washington State University Extension, a community learning-based organization with offices in each county.

This gardening assistance program started blooming in the 1970s when the state’s suburban population boomed and more people started gardening and seeking answers to questions about plants.

To assist horticulture faculty, WSU Extension recruited and trained volunteers to meet the growing demand for information.

Today, volunteers provide educational and community outreach in a variety of settings, offer plant problem clinics and maintain demonstration gardens. Combined, they volunteer more than 300,000 hours annually.

The program moved online during the pandemic but has not withered on the vine.

Adena Ray and Kathy Shirlock are completing their certification process from home. Ray, who recently retired from Twin City Foods, is satisfied with doing things on a computer.

“Everyone has had to adjust because of COVID. Doing trainings online and using email to help someone solve a plant problem still works,” she said.

Shirlock, who moved to Camano Island from Ohio a few years ago, agrees.

“I’m just glad the program was able to adapt to the restrictions of the pandemic,” she said.

One adjustment was offering the popular Sustainable Gardening Winter Speaker Series virtually.  

“The online lectures were well-attended, but it’s just not the same,” Schumacher said.

The clinics, which are usually provided in front of local businesses, have been suspended due to COVID-19.

Jeanie Garrioch, who has been a master gardener with the Snohomish County program for years, said it's been difficult for master gardeners to maintain their demonstration gardens, a collection of plants organized so that visitors can see and study them.

“We’ve not been able to do the regular upkeep and maintenance of the Jennings Demonstration Garden in Marysville for almost a year,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to when we have normal access again to get the garden back in tip-top shape for the public.”

Schumacher, who oversees the Demonstration Garden Border at Legion Park in Everett, has been able to do limited maintenance following protocols set by WSU.  However, over the past year, the annual plant sale was canceled and garden tours were canceled or postponed.

Schumacher, who is also a member of the Northwest Horticultural Society and the Northwest Perennial Alliance, helps coordinate those events.

“The plant sale is an important fundraiser for us, and the home garden tours are very popular with the public,” she said. “Right now, we’re just not sure when we’ll be able to resume these activities.”

Despite the setbacks, some gardening-related positives did happen.

Adena Ray finally got around to building a greenhouse.

“I’ve been meaning to put in a greenhouse to grow fruits and veggies year-round for a long time,” Ray said. “Because I’ve stayed home much more this past year, it is now complete with a variety of starts growing, including peppers, cucumbers and zucchini.”

Phyllis Andrews has tackled big projects in her yard on Camano Island.

“We redid several rockeries that needed attention,” she said. “I’ve also done a lot of replanting and rearranging of flower beds that I have wanted to do for years.”

As these master gardeners have spent more time in their own gardens, they noticed that more people are out walking and many have shown interest in their garden projects.

“The upside of this pandemic has been that I’ve been able to casually pass on my gardening knowledge to people who out and about in my neighborhood,” Andrews said. “Folks seem to have let down their guard a bit, and talking about plants and soil is just such a nice way to visit.”

Tips from the Master Gardeners

  • Garden to fit your lifestyle. “If you find certain plants like roses, which require a lot of attention, are too much trouble, try something else,” Adena Ray said. “I enjoy dahlias because they produce beautiful bouquets and are relatively easy to grow around here.”
  • Garden with kids and grandkids. “I got my grandsons interested in plants by taking them on hikes and identifying flowers,” Phyllis Andrews said. “Not only does this get kids outside, but they learn important things about our environment.”
  • Raised beds are a great way to start. “Raised beds warm up more quickly in the spring and drain more easily than an in-ground garden,” Kathy Shirlock said. “Although there is the initial expense of putting in the bed, you get a longer growing season in soil that’s much more manageable.”
  • In addition to local nurseries, there are many online sites that offer a wide variety of plants and gardening supplies including: plantlust.comdeepharvestfarm.com; and gardeners.com
  • Master Gardener website: mastergardener.wsu.edu

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