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Study involving Master Gardeners, cancer survivors goes virtual due to pandemic

More than a year ago, New Mexico State University was contacted by the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center for a research study partnership. The study would pair cancer survivors who had completed their primary cancer treatment with local Extension Master Gardeners. The “Survivor-Master Gardener” team would work together to plan, plant, maintain and harvest three seasonal gardens at the survivor’s home.


Gardening planter
Dorothy Duff, a Southwest Harvest for Health Master Gardener co-coordinator involved in the study, said one of her participants had gardened before but had to put it aside due to her diagnosis and medical treatments. She said this project has infused her with enthusiasm to get back out in the garden and reactivate old garden beds in addition to the new grow boxes. The study was forced to go virtual due to COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)
Extension office and supplies
The Bernalillo County Extension Office organized a drive-thru pickup on March 28 for the 30 cancer survivor participants to load up their materials: five bags of soil, two bags of mulch, plants, seeds, and four containers. This came after the study was forced to go virtual because of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)

Cindy Blair, the principal investigator for the study and a cancer epidemiologist at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center and School of Medicine, reached out to the Extension Master Gardener program at NMSU. The initial pilot study would be limited to residents in Bernalillo and southern Sandoval counties.

Everything was set to begin in March 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., forcing the study to pause and consider how they could move forward.

“No home visits were allowed, since both the Master Gardeners and cancer survivors are considered high-risk groups,” said Sara Moran, NMSU-Bernalillo County horticultural extension agent.

The study was originally meant to measure the effects of gardening on overall health and functioning, quality of life and more. The Southwest Harvest for Health Study would provide the supplies and tools needed for each participant to start their home vegetable garden. The Master Gardener mentor would call and schedule a visit with their survivor partner once a month for nine months. During those visits, the mentors would check on the garden’s progress, troubleshoot garden issues and offer any encouragement as well as suggestions for success.

“Because of COVID-19, the study took a new approach,” Moran said. “The participants received four big square planting containers, instead of raised beds. All participants received potting soil, mulch, seeds and seedlings. Because it was hard to get a delivery at every single house, a single delivery was made to the Bernalillo County Extension Office.”

The extension office organized a drive-thru pickup on March 28 for the 30 cancer survivor participants to load up their materials: five bags of soil, two bags of mulch, plants, seeds, and four containers.

“We were so happy that all participants showed up, which showed that they are committed to making this study worked regardless of the circumstances,” Moran said.

Each participant was given a handbook that provides guidance related to planning and planting, as well as NMSU gardening publications and more. If cancer survivor participants have any questions, they have their Master Gardener partner/mentor available to assist them.

Participants will be communicating via phone, email, Skype, or FaceTime – whatever works for them to communicate any gardening needs and guidance.

“Every week we touch base to see what is growing and if there have been any problems,” said Dorothy Duff, a Southwest Harvest for Health Master Gardener co-coordinator, of her cancer survivor partner. “The project has infused her with enthusiasm to get back out in the garden and reactivate old garden beds in addition to the new grow boxes. She planted her boxes immediately and is about to transplant some seedlings which she started from seed.”

“Seeing them adapt to the new circumstances has been very encouraging. Technology has undoubtedly worked,” Moran said.

One participant told Blair that they are really enjoying being outside and learning more about plants and are very thankful the support and hard work they put into bringing the Harvest for Health program to New Mexico.

Moran said the study will continue this way until the stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions are lifted. She said it was important to continue with the program because they did not want to lose momentum with their volunteers, and it’s a time when gardening can have added benefits for people whose other activities are restricted.

“They have been committed and very enthusiastic about this study. They were so patient and they have been very creative, trying to stay in communication among themselves,” Moran said. “Under the current situation, gardening is a great activity to do while we all practice social distancing and are staying at home as much as possible.”

“I am thankful to be working with this fantastic group of Extension Master Gardener volunteers who show great passion for what they do and are always willing to share their knowledge with our community,” Moran said.