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Santa Fe Master Gardeners share love of horticulture with community

SANTA FE, N.M. - The Santa Fe Master Gardener Association is more than a gardening club.


Woman with green apron standing in garden talking with three people.
Santa Fe Master Gardener Linda Lonsdale, left, tells visitors about the 18 varieties of plants growing in the demonstration herb garden located at the Santa Fe County Cooperative Extension office. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

It is an educational association through the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service that assists the county's Extension agricultural agent in providing the general public reliable, current research-based gardening information.

Many Santa Fe community members are aware of the Master Gardener program through their attendance of the annual garden fair, where they buy plants and participate in educational sessions on various aspects of gardening; other have had their gardening questions answered by calling the year-round hotline or by visiting an Ask A Master Gardener booth during the summer; still others have learned gardening facts during a local garden tour or have enjoyed one of four community gardens that the Master Gardeners maintain.

Who are these Master Gardeners and how do you become one?

The Master Gardener concept began in 1972, when an under-budgeted Seattle, Wash., Extension agent needed help providing answers to urban horticulture questions. The agent recruited 300 experienced gardeners, got horticulture professors to teach their specialties, and then certified the recruits.

From those roots, the movement grew nationwide always with neighbors helping neighbors. NMSU's Master Gardener program began in 1981 in Albuquerque. Currently 15 New Mexico counties and the Navajo Tri-State Extension office have active Master Gardener programs.

The Santa Fe County program began 30 years ago, with the formal association forming in 1998. Today more than 200 gardening enthusiasts serve the Santa Fe community as Master Gardeners.

"A Master Gardener is a person who has been trained in basic horticulture by NMSU Extension specialists and local horticulture experts, and in return, they share that knowledge with others in the community," said Patrick Torres, Santa Fe County Extension agricultural agent. "Once they have completed the training, Master Gardeners volunteer their time, experience and knowledge in a variety of programs and projects."

During the 16-week training, each three-hour weekly session is followed by a take-home test. After students pass all 16 tests with a grade better than 70 percent, they must complete an internship by volunteering a minimum of 30 community service hours within the calendar year.

"That service comes in the form of serving on the gardening hotline or Ask A Master Gardener booth, or helping with a variety of community projects," said Bob Zimmerman, Santa Fe Master Gardeners Association president.

The newest project for the organization is to develop landscape designs for three areas of St. Bede's Episcopal Church grounds located at 1601 S. St. Francis Drive. Four teams have developed plans that will be presented to the church congregation. Once selected the garden design will be implemented by Master Gardeners and church members. The Master Gardeners will instruct the church members in the necessary tasks to maintain the garden then leave the project in the members' able hands.

"This is really the perfect project for Master Gardeners because it has so much creativity to it," said Suzanne Lawrence, project leader. "There are three distinct areas, each with their own challenges - the entrance of the horseshoe driveway, the area at the church's entrance, and a memorial garden that is visible from within the church sanctuary. We are going to provide designs that will be pretty throughout the seasons, and propose ways to amend the soil."

Designs will range from the drip-irrigated garden areas to xeric landscape at the entrance to the property.

Continuing the tradition of helping the county agent by answering home gardeners' questions, the Master Gardeners staff the gardening hotline year round.

"The Master Gardener and intern answer questions related to all aspects of home gardening," said Zimmerman. "Team members usually use one or more sources when responding to questions, either the Master Gardener Association library, personal experience, consultation with Torres, or inquires to NMSU faculty as needed."

Saturdays provide community members another opportunity to ask their gardening questions, and even, show a sample of an ailing plant at an Ask A Master Gardener booth at one of Santa Fe's public libraries, or at a local nursery, or other booth locations in the community.

The volunteers also serve as gardening experts during two home garden tours.

"This year we are serving as gardening experts during the Home Grown New Mexico Kitchen Garden and Chicken Coop Tour, and the Eldorado Garden Tour," said Zimmerman.

The Master Gardeners also put on their work clothes and grab their gardening tools to maintain four community gardens around Santa Fe. The gardens include the two demonstration gardens -- xeriscape and herb -- adjacent to the Santa Fe County Extension office at 3229 Rodeo Road, as well as the Cornell Rose Garden at the corner of Cordova and Gallisteo, and the garden at the Randall Davey Audubon Center at the end of Upper Canyon Road.

"Folks can visit and see different kinds of xeric plants," said Patricia Bell, project leader for the demonstration xeric garden that circles the office building. "This area is a garden where we test xeric plants. This year we are designing and planting a cactus garden, where people can see various varieties of cactus, yucca and agave."

The herb garden has evolved from a demonstration garden testing the affect of drip irrigation and mulch ground cover to a garden with 18 different perennial plants.

"When people see the small plant at a nursery, they may not know how much space it is going to take when grown for a few years," said Linda Lonsdale, project leader for the herb garden. "By visiting the demonstration gardens they can see what it is going to look like."

A section of the herb garden has something different planted every year.

"This year we planted tomatoes and companion herbs that help tomatoes, such as basil, borage and marigolds," Lonsdale said. "We are thinking of calling it the Italian tomato and herb garden."

The rose garden at Cornell Park is a joint project with the Santa Fe Rose Society, City of Santa Fe and the Master Gardeners.

This spring, 45 Master Gardeners and community members pruned the rose bushes. "The garden is a big teaching tool for the Master Gardeners," said Nicole de Jureney, project leader. "We post when hands-on trainings are scheduled, and people come to help and learn."

The garden is a popular destination for the neighborhood residents and other rose enthusiasts in the community.

"This garden is used all of the time. People love it because it is so beautiful. They come and have their lunch or read. They even hold their wedding ceremonies here," she said. "It's a real community spot, so when we work here we really feel like we are participating in community. It makes us extremely happy."

Humans and wildlife enjoy the tranquil atmosphere at the Randall Davey Audubon Center. The Master Gardeners helped to create that peaceful environment by planting and maintaining the courtyard gardens at the former home and studio of artist Randall Davey.

"We took on the garden as an educational project," said Joy Mandelbaum, project leader. "It is a wildlife-attracting garden. The garden was designed to meet the three basic needs of wildlife –food, water and protection. This includes plantings that attract pollinators and that provide seeds and berries, and also a fountain and a dense foliage area."

During the summer the center has a day camp program for youth. The Master Gardeners welcome groups of them to the garden, engaging them in discussion about what can be found there.

"The kids are so well prepared that they ask questions and notice things," she said. "It's always a treat for the Master Gardeners to interact with the kids."

The largest event coordinated by the Master Gardener association is its annual garden fair where more than 1,200 community members participate.

"People really enjoy attending the educational sessions and visiting with the various venders of gardening-related businesses," said Zimmerman of the event at the Santa Fe Fairgrounds that has been held every April for the past eight years. "Not to mention purchasing plants for their gardens that have been started by the Master Gardeners."

Ask any Master Gardener why they participate in the program and they will tell you of their love of gardening, plants and flowers.

"Plants are really amazing," said Lonsdale. "The perennial plants, like tulips, surprise you every spring by showing up again all on their own. Annual plants provide you with instant gratification, while you have to wait a bit for the perennials to flower."

For the Master Gardeners it is rewarding to volunteer in the Extension program because they get to share their love of gardening not just with fellow enthusiasts, but also with the community.