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Seeds of Life

For many people, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting their hands in the dirt and nurturing life in their own backyards. Whether tending an intricately planned and well-manicured flower garden, caring for a more chaotic mass of wildflowers, or cultivating fruits and vegetables to feed their families and neighborhoods, Fayette County’s Master Gardeners volunteer to beautify our city while sharing their knowledge with anyone who wants to know more about plants and their care.

The Fayette County Master Gardeners volunteer hundreds of hours each year toward a variety of community gardening projects. Pictured here are several Master Gardener volunteers from the Herb Garden Committee. Photo furnished

The Fayette County Master Gardener Program was established in 1987 by the local Cooperative Extension Office – a part of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment – as a means of training and engaging long-term volunteers to provide safe and reliable gardening information to the community. Master Gardeners share their knowledge through workshops, newsletters and other means, teaching others how to plant and care for home gardens of all types.

“There are around 100 Master Gardeners who are currently active with the program,” says Susan Umberger, the current Fayette County Master Gardener Association president, and a 20-year member of the organization. “Each Master Gardener, after completing the training program, volunteers a specific number of hours each year and continues their own education on the latest gardening techniques and research.”

To become a Master Gardener, participants must go through an intensive training program that is held every other year and that prepares the participants to instruct community members on a variety of topics, including botany, entomology, and plant pathology, as well as landscape design and care of lawns, trees and shrubs. Master Gardeners also learn about pesticide use, soil types, fertilizers and organic gardening practices, and at the end of their course are ready to pass on their knowledge.

The primary way that Master Gardeners educate others is through the Gardener’s Toolbox series of classes. These classes, held at the Cooperative Extension Office on Harry Sykes Way, off of Red Mile Road, cover the basics of flower gardening, growing food and caring for houseplants for beginners. Other classes focus on specific tools and techniques, like pruning or transplanting, while others are centered on growing specific types of plants, such as begonias, dahlias and asparagus. Class fees range from free to $20, making them an affordable and accessible way to explore gardening for those who are new to the hobby or, for those who are more advanced, to learn more. This year’s schedule is on hold in accordance with the University of Kentucky guidelines regarding social distancing practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At the time of this magazine’s publication, in-person classes were canceled at least through May 18. While no new registration is being accepted for previously scheduled classes, extension agents were working on distributing special publications and video classes to preexisting registrants of some classes.

However, the responsibilities of the Master Gardeners don’t end with teaching – around a dozen other projects are on their plates at any one time. Several projects each year are located at the University of Kentucky Arboretum, with Master Gardeners working with staff to plant and evaluate trial beds of flowers and vegetables, participating in public events, and providing special programming for the Children’s Garden. You’ll find Master Gardeners manning tables at local farmer’s markets, answering the helpline at the Fayette County Extension Office, working with 4-H and other youth gardening programs, and speaking at a variety of community events.

Debbie Johnson, past Fayette County Master Gardener Association president and a committed Master Gardener who has been through the program’s trainings in California, Illinois and Kentucky, explains that the projects can change a lot from year to year.

“We try to make sure that we are meeting the most current needs of the community, so things change a lot for us.”

With so many projects happening each year, the time commitment for Master Gardeners can be intense, but the group works together to make it all work. Says Umburger: “Some of us are retired and are able to spend more than the required amount of time working on the projects. We all work together to make sure that everyone can meet their commitment and we get things done.” Cumulatively, the group volunteers more than 5,000 hours annually for the community.

When asked about their favorite projects, both Umburger and Johnson say that the Bluegrass Flower and Vegetable Show, which typically takes place at the Lexington Lions Club Bluegrass Fair each summer, is at the top of their list. The show, co-chaired by Master Gardeners and Lexington Council Garden Clubs, is both a competition and a showcase, featuring more than 400 flowers and vegetables entered by amateur growers throughout Central Kentucky. Unfortunately, this year’s show has been canceled due to the pandemic, but Johnson cites it as a great way to introduce a larger population to the joy and art of gardening.

One of the most recent changes for the Master Gardener’s program is the relocation of the “Backyard Garden” from the Arboretum to the Cooperative Extension Office. The garden features fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers set up and grown on a scale that can be easily replicated at most homes. Planting, care and composting demonstrations can help prepare anyone with a small patch of land to plant and grow food for their own family or provide flowers to attract bees and butterflies. The Backyard Garden is not only an educational tool, but also produces around 600 pounds of fruits and vegetables each growing season, which are donated to God’s Pantry Food Bank.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an uptick in interest in home gardening. With more and more people becoming interested in growing their own food, creating their own peaceful patch of beauty, or benefiting physically and mentally from tending and nurturing plants, the Master Gardeners provide information and assistance that is invaluable. Their commitment to educating the community about how easy gardening can be inspires new gardeners to jump in and make something grow.

Online Resources:

Guide to Kentucky Garden Flowers

Fayette County’s Master Gardeners Help Lexington Gardens Flourish