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Master Gardeners: Deep roots keep program alive

The Garden Expo hosted by the Crow Wing County Master Gardeners returns in 2017, after a yearlong hiatus. Submitted photo1 / 3
The Garden Expo hosted by the Crow Wing County Master Gardeners returns in 2017, after a yearlong hiatus. Submitted photo2 / 3
The Garden Expo hosted by the Crow Wing County Master Gardeners returns in 2017, after a yearlong hiatus. Submitted photo3 / 3

A program many worried would die on the vine when it lost a paid coordinator is alive today, thanks to nurturing from some dedicated volunteers.

The Crow Wing County Master Gardeners went through a period of transition when the county board voted to eliminate the coordinator position held by Jackie Froemming from the county budget in 2015. Adapting to a fully volunteer-led organization was a challenge, said JoAnn Weaver, president.

"We basically had to assume as many of Jackie's duties as we knew how to do or had to learn how to do them, and it does take a lot of time," Weaver said. "You can't take a paid position and erase it completely and expect volunteers to do it exactly the same way."

Created in 1977 by the University of Minnesota Extension, the Master Gardener program trains volunteers to help others in their communities with horticulture. This includes a range of activities, from assisting residents with planting native grasses to improve runoff, to educating the public on the importance of pollinators, to answering questions about saving trees damaged by storms. The information used as part of the group's education efforts is based upon research conducted at the University of Minnesota.

Taking on the added responsibilities of coordinating educational programming and juggling the schedules of 83 Master Gardeners was difficult enough for some of the more involved volunteers, Weaver said.

Then in 2016, the state University of Minnesota Extension office introduced new requirements of program participants that forced Weaver to take on an even greater role. Every Master Gardener was required to undergo a background check if one was not completed within the last three years. Also added was a "safety of minors" training, which became a requirement due to Master Gardeners' contact with children through a variety of programs.

Although Weaver said the requirements were reasonable and made sense, it was a lot to take on at once.

"Here we had Jackie being gone, we were strictly volunteer and we had to do background checks and safety of minors training," Weaver said. "Those who were sitting on the fence ... some said, 'No I don't want to do this anymore.'"

The group contracted from 83 members to 57 by year's end. Coralee Fox, a Master Gardener for more than six years, attributed some of this loss of membership to the fear of the unknown, along with higher expectations of participation not all members could commit to.

"We are a working group, not just go to a meeting once a month and that's it. You have to pitch in," Fox said. "I believe it's quite a lot like any other civic organization, where you have to get the new blood in because those of us who've been there and done that for many years get tired and want to take a rest. But I think it's sustainable."

Despite the challenges, the group is again hosting its marquee event—the Garden Expo—on April 1 after a one-year hiatus. The event brings together speakers, classes and vendors focused around gardening, and is the largest single coordinating effort the organization undertakes within a year. This year's theme is pollinators—the birds, bees, butterflies and other animals that assist in the pollination of plants. Many of these species are under threat, and Master Gardeners are working to educate the public on ways to help these important creatures.

Fox is in charge of registration for the event. She's served as treasurer for years, but this year was the first time she took on a new role with the expo. Handling registration, along with a large part of event planning work, were once the purview of Froemming and a part-time administrative assistant, Maggie Fuller. Fuller retired around the time Froemming's position was eliminated, and that post was not replaced.

"We keep reminding each other of everything that Jackie used to do, and have we done this and done that," Fox said.

Although Froemming lost her job to the budget cut in 2015, she quickly transitioned to a new position in the regional Extension office, continuing her work with Master Gardener programs statewide. Froemming fought hard for the coordinator position to remain in the program's budget, in part because she knew examples of other programs that lost coordinators and eventually went dormant. Cass County was one such example, where a loss of a coordinator led to a slow death of the program.

"It depends on each county program and the volunteers that are there, what would happen to the program, if they have to do it on their own," Froemming said. "We have counties that have managed to keep going. We have county programs that the number of members have reduced to the point where there are no volunteers certified in that county. You never know what is going to happen when a paid coordinator is not there anymore."

Froemming said what's kept the Crow Wing County program going so far is the dedication of the volunteers.

"It was an adjustment for them to decide, is this something we're willing to work harder and learn things they weren't doing before?" Froemming said. "Thankfully, there is a core of volunteers that is willing to step and say yes, we're going to work extra."

Fox said she hoped the expo would remind people the group not only still exists, but is going strong.

"There were so many comments which came back to us that there no longer were Master Gardeners in Crow Wing County, so we at first wanted to overcome that," Fox said.

She added the future looks bright for the group, with a fresh crop of interns on their way to becoming Master Gardeners.

"Although we have seen some people drop out, we've got a good group of interns this year again," Fox said. "We're going to be continuing to grow again. And everyone understands they have to take more ownership and be more responsible."

If you go

• What: 2017 "Ready, Set, Grow" Garden Expo.

• When: 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., April 1. Check-in begins at 8 a.m., the program begins at 9 a.m.

• Where: Brainerd High School, 400 Quince St., Brainerd.

• Cost: $30 per person for four breakout classes, plus morning and afternoon refreshments and a boxed lunch catered by Prairie Bay Grill and Catering.

• Topics: Top perennials for central Minnesota, Small fruits for the home gardener, Fact or fiction: Garden myths meet research-based science, Tomatoes: Seed to saucepan, Gardening for bees and butterflies, The gardener and the cook: Savoring backyard bounty with mostly meatless meals, Underused trees for the landscape, Two old-fashioned favorites: Peonies and clematis, The pollination of native plants, Herbs: Garden to table, In a pickle or a jam: Stocking up, Water wisely: Healthy plants, healthy planet, healthy people, Container gardening: Planting with pizzazz, New adventures in vegetable gardening, New and exciting perennials for 2017, Selecting the perfect plants for your small flower garden, Trees: Choose wisely and plant properly, Welcome to the shady garden, Lettuce and salad greens for your garden.

• Register: Visit www.crowwingmastergardeners.org or call 218-454-4769 for more information or to register.

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