UConn Master Gardeners share their expertise

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Brooklyn - posted Mon., Jun. 13, 2011
(L-r) Donna Gagnon, Susan Chace, Joe Suich, Kimberly Kelly, Sue Devokaitis and Dawn Barrett-Walsh offer their gardening expertise. Photos by D. Coffey.
(L-r) Donna Gagnon, Susan Chace, Joe Suich, Kimberly Kelly, Sue Devokaitis and Dawn Barrett-Walsh offer their gardening expertise. Photos by D. Coffey.

Kimberly Kelly backed up a pickup truck full of heirloom tomato plants up to the Windham County Extension Center in Brooklyn. She and a crew of volunteers were setting up for an annual plant sale on Saturday, June 11.

Kelly has been the program coordinator for the University of Connecticut’s Master Gardener program for 13 years. The plant sale brings in money to provide free services to the community on a year-round basis.

Kelly calls Connecticut’s Master Gardener program one of the most comprehensive in the country. The program started in the state of Washington in 1976. It exists now in all 50 states, through the Land Grant University System. Connecticut’s program is celebrating its 30th year.

The program is offered in five locations every year in the state, according to Kelly. The classes cover botany, vegetables, entomology, invasive species and pest infestation. Students must pass a final exam. Their volunteer work in the Extension Center offices gives them hands-on experience with real world problems facing Connecticut residents. They will research and address insect, disease, cultural and other problems facing trees, shrubs, ornamentals, fruits, vegetables, lawns, house plants and more.

Susan Chace was one of the volunteers, a Master Gardener intern completing the volunteer portion of her program which began in January. The program consists of 14 class sessions held once a week for eight hours a day. Once the educational portion of the program is completed, she and the others in the class must complete 60 hours of volunteer service, 30 of which is spent in a Cooperative Extension Center. That volunteer service is spent answering questions about anything having to do with gardening, whether it is soil testing or plant and pest identification.

“People have to mail things in or drop them off at the office,” Chace said, picking up some foliage from a Leyland cypress that sat near a microscope in the Extension Center’s office. The tips of its branches were rusty brown, and the property owners wanted to know why.

“It’s infested with bugs,” Chace said. “We saw them under the microscope.” Another zippered plastic bag held black specks on a piece of paper towel. “Someone wants us to identify these bugs,” she said.

The service is free; it’s just not conducted over the telephone. What is required is that data sheets be filled out for the Master Gardeners to help them assess the issues. Samples must be marked, and for each sample a client must indicate the issue he is having with it. Names, addresses and contact information must be provided. An intern will take the sample and research it from the office’s library of reference books. They have Internet access and connections to UConn faculty and staff. When a problem is identified, such as the bug infestation on the Leyland cypress, an intern will call the client with results. Recommendations will be given and all actions and references will be listed for the client.

The rest of the 30 volunteer hours can be spent in a particular project of the intern’s own choice, said Kelly. Master Gardener interns have worked on creating butterfly gardens in Scotland and healing and therapeutic gardens at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield. Twenty volunteers work at the People’s Harvest garden in Pomfret. It has produced more than 10,000 pounds of produce for the Northeast Community Kitchens for the soup kitchens in Windham County. They have been essential in the design and creation of a native plant arboretum at the Goodwin Forest. One intrepid intern is working on certifying the town of Willimantic with the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat community. It will be only the second one in the state of Connecticut, according to Kelly.

“Most of the Master Gardeners get so attached and fall so in love with the projects that they’re doing that they continue way past 30 hours,” said Kelly. “They go into the hundreds of hours and they don’t get enough acknowledgements. People don’t realize the impact these people have on their communities.”

They are providing important services to the community, said Kelly. They are helping to raise awareness of important issues, such as the identification of Asian longhorn beetles to outreach projects in the community. Junior Master Gardeners are involved in farmers’ markets held across the state.

“They do it because they think it’s important,” Kelly said. “They are helping build their communities. They have a wonderful knack for bringing people together over these kinds of issues.”

Seedlings are donated to People’s Harvest from the horticultural program at the Brooklyn Correctional Institute. Local farmers donate mulch hay for weed suppression. “There are so many members of the community who partner with us,” said Kelly. “They’re unsung heroes.”

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