By Catherine McDonnell-Forney
Climate Victory Gardeners are joining together to build a movement that brings healthy food into into our yards and communities, while drawing carbon from the atmosphere to fight climate change. This campaign is built upon the successes of the historic victory gardens of World War II, but today we’re in somewhat uncharted territory, relying upon the expertise of other gardeners to learn best practices for building soil health and strong communities. Master Gardeners are an invaluable resource to all gardeners, in all areas states. Catherine McDonnell-Forney tells us about her journey becoming a Master Gardener and highlights valuable resources for Climate Victory Gardens in all their many stages.
I am a Climate Victory Gardener and a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteer. I have tried, in my little corner of the world, to create a space for myself, my family, and my environment to live more equitably by restoring the prairie on part of my property (tiny though it may be), creating a habitat for local wildlife, and growing some of our own food. I have two children, and I want nothing more than for them to have a happy, healthy future and I believe that restoring and respecting our environment and understanding and taking part of our food production is key to that.
I started my own gardening adventure in earnest when my spouse and I purchased our home in 2009. I had never gardened before, so I relied on lots of great online and library resources. One resource that I kept coming back to was the University of Minnesota extension service. Not only was the Yard and Garden website an invaluable resource, so were the Master Gardeners I met at info booths at Farmers Markets and through the Ask an Expert online answering service.
My house is situated on the northside of a very small urban lot (about a tenth of an acre). The soil is “urban fill” (you can look up your soil type on the USDA soil survey), so not terribly healthy. I was unsure of any harmful chemicals (like lead or arsenic) in the soil so chose to grow food in raised beds. In the intervening years, I’ve had soil tests done, which you can have done at relatively low cost through most Extension services, and there is no lead or arsenic. I’ve grown tomatoes, peas, beans, lettuces, potatoes, garlic, lots of herbs, hot peppers, winter squash, zucchini, tomatillos, onions, and more than I can even recall. I also have a sour cherry tree, two nanking cherry trees, elderberry trees, hardy kiwi, hops, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. My front yard has been converted to garden, it takes up about a quarter of my property. I grow mostly Minnesota natives, but also a few flashy non natives (Icelandic irises, for instance).
In all of my gardens, I practice no dig gardening. This means I do not till the soil. This helps rebuild the health of my soil and makes my plants healthier. AND it’s less work for me! At the end of each growing season in my vegetable beds, I carefully remove any dead plants. Anything diseased goes to the municipal compost - we are very lucky in Minneapolis to have yard and kitchen waste pick up for compost - and everything else goes into my compost bins. I then top off all bins with fresh compost and that’s it! My fruit trees get a similar addition of compost and my natives are mostly left alone - I leave much of their dead growth in the garden to breakdown over the winter. Many native insects lay their eggs either in the garden debris or in the stems of hollow plants, so it’s a must to leave those items in your garden. All of this work has allowed me to reduce my carbon footprint several ways: growing food closer to home, restoring the soil on my own land and creating a carbon sink and teaching and inspiring others.
I was inspired to become a Master Gardener through the extension program at the University of Minnesota. One of my coworkers at the time was a Master Gardener and encouraged me to consider becoming a Master Gardener myself.
Who are Master Gardeners?
Master Gardeners are your neighbors! Master Gardener programs are volunteer programs through Extension services at land grant universities throughout the country that train individuals in basic horticulture practices. These people then work with the public to pass on that knowledge.
What can Master Gardeners do for you?
All 50 US States and eight Canadian provinces have Master Gardener services, with the sole purpose of serving the public. Master Gardener volunteers are trained and there to help YOU! Are you new to gardening and don’t know where to start? Check out your local services; many programs have classes or public speaking events you can attend for free or low cost. You can also find a question and answer booth, often at a farmer’s market. Did you find a really cool insect in your garden? Likely, your local Master Gardener can help you identify it, take a picture and Ask an Expert!
Master Gardeners help new gardeners and homeowners learn how to create a more climate friendly space - either by growing their own food or creating gardens (carbon sinks) on their properties and teaching experienced gardeners and homeowners more environmentally friendly practices.
How do you become a Master Gardener?
Ready to share the wealth of knowledge? Anyone can become a Master Gardener. In Minnesota, the process involves completing an application, answering questions that require some research, and then an interview process. Once you are accepted into the program, you complete 48+ hours of basic horticulture education, which includes topics like basic vegetable and flower growing, tree care, Integrated Pest Management, and much more. All the information and guidance that we, as Master Gardeners, pass on to the public is research backed. We learn to teach best practices that are sustainable and help guide our neighbors and community members toward a healthy environment, people, and community.
After this course work, a Master Gardener completes 50 hours of volunteer service and 12 additional hours of continuing education, either at events like informational sessions at a University or college, conferences, workshops or webinars. the first year. You are paired with a mentor who lives near you and has similar interests to help you though your first year. It’s a bit overwhelming at first! Following the first year, Master Gardeners only have to complete 25 hours of volunteer service and 12 hours of continuing education per year to stay active.
Don't be overwhelmed by the commitment, anyone can do it!
That all sounds pretty grueling, especially if you’re a working parent of two kids. While it is a lot of work, it’s really fun and rewarding. I’ve answered questions at farmers markets, worked on educational projects with elementary school kids, worked on prairie restoration sites, and helped design rain gardens. I’ve helped people appreciate beneficial insects, attract more wildlife, grow their own food, keep trees healthy, and so much more. I’m an active member of the Climate Victory Garden facebook page where I get to share and learn from other gardeners and Master Gardeners. I get to share my passion with others, which I can’t really think of anything I’d rather be doing!
My training as a Master Gardener has helped guide my practices and enabled me to help others learn. Over the years, I have seen more and more people in my community embrace environmentally-friendly practices and develop more interest in food security, and I enjoy being a part of this process. I hope you’ll reach out to a local Master Gardener or consider becoming one yourself!
A Few Resources
- Find a master gardener near you - Here you can find the contact information for Master Gardeners in every state, along with links to the extension programs that train Master Gardeners.
- Ask an Expert - This is an answering service. You can ask questions on all sorts of topics including food preserving, gardening, tree care, and insect identification! This resource matches you with someone in your area with the expertise to answer your questions.
- Extension Articles - This site has an abundance of great articles, webinars, and videos about a wide range of topics, all things food, farm and garden related.
About Catherine McDonnell-Forney
I was born and raised in the beautiful city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I still live with my spouse, two kids, two dogs and two cats. Long, cold winters leave me dreaming of flowers, veggies and bugs. I am going into my fifth year as a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener and loving every minute of it. I also work full time as a communications manager for a small nonprofit.