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Cultivating horticultural love: Master Gardeners marks 20 years

IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel

Claire Russell, who gardens at the Redwoods in Mill Valley, helped launch the Marin Master Gardeners program 20 years ago.

Staff Report
Marin Independent Journal


MARIN'S Master Gardeners have 20 years of dirt under their fingernails.

In 1986, years before the word "sustainable" was ever uttered and gardening questions went to the cashier at the local nursery, a small group of gardeners enrolled in a University of California Cooperative Exension program to polish their green thumbs. Twenty years later, the annual and extensive trainings have more applicants than spots. Scores of gardeners volunteer hundreds of hours to help Marin gardeners and to turn the county green in community and school gardens and service projects.

With 20 years of compost and cultivation in the soil, we took a look at who the Master Gardeners are by interviewing one of the first trainees and one of the most recent graduates.


VETERAN: Claire Russell sees gardening transforming lives

Not everything Claire Russell cultivated came out of the soil.

The 81-year-old green thumb enrolled in the first Master Gardeners class in Marin 20 years ago, only to see the program nearly disappear the next year. The woman who led the first training moved on, and there was no plan to continue the classes or find new recruits, Russell says. "The program was going to go down the tubes," she says.

Russell, then living in Tiburon, couldn't let that happen. She was already too enthusiastic about Master Gardeners and the transformative community nature of gardening in general. She started organizing, found a class of trainees and kept Master Gardeners growing.

"Now it's just going gangbusters," Russell says, then jokes, "Now I probably wouldn't be accepted."

The octogenarian calls gardening "what keeps me healthy." She recently sold her house in Tiburon and is waiting for a unit in the Redwoods retirement community. She's already spending at least one afternoon a week in the community garden there. She expects she'll find herself in the sunny creekside garden "about every day," once she's moved in.

After 20 years, the Marin Master Gardeners is still growing.

And so is Claire Russell.


Q: What is a master gardener?

A: To take the training, you have to indicate that you have an interest in gardening and that you have some sort of feeling about the importance of gardening for everybody so that you can then go out and inspire other people to garden.


Q: Is gardening social?

A: You can do it in solitude but it's much more fun to do it socially in community gardens. It's sort of the best of both worlds. It can be as social as you want or you can have it be solitary.


Q: How much time do you spend in the garden?

A: When I had my own garden I spent 10 to 15 hours a week in the garden. Now at the Redwoods, I work a couple of hours a week.


Q: What is your biggest challenge in this garden?

A: Right now moles are a big challenge.


Q: What would be in your dream garden?

A: My dream garden would be a totally sustainable garden. You would have a compost pile that would use for amendments to your soil. I would have a mix of flowers and vegetables so that I would have the beauty of the flowers and the benefit of the vegetables.


Q: What's your favorite gardening tool?

A: If I had to choose one tool, it would be a trowel.


Q: What won't grow in your garden?

A: In the garden I had in Tiburon, I couldn't grow some kinds of tomatoes. You can't grow peonies here. At least I can't grow peonies.


Q: What grows best in this garden?

A: I'm not able to say that there's one thing that I know of that grows better. The tomatoes do famously. The squash is great. The Swiss chard is lovely. We've got beans. There are just a multitude of things that grow well.


Q: What do you do in the garden when you're not gardening?

A: I'm sorry to say I'm not one to just sit. The only thing I would do if I were sitting in my garden would be wondering where I was going to put what next.


Q: What is the future of gardening?

A: I've been sort of interested in permaculture, which is a form of sustainable gardening. It's taking and contouring your land so that you hold the rain, and it really is a way of utilizing as much as possible what's available to you. The more people who would embrace that form of gardening, the better off we would be. You don't waste anything. That's the way it is in nature. Nature doesn't waste anything.


Q: What's the difference between gardening and yard work?

A: You love gardening, and yard work is a chore that has to be completed.


NEWCOMER: David Wren unearths knowledge about plants and soil

For David Wren, gardening was an occupational hazard.

A marketing consultant, the Kentfield dad got a contract to write the newsletter for Sloat Garden Centers and found himself researching the secret life of plants. He turned first to the Sloat staff but says, "I soon exhausted their expertise."

So he started picking up books and calling experts. Some of those experts were involved in the Master Gardeners program. When Wren bought a house on a hillside in Kentfield, he was suddenly facing a sloped and shady landscape and some gardening challenges.

He remembered Marin Master Gardeners and called for help. He ended up in the training program last year. He got his certification in April.

Wren's yard is still a work in progress. He calls much of what the master gardeners do "problem solving" and laughs, "We do a lot of that around here." The trees are tangled and need work. "We spotted an owl in the yard. That's our latest excuse," jokes Wren. The soil could be better.

There's a lot of work to be done, but now he knows what that work is.

And he knows it's not even work.

It's gardening.


Q: What is a master gardener?

A: A master gardener is a gardener who knows why his plants died. We're also really into community service. Master gardeners' gardens don't end at their property lines.


Q: Is gardening social?

A: Gardening is very social. Gardening is something that everybody enjoys doing, and it's more fun to do with somebody else.


Q: How much time do you spend in the garden?

A: I spend as much time as I can in my garden. Probably three to four hours a week.


Q: What's your biggest challenge right now?

A: Figuring out how to manage the trees I have on my property - they've all grown together - and figuring out which ones to keep, how to keep them healthy.


Q: What would be in your dream garden?

A: Maybe a little bit more flat area, not a hillside. For me a dream garden would be a super low-maintenance garden, a garden that re-seeds itself and adds color all year long but is something that uses native plants, a garden that's made for Marin County.


Q: What's your favorite gardening tool?

A: My favorite tool at this point in my gardening career is a fork that I use to go in and aerate the soil and basically pulls up weeds. It's multipurpose but it's very good at working with the soil, which is what gardening is about.


Q: What won't grow in your garden?

A: I don't know what won't grow in my garden. I've killed just about everything, but that was in the early days before I knew how to get soil in shape. What won't grow in my garden? There's nothing I can imagine that won't grow here.


Q: What grows best?

A: Shade plants. I have a lot of shade in my garden. California natives - they're already adapted to the soil conditions. Anything that's growing naturally in an environment similar to whatever I have here with shade and oaks will do great.


Q: Is gardening competitive?

A: I think that everyone appreciates everyone else's garden and I don't think we look at each other's garden and think "Oh, my garden is better than yours." If anything, there is a camaraderie among gardeners. Everyone wants to help each other.


Q: What do you do in your garden when you're not gardening?

A: Drink beer.


Q: What is the future of gardening?

A: I think it's going to come back around. My kids are not that interested in gardening. As much as we are trying to teach kids, they are distracted by a lot of things. I think it will go through a period, maybe right now, where it's not as popular with young people as it could be. But I think it will come back around. It's always in style. It's something that once you've done it, it's exciting. There's a lot to it.

Q: What's the difference between gardening and yard work?