Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Advice for New Extension Master Gardener Coordinators

Congratulations!  You've just been hired to coordinate the Extension Master Gardener Program in your county or region.  The work that you will do has the potential to make a real and positive difference in your community.  Master Gardeners help folks understand how to grow their own food, conserve natural resources, use gardens as living laboratories and natural classrooms, and much, much more.

I love working with Master Gardener volunteers and for Oregon State University Extension. However, I've recently been reminded of just how challenging it can be to coordinate an Extension Master Gardener Program.

To share a bit of my story, my first three months on the job (in 2007), I sincerely thought about quitting  . . . every . . . single . . . day.  Some days, I felt like I was being hazed, or at the very least, tested.
  • There was the time I was introduced at a local Master Gardener Association board meeting with a poem that read something like:  'The problem is, the old can't do what they know, and the young don't know what to do'.  
  • There were the whispers I heard in corners: 'Who does she think she is?!?  She's overstepping her bounds. She doesn't know what she's doing.'.  
  • There were the more direct confrontations (which I sincerely appreciated much more than the whispers in the corners), from folks who were upset that they were not consulted about my hire, and who demanded to see my credentials to make sure that I was qualified.
  • There was the time that some members of the Association that I was working with uninvited me to their meetings, and told me that I was not welcome to attend.
Ouch.  I'm not going to lie.  It all hurt.  I had moved cross country to take this position.  By myself.  I felt alone.  I felt small.  I felt a fool for giving up a great job that was much nearer to my family ~ to start a new life where I didn't seem to be welcomed.

Despite all of this, I can now say that I love the Master Gardener Program and the great work that University Extension and our volunteers do together.  We really do help to make the world a better place by gardening.

For example, in 2012, 400 people were surveyed about their experience with Master Gardener classes.  Folks reported that they have taken steps to attract beneficial insects into their garden (64%), are more tolerant of spiders in the garden (58%), planted a pest-resistant cultivar (71%), decreased or eliminated pesticide use (68%), disposed of a pesticide at a community hazardous waste removal event (54%), and are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) as a direct result of what they have learned in our classes. Still, in those early days, I could have used some advice on how to survive and thrive in a challenging position.

When I Googled 'advice for new Master Gardener coordinators', nothing came up that fit what I was looking for.  Thus, I thought I would write my own little advice column ~ to communicate those things I wish I would have known when I first started, or to share those things that have helped me to survive and thrive in my current position.

If you're a Master Gardener coordinator, please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

1)  Know that you're not alone!:  I initially thought that the fact that there seemed to be so much discontent meant that I was a failure.  But then I started talking to others, and realized that my experience was fairly typical.  I've found the National Extension Master Gardener Coordinators Community to be particularly valuable for support and professional development.  They have a listserve, host a conference for Master Gardener coordinators (every even year), host monthly webinars on professional development topics, and much, much more!

Talk to your colleagues, and cultivate your support network ~ locally, regionally and nationally.  They can be great resources for information, advice and understanding.

2)  Not everyone thinks you're awful at everything!:  I also initially thought that I was doing a fantastic job of upsetting just about every volunteer that I worked with.  And then I realized that the discontent seemed to be coming from a very small portion of the volunteers that I worked with.  In fact ~ according to the feedback that I was getting from anonymous evaluations of my classes ~ most people seemed to think I added value to their education.  According to my annual reviews and peer evaluations of my efforts, I seemed to be doing a decent job.

Look for objective reviews of your work ~ to find those areas where you may improve and to celebrate those areas where you've had success.

3)  Stay mission-focused:  In Oregon, we have a mission for the Master Gardener Program, as well as for Oregon State University Extension.  Let your organizational mission(s) guide your activities, collaborations and decisions.  Not everyone will like every decision that you make. But, if you can get people to understand the importance of staying mission-focused (particularly where limited financial and human resources make it impossible to take on every good project) ~ folks may be able to understand that a decision they don't like isn't personal.  Decisions are being made using the mission as a guide.

Make sure you have a solid understanding of your organizational mission(s), and use the mission(s) as a guide when making decisions and when making long-term programmatic plans.

4)  Become familiar with 'Founder's Syndrome':  No matter the context or the organization, change is often difficult.  Professors Paula Huff and Sue Pleskac wrote a fantastic article on Founders Syndrome in Volunteer Organizations ~ what it is and how to approach the issue in a way that helps organizations move forward.  And, Dr. Huff was kind enough to give a webinar on Founders Syndrome to the Extension Master Gardener Coordinators in September 2013.  I think that this webinar should be required viewing for all new Master Gardener Coordinators!

Take time to view the webinar!  You won't be sorry.  [The content on Founder's Syndrome starts at around 5 minutes, if you want to fast forward.]

5)  Take time to listen and learn before making drastic changes:  Sometimes, drastic changes need to be made right away.  But, I was a new coordinator, coming from out of town, who had never worked in Extension before.  My personal rule for myself was to take 1 year to travel around the state (my position is a statewide position), listen and learn.  I wanted to give folks a chance to get to know me, and I wanted to get to know them and the program.  I **think** that taking this time helped folks to better trust me and my judgement.

Don't be shy.  Get involved.  Get to know people.  Develop an understanding of what is going on (and how long it has been going on), to see where you can celebrate established successes as well as where you can provide value.  

6)  Understand roles, policies, expectations:  The Extension Master Gardener Program is probably a program of your local Land-Grant Institution.  In Oregon, I am tasked with making sure that the Extension Master Gardener Program follows applicable policies and procedures of Oregon State University.  I also serve as, and work with, content experts in a variety of fields to ensure that our educational resources are up-to-date and research-based.  If a problem occurs in the Master Gardener Program, it ultimately falls at the feet of Oregon State University.  With ultimate responsibility for the program also comes ultimate authority.  This has sometimes created problems with the 501(c)3 that was founded to support the work of the Extension Master Gardener Program in Oregon.  There is sometimes confusion over roles and responsibilities.  I've tried to clarify this by writing out roles and responsibilities for the Extension Master Gardener program in Oregon (page 21 in this publication).  Nonetheless ~ issues still arise.

Help people to see that working with Extension has many benefits (e.g. access to high quality educational opportunities, and to local and statewide experts in the field) ~ but also comes with many responsibilities (e.g. insurance, legal, procedural) that must be followed. Once again ~ it's not personal.  

7)  Remember that You're AWESOME!:  This can be hard to remember, when it seems like you have someone telling you that you're not at all awesome.  But, you were likely hired after a rigorous and competitive search that involved University personnel, Master Gardeners and other stakeholders.  You were hired because you have a valuable and important set of well-developed skills that will serve the program well.  Be thoughtful about how you can leverage your skills to improve the program and to do the most good.  For myself ~ I eventually realized my training as a scientist could benefit the program.  I thus work hard to read the primary literature on a regular basis, and to update my talks to reflect the latest science.  I also realized that I needed to improve my leadership skills, and have worked hard to do so at every opportunity.

Don't let yourself get down.  Remember that YOU were hired for a reason.  YOU have important skills and can and will make important contributions to the program.

8)  Have a life outside of work:  Working in Extension can be all-consuming.  We often work outside of regular business hours.  We often take work home or work on the weekends.  Take the time to develop friendships, hobbies and fun outside of work.  This can be hard to do ~ but it is so incredibly important.  Because I love my job so much, I had a really bad habit of doing it all the time.  But my sister would always remind me that 'those folks at work won't be pushing you in your wheelchair when you get older.'  Over time, I've learned to draw a line in the sand.  I will not let my job negatively impact my marriage.  I will not let my job negatively impact my health.  And if I feel like my job is encroaching on one or both of those things, I take the time to re-orient my priorities.

Take time for you.  Do things you love.  Find friends, confidantes and hobbies outside of work.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

10 Cool Gardening Studies Published in 2014

In 2002, my graduate students and I started studying the biodiversity and ecology of gardens in New York City and its suburbs.  Our efforts drew more than a few raised eyebrows.  Some still held onto the dogma that biodiversity studies should be done in pristine habitats in tropical latitudes.  What was the point of studying biodiversity in a temperate, densely populated, highly modified city?

Luckily, in a few short years, the tides have changed.  Many more scientists have begun to embrace gardens as relevant and appropriate sites to do real science.  And as a result, we're learning more than ever before about how to garden in a way that improves environmental health, community health and human health.

So as we close out the year, below is my list of 10 cool garden-related research studies of 2014.  Like most lists of 10, my list is subjective and biased by my personal and professional interests (as well as by what I could find in the one afternoon I dedicated to writing this blog post).  But, I hope that they nonetheless help us better understand how to improve our gardens and other green spaces to promote healthier people and a healthier planet.

1)  Paker et al. 2014. The effect of plant richness and urban garden structure on bird species richness, diversity and community structure.  Landscape and Urban Planning 122: 186-195.
  • Key findings:  Bird species richness was highest when the diversity of trees and shrubs was high, and the amount of garden space taken up by trees and lawn was low.  Native birds preferred native trees.  Fewer birds were present in yards with dogs.  [Species richness is the number of species.  So, a species richness of 34 = 34 species.]
  • Apply it to your garden:  Plan for or work towards a garden that has dense shrubbery, native trees and at least some areas that are not accessible to household pets.  
2)  Lowenstein et al. 2014.  Humans, bees and pollination services in the city: the case of Chicago, IL (USA). Biodiversity and Conservation 23: 2857-2874.  --->  Seriously . . . this study was one of the most exciting I've come across in years! 
  • Key findings:  Bee species richness and pollination services conferred by bees were highest in neighborhoods where human population density was highest.  The mechanism for the association between more people --> more bees --> more pollination was gardens!  Where you have more people, you have more gardens.  Where you have more gardens, you have more flowering plants.  Where you have more flowering plants, you have more bees.
  • Apply it to your garden:  Want to do something good for bees in your garden?  Guess what?  You are ALREADY doing something good for bees, simply by tending a garden that offers flowering plants to pollinators.  Of course, if you couple that with eliminating or reducing pesticides . . . even better!

3)  Garbuzov and Ratnieks 2014. Listmania: the strengths and weakness of lists of garden plants to help pollinators.  BioScience 64: 1019-1026.
  • Key findings:  Many of the 'garden plants for pollinators' lists you come across are based upon the author's personal preferences, rather than on rigorous research.  Some lists had poor plant recommendations, or omitted plants that are known to be great pollinators.
  • Apply it to your garden:  Use a plant list as a starting point, rather than a fixed blueprint for your garden. 
4)  Mini et al. 2014.  Estimation of residential outdoor water use in Los Angeles, California.  Landscape and Urban Planning 127: 124-135.
  • Key findings:  The majority of household water use went to irrigating lawns and gardens.  Households in wealthier neighborhoods consumed 3X more water than households in less affluent neighborhoods.  This relationship is driven by the larger lot sizes and increased garden vegetation of homes in more affluent neighborhoods.  Over a decade, water use declined in LA County by 3.4% (because of rebates and conservation programs), even though the population increased by 9%.  Mandatory water use restrictions (no watering from 9am-4pm; no car washing with hoses; watering limited to 2X per week; no watering during the rain) reduced water use by 35%.  Voluntary water use restrictions reduced water use by 6%. 
  • Apply it to your garden:  Water is an increasingly precious resource.  Even though Oregonian's have not experienced the same drought-related restrictions as our neighbors to the south, it is important to be aware of fact that gardens can be designed and maintained to use less water than we currently use.  Turning even one small part of your garden into a water wise garden has several big benefits.  You conserve water.  You reduce irrigation-induced run-off into Oregon's waterways.  You generally have to spend less time on maintaining a water wise garden.  Triple win!
Photos below by Linda McMahan:  Waterwise plants, Rockrose (left) and Gaillaridia and Hebe (right) use less water than many other garden plants, and still look great in the garden. 

5)  CoDyre et al. 2014.  How does your garden grow? an empirical evaluation of costs and potential of urban gardening.  Urban Forestry and Urban Greening (online first)

  • Key findings:  On average, 50 gardens in Guelph, ON produced 1.43 kg (~ 3 pounds, 2 ounces) of fruits and vegetables.  There was a high amount of variation between gardens, with the least productive garden yielding fruits and vegetables at a rate of $0.34 per square foot and the most productive garden yielding fruits and vegetables at a rate of $2.20 per square foot.  These values are in line with what I found via a review of the literature, also published in 2014.  The least productive garden generated $0.17 per square foot, while the most productive garden generated $2.20 per square foot.
  • Apply it to your garden:  Sometimes, gardeners will joke about the most expensive tomato you'll ever eat . . . because of the time, energy and resources it takes to grow tomatoes (particularly on the Oregon Coast or in the high desert).  But, overall, gardening is a good economic investment.  On average, you'll be able to grow fruits and vegetables at a lower cost compared to what you would pay in the grocery store.  In my study, I noted that some crops were found to be more 'profitable' than others.  These include leafy greens, peas, strawberries, squash and eggplant.  Herbs are another crop that you can grow (often with very little maintenance) and access at a much cheaper cost, compared to what you would pay for fresh herbs in the grocery store.
Photos (both by me!):  Square foot gardening (left) is a popular way to maximize your vegetable harvest in a small space.  Good use of space (right), with leafy greens in a raised bed that is surrounded by strawberries.

6)  Hanks et al. 2014. The impact of school gardens on student salad selection: a pilot study. The FASEB Journal 28(1) 808.12.

Key finding:  When a school salad bar contained greens grown by students in a school garden, the percent of students taking greens from the salad bar increased from 2% (8 students) to 10% (37 students).  Although the majority of students still did not take greens from the salad bar ~ this pilot study showed that the simple act of growing their own food (+ promoting that the food came from the school garden) resulted in a more than 400% increase in the number of students who selected salad greens!  This study aligns with one I publish in 2012, where we showed that garden-based nutrition education programs increased vegetable consumption in kids, whereas nutrition education programs without a gardening component increased nutrition knowledge, but not vegetable consumption.
Apply it to your garden:  If you have kids or grandkids, bring them out into the garden with you.  Help them grow their own food.  Introduce them to new fruits and vegetables through gardening.  Let them take ownership of the food that they grow, and allow them to choose how their crops will be used (as a fresh snack, as part of a recipe, as a salad,  as a side).  

Photo (by my hubby):  My stepson, 15 in this photo, helping me harvest potatoes in our garden.  When I first met my step kids, my husband was using a Jessica Seinfeld approach to getting them to eat fruits and vegetables (e.g. 'hide' vegetables in recipes).  But, we've worked hard over the years to get the kids to help us in the garden and kitchen, and that work has paid off.  My stepdaughter now willingly takes up fresh broccoli and kale.  My stepson loves the winter squashes. 

7)  Locke and Grove 2014.  Doing the hard work where it's easiest: examining the relationship between urban greening programs and social and ecological characteristics. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy online first).

  • Key finding:  free, urban tree planting programs were deployed, most often, in more affluent neighborhoods where tree canopy cover was relatively high compared to other parts of the city.  The authors suggest that this pattern occurs because it is easier to get affluent households to participate in free tree-planting programs, compared to less affluent households.
  • How I will apply it to my work:  for many years, the Master Gardener program in Oregon has been largely white, older and female.  We have tried, but have had limited success making our programs accessible to a broader diversity of would be Master Gardener volunteers. Like urban tree planting programs, we have a programs that can benefit many people ~ but not all take advantage of our programs.  There are probably many reasons for our lack of success in reaching out to a broader cross-section of Oregonians, but this article reminded me that it's important to truly consider how the way we do things might selectively include or exclude people.
8)  Hanley et al. 2014.  Going native?  flower use by bumblebees in English urban gardens.  Annals of Botany 113: 799-806.
  • Key finding:  bumblebee visitations to native plants did not from visits to non-native plants.  Of the top 6 flowers visited, only 1 was a native plant.  Of five bumblebee species studied, two concentrated on native plants, two concentrated on non-native plants, and the last visited natives and non-natives somewhat equally.  This suggests that the bumblebee species have divided up resource use in the garden (niche partitioning).  Native 'weeds' were important nectar and pollen sources for British bumblebees.
  • How to apply it to your garden:  most bee species are floral generalists.  This means that they are able to visit and collect pollen and nectar from many flowering plants, including non-native plants.  So, if you want to attract more bees into your garden, one of the best things you can do is to plant a lot of flowers.  You don't need to plant only native flowers.  And, if there is any way you can be more tolerant of flowering, non-invasive weeds in the garden, you can gain peace of mind by knowing that you're probably helping out the bees.  Please note, however, that whereas most bees can forage from both native and non-native flowering plants, most butterflies and moths heavily rely on native herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. 
9)  Pardee and Philpott 2014.  Native plants are the bee's knees:  local and landscape predictors of bee richness and abundance in backyard gardens. Urban Ecosystems 17: 641-659.
  • Key finding:  Okay.  I just told you that the study, above, found that native plants did not result in differences in bee richness in British gardens.  That's largely congruent with what this study found, as well.  Bee species richness did not differ between gardens with and without an abundance of native plants, for all groups except for cavity nesting bees.  Bee species richness was positively associated with floral abundance, shrubby cover, less lawn, and larger vegetable gardens.  But, what this study did find was that bee ABUNDANCE was higher in gardens with more native plants.  So, you may not get a more diverse bee community in gardens dominated by native plants, but you are likely to get a more abundant bee community in such gardens.
  • How to apply to your garden:  Gardens with an abundance of flowering plants are great for bees.  Don't forget, too, to provide habitat for ground-nesting bees (bare ground!  don't mulch everything!) or cavity nesting bees (debris piles of twigs are great for these bees, but balance this with whether or not you are unwittingly providing habitat for rodents).
10)  Goto et al. 2014.  Differential responses of individuals to late-stage dementia to two novel environments: a multimedia room and an interior garden.  Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 42: 985-998.
  • Key finding:  Alzheimer's patients showed positive behavioral changes and exhibited a decreased pulse rate (suggesting a state of calm) when they sat in an indoor, Japanese garden for 15 minutes.  Patients' behavioral and physiological responses were largely negative when they sat in a Snoezelen multi-sensory environment room for 15 minutes.  When patients were brought back into the room that was originally set up as a Japanese garden, after the garden had been replaced with office furniture, they exhibited negative behavioral and physiological responses.
  • How to apply it in your garden:  Gardens are calming.  Many studies show this to be the case at a physiological level.  Take time to enjoy yours.  Consider the garden designs that are most pleasing to your senses.  Take someone you love to visit a garden.  Enjoy the view, and enjoy each other's company.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Reply to Jeff Gillman's 'Some Thoughts on Extension'

Recently, Jeff Gillman penned a blog post entitled 'Some Thoughts on Extension', where he worked his way through three points.  These were:

  1. Extension is important.
  2. Extension is dying.
  3. Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.
I have immense respect for Dr. Gillman.  He's a respected scholar, teacher, author and blogger.  He is, in many ways, the type of professional I aspire to be.  That being said, I do disagree with some parts of his post ~ something that he welcomed and invited in the original post.

To provide a context for my perspective, I wanted to briefly go over my professional experience and background.  I came to Extension as an outsider.  I accepted the position as the Statewide Coordinator of the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener Program in 2007, without truly understanding what Extension was or what the Master Gardener Program was about.  From 2002-2007, I was an Assistant Professor of Biology at Fordham University in New York City, where I studied the ecology of insects in urban and suburban gardens. 

To this day, it amazes me that I was able to land the position at OSU.  I was not a gardener.  I thought that the term 'Master Gardener' was a term used to describe a journeyman union worker ~ like 'Master Electrician' or 'Master Plumber'.  I didn't know what I was walking into.

Perhaps that is why, as a relative outsider with only 8 years of experience in Extension, I view Extension as vital, thriving and innovative.  A cynic by nature, I don't believe that my view is tainted by rose colored glasses.

That being said, I wanted to take on points #2 and #3 from Jeff's post, and provide an alternative view.

Jeff's Point #2:  Extension is dying.  
  • Extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends.  You won't easily find us with internet searches.  Top 'hits' are reserved for retail big box stores and magazines.
  • Extension faculty aren't given credit for gathering and distributing research-based information.  Credit is primarily given for research papers and grant dollars.
My reply:  My position is in urban and community horticulture.  I am under constant pressure to reach as many people as possible and to utilize innovative methods to deliver educational content.   I work hard to make sure that our work in urban and community horticulture, and that our work via the Master Gardener Program, is accessible and apparent online.  I manage 4 websites and 2 social media accounts for the Program.

I don't have a marketing budget.  I don't have experience in marketing.  Heck ~ I don't even have help.  At the Statewide level, I'm a one-woman show.  And, I'm losing the marketing and media game.  The Facebook page I maintain for OSU Extension's Master Gardener Program has 2,932 'likes'.  The Facebook page for Scott's Lawn Care has 319,567 'likes'.

But, what I lack in quantity of interactions, I try my best to make up for with high quality educational exchanges.

On an annual basis, I teach about 30 classes to about 1,000 people.  Small numbers, in the large scheme of things.  But the outcomes of those classes are anything but trivial.  Those who take Master Gardener classes report that they have taken steps to attract beneficial insects into their garden (64%), are more tolerant of spiders in the garden (58%), planted a pest-resistant cultivar (71%), decreased or eliminated pesticide use (68%), disposed of a pesticide at a community hazardous waste removal event (54%), and are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) as a direct result of what they have learned in our classes.  Take that, search engine optimization winners!

Extension changes attitudes and behavior, while stores and companies make sales.  In this way, I don't think that I am competing with commercial retail operations for customers.  So I'm not the most popular kid on the internet (thank goodness!).  The internet will not kill Extension (despite repeated warnings to the contrary), in the same way that the internet has not killed the public library.

That being said, I do want to note that we have worked to reinvent ourselves.  In Oregon, we offer an online Master Gardener training option, as well as many other gardening courses, online.  We work directly with local and regional news outlets to reach the masses with research-based gardening tips. OSU Extension faculty experts have monthly gardening spots on local morning shows.  We blog.  We tweet.  We try to cover as much ground as possible, with the limited resources that we have.  And, I'm pretty proud say that we directly reach over 200,000 people each year, and conservatively estimate that we reach another 550,000 through our online and media outreach efforts.  Small potatoes ~ I'm sure ~ compared to some commercial firms . . . . but our numbers are focused on making a difference, rather than a sale.

Jeff's Point #3:  Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.

Here, Jeff makes an argument that I hear all too often ~ administrators need to give credit, make promotions, and grant raises based upon the comprehensive portfolio of work done by Extension professionals.  Incentives need to place less weight on research and more weight on outreach.

At Oregon State, I feel that the work I do in the field (public outreach and education) is recognized and valued.  But, there is also the expectation that I will do more than teach the same three general topics, year after year.  I'm expected to innovate, grow and learn ~ and to pass on the information that I acquire to the general public.