Big Texas winners

JOE JANAK - Victoria County Extension Agent/Master Gardener Coordinator
Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Editor's note: Victoria County Extension Agent Joe Janak, who writes his own column every other Sunday, is a guest columnist this week for the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, for which he serves as Extension coordinator.

Not in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined what starting the Master Gardener program in 1997 in Victoria County would mean for the county and its residents. I knew it would be good, but sit back and take a look what they have accomplished. I have worked with a lot of folks and committees in my 29 years of Extension in three counties, and the commitment and tenacity of this group is outstanding - almost unbelievable.

'The Gardeners' Dirt' Let's start with this past year's results and this column. What great pleasure it is to tell you that this spring, this weekly column, "The Gardeners' Dirt," was entered in statewide Texas Master Gardener Association competition and received first place in Texas. It competed with entries of like-size organizations in 115 programs all over the state and was critiqued and selected by six out-of-state judges to place first.  Now beginning its fourth year of weekly publication, this column has provided to you 155 original articles written by 67 master gardener volunteer authors. With its original editor-in-chief at the helm for every week of publication, along with several copy editors, a four-member scheduling committee and three photographers, more than 800 hours of recorded volunteer time were spent writing for this column in 2005 alone. All involved in this project know that it would not be possible without the collaboration of the Victoria Advocate in its weekly publication. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Educational garden tours Equally significant is the first-place state ranking of the educational tours conducted by these master gardeners at Victoria Education Gardens (VEG) this past year.

In 2005, nearly 700 area students and teachers, plus about 20 gardening and study clubs numbering in the hundreds of members visited the garden. The young and young-at-heart were given instructional tours on potting plants, vegetables grown and used in daily nutrition, native plants, xeriscape principles, butterfly gardening and birding and sensory gardens, just to name a few.

While that was outstanding, this year is barely started and these volunteer master gardeners already have surpassed the VEG tour numbers of the state-winning award of last year. What's more, while VEG appears complete and is very beautiful, practical and educational, it is barely into stage II of five stages for this quarter-million-dollar gardening project. Started in 2001, it now consists of children's and vegetable gardens including a water fountain, storage facility, composting facility, a full-fledged greenhouse, mini gardens and a plan to more than double its size in future demonstration gardens.

Garden tour brochure These master gardeners are really "masters" in whatever they do! Another award that they came home with was third place in the state in the publications division.

Promoting and publicizing an event is the key to attracting people to participate in it. Their efforts have paid big dividends for the public as well as for Trinity Episcopal School and the master gardeners who joined together two years ago to co-sponsor the Annual Garden Tour.

In the 2005 jointly sponsored tour, some 22,000 sheets of various educational printed materials totaling 47 pages were designed, reproduced and then assembled by master gardeners for up to nearly 700 patrons attending the tour. These documents consisted of the tour brochure with garden descriptions, directions, a highlighted plant information guide, and workshop and plant sale information. More than 640 volunteer hours were documented on this alone, not to mention thousands more that went into coordinating and promoting the Annual Garden Tour by both organizations.

What's impressive are the numerous events, activities and projects the master gardeners are involved in and the outreach they have. The Annual Garden Tour, VEG demonstration gardens, gardening symposiums, plant sales, Web sites maintained, landscaping of county facilities, the greenhouse project and much more all require volunteer management which has blossomed from the annual training classes that Extension conducts for them.

Of the 193 members that have completed the 16-week master gardener training each August through December for the past nine years, 126 have remained with the program continuing to volunteer. That is a 63-percent retention rate - one of the highest, if not the highest, in the state.

Each year these master gardeners volunteer more than 9,000 hours conducting educational efforts while sharing horticultural information with a total value to the county since 1997 in recorded volunteer time alone exceeding $670,000. Not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars they have garnered in establishing demonstration gardens for the public.

The members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association are indeed master volunteers - and they are truly the best in Texas. Obviously by these state awards, there are others who agree with me about their projects. Their list of accomplishments and awards are numerous. But most of all they have an enjoyable and rewarding experience helping other people.

You, too, have an opportunity to be a part of this group by applying for the next class of trainees starting in August. Stay tuned for more information on the new class in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, join me in congratulating the Victoria County Master Gardeners for their outstanding achievements. Hats off to you, MGs!