Dozens of bright yellow Goldfinches flew alongside as I made my way up the winding driveway past their meadows and into the heart of the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield. The high, wiry whistle of the birds sounded the alarm at my arrival. I parked behind the barn, and climbed the hill to the Foodshare Garden, a project of the UConn Extension Master Gardener program.
The UConn Extension Master Gardener Program has provided horticulture training and a community outreach component for the last 40 years. Master Gardeners are enthusiastic and willing to learn. They share their knowledge and training with others through community outreach projects.
The 120-acre 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is a private, non-profit education center. It was deeded to the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund by the family of Beatrice Fox Auerbach in 1976. Over 15,000 students and family members participate annually in year-round 4-H curriculum-based school science programs, animal clubs, and Junior Master Gardening projects.
One of the Master Gardener volunteers is Marlene Mayes of West Hartford. She grew up on Tariffville Road in Bloomfield. The 1774 house was the only one left standing after King Philip’s War and later, was part of the Underground Railroad. The oldest of six children, Marlene spent her youth playing in the woods and building hay forts with her sister in the neighbor’s barn. Life often has a way of coming full circle, Marlene is back gardening in the same area of Bloomfield as the lead volunteer in the Foodshare Garden.
Marlene retired in 2001 from the Torrington Public School System, but wasn’t ready for full retirement, and became the School Administrator at Grace Webb School in Hartford. She also wanted to take the Master Gardener course, and the director at Grace Webb allowed her to use her vacation time for the Wednesday class each week from January through April of 2004.
“I was lucky to merge the ending of one phase with the beginning of another, and hook into something I was so interested in,” she says. The 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm was one of the group outreach assignments for Master Gardener interns.
“When we went up to the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in the beginning it was just a field, an overwhelming field. We started by weed whacking rows between the grass,” Marlene recalls. “There was no coordination, it was very frustrating. I decided to take over, and got my husband Ed involved and a couple of other guys. They weed whacked, mowed and rototilled for us.”
“Our goal is to raise sustainable, low-maintenance plants that people can replicate at home,” Marlene says. “We planted currants, elderberries and asparagus. The whole garden is about teaching and getting people to grow things in their own backyard.”
In 2006 Marlene and her group of volunteers at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm asked the Hartford County Extension Council for money to build raised beds, and began installing them. There are 50 raised beds in the garden now. The following year, she found herself serving on the Extension Council too.
“Sarah Bailey became the Master Gardener Coordinator for Hartford County the year after I began volunteering. She’s been supportive from day one, and we’ve also become very good friends. Sarah is a big part of creating that community around the program. She talks with us about problems and helps us find creative solutions. She has wonderful leadership skills. We also developed the Junior Master Gardener Program and conducted a teacher training for some school gardens, and developed curriculum for them to use.”
The volunteer community in the Foodshare garden at 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm has a lot of fluidity; people come and stay for as long as they can. Marlene tries to plant something interesting every year to engage the volunteers. Many of the volunteers are consistent and have been with the program for six or eight years; for example, one gentleman is totally focused on the maintenance and has been coming for years to help with it. Over the course of a summer there will be 600 volunteers total working in the garden. High school students volunteer in May and June fulfilling the hours required by their school. These students often keep volunteering after their hours are done.
“There is a sense of community and excitement to whatever it is we’re doing at the garden; every day is a new day,” Marlene says. “We had a woman come with her son this summer, and she stayed while her son was volunteering. They were planting a new succession of beans, and she said, ‘This is fun!’ – it’s really neat to get that reaction from adults. You’re up there almost next to the sky when you’re working in this garden.”
The volunteer schedule hasn’t changed since Marlene took over in 2004. Volunteer days are Thursday and Saturday from 9-12, unless it’s raining. In the hot weather the volunteers take more breaks and use the benches. The benches also enhance the meditative function of the garden.
Thursday is harvest day and Saturdays are for maintenance. Marlene’s husband, Ed, loads up the car on Thursday and takes the produce to Foodshare. “Ed has been a consistent back-up for me all of these years, I couldn’t have done it without him,” Marlene says. “Our son Tim has also helped with maintenance.”
“We’ve met people from all over the world in the garden,” Marlene continues. “It’s absolutely amazing. African exchange students in the agricultural business program at UConn come up every summer. We learn a lot by comparing notes. We also had a fellow Master Gardener from an Israeli kibbutz who was very interesting to talk with.”
In 2017, the garden produced 4,423 pounds total that was donated to Foodshare. This year, the volunteers are measuring donations by the number of meals, although Marlene notes that the total may be lower because of weather related challenges.
The Foodshare garden is ¼ acre. Two years ago Marlene fundraised for a fence for the garden because the deer were eating everything. Now the challenge is the
woodchucks and the rabbits.
The Medicinal Garden, Greenhouse and Herb Garden were all funded by UConn Extension. Marlene designed the circular herb garden. Funding for projects that the Master Gardeners complete at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is from UConn Extension, the Connecticut Master Gardener Association, or fundraised from private donors. Even the seeds used to grow the garden are obtained through donations.
Projects are implemented in phases. The greenhouse was built with funds from a grant by an anonymous donor to the UConn Foundation who greatly appreciated what the Master Gardeners are doing through their community outreach. The first-year volunteers had to haul water up the hill in buckets from the kitchen. This year, irrigation was installed for the greenhouse, solving the water problem.
“You keep learning as you go – mechanics, botany, pest management and whatever else is needed. We all work together as a team,” Marlene says. “It’s not a one-person thing. We’re all passionate about gardening, creativity, and work together to make it happen.”
“It never stops at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm; something is going on all of the time. If you tie into any part, it’s fascinating. Everything is research-based, the greenhouse is always a research project. We also have to factor in daylight hours, watering schedules, and how many growing seasons we can fit in each year. There is enthusiasm for wherever the problem we have to solve is.”
The next challenge for this intrepid group of volunteers is figuring out how to run the greenhouse in the colder winter months. The cost of propane has been a challenge; however, the group wants to donate consistently to Foodshare throughout the year. They are discussing raising house plants or some sort of tropical that can be sold as a fundraiser, and used as a teaching tool for the students that visit the farm each year. Tomatoes and peppers will be transplanted from the garden into the greenhouse this fall, and microgreens will also be raised for Foodshare.
Marlene also wants to continue expanding the medicinal garden and the educational component around it. Native American medicinals fascinate her as she discusses how it’s never a single herb, and always a combination of herbs.
“Our volunteer work at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is never boring, and I’m not tired of it yet,” Marlene concludes. “The Master Gardener program creates a sense of community and camaraderie. There is no judgement, everyone works together and has a sense of responsibility – it’s very binding in a nice way.”
Applications are currently available for the 2019 UConn Extension Master Gardener program. Classes will be offered in Stamford on Mondays, Haddam on Tuesdays, Farmington on Wednesdays (an evening class), Bethel on Thursdays, and Brooklyn on Fridays. Applications are due by Tuesday, October 9th. More information can be found at mastergardener.uconn.edu.
To learn more about volunteering in the Foodshare Garden at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm for the 2019 growing season email Sarah.Bailey@uconn.edu or call 860-409-9053. To make a donation please visit http://s.uconn.edu/givemg.
Article by Stacey Stearns
If you enjoy working with children, have a willingness to share your time and talents with young people in the community, like to have fun, learn new skills and make a difference, then being a 4-H volunteer is for you.
4-H volunteers play a significant role in helping youth reach their potential. As a volunteer, you will help youth learn leadership, citizenship and life skills through projects and activities. If you have a hobby or interest you can share with young people such as photography, animals, plants, fishing, drama, community service, computers and technology, woodworking, fashion design, arts and crafts, rocketry or something else, consider becoming a 4-H volunteer.
Volunteer Training and Recognition Training is conducted at local, state and regional levels. New 4-H volunteers receive a general orientation. Meetings are held throughout the state several times each year to help new leaders. The statewide Connecticut 4-H Volunteer Conference is held every other year, and leaders can also participate in the regional 4-H volunteer forum.
Just as we recognize the efforts of youth, the UConn 4-H Program recognizes and acknowledges its volunteers for their efforts at the local, state and national level. Additional information can be found online at http://s.uconn.edu/46w.
Volunteers are a critical component of the 4-H Mentoring program. Dr. Robert Beaudoin is one such volunteer. He started volunteering with the Connecticut 4-H Mentoring Project conducted at the Waterbury Youth Services, Inc. in 2011. He is the CEO of Beaudoin Karate Academy in Waterbury and has provided the support of his school and trainers at no cost to the participants of the programs conducted at the Waterbury Youth Services, Inc.
Under Dr. Beaudoin’s guidance, the program has grown into a major part of the 4-H Mentoring project, with about 45 youth participating in workshops that meet twice a week throughout the year. Four of his staff volunteer their time as trainers and mentors for the 4-H members, enabling youth to participate in local and regional contests, earn their belts, and demonstrate their skills at agency functions as well as the 4-H Fair.
We have 1,587 active Master Gardener volunteers in Connecticut. In 2015, they donated 34,555 hours of community service to towns and cities throughout the state, with an economic value of $797,183. Master Gardener offices are in each of the county offices, on the Storrs campus, and the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford.
Tracy Burrell of Mystic is a Master Gardener volunteer, and president of the Connecticut Master Gardener Association (CMGA), the Master Gardener alumni group. CMGA is a non-profit, all volunteer group that provides scholarships to interns, stipends to the UConn Extension Master Gardener Coordinators, and outreach grants for Master Gardener volunteer projects across the state. In 2014, Tracy also served on the UConn Extension Centennial Committee.
“I became a Master Gardener in 2008,” Tracy begins. “It was something that I was always interested in, and that year, I was finally able to do it. It is a gateway to a whole new world, and becomes all encompassing. You want to learn more and more. As your interests and skills change and develop, there is always someone that you can talk to in the program.”
Tracy continued taking classes and volunteering, and is a Ruby volunteer, the top level in the program. She is also a Master Composter, and an instructor in that program. Through her position as president of CMGA, Tracy works with all of the UConn Extension Master Gardener locations. “Meeting the people is my favorite part about being a Master Gardener,” Tracy says. “I travel regularly to all of the Extension Offices and to the Bartlett Arboretum– the energy and enthusiasm of Master Gardeners is wonderful!”
Reflecting on her own learning experiences through the MG program, Tracy cites learning about rain gardens as a prime example of learning to embrace the landscape, instead of trying to fight it, and being frustrated and disappointed.
“I grew up in a volunteer family; it is natural for me to volunteer,” Tracy concludes. “I think it is a natural part of the American character, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America and more recently by President Obama encouraging folks to volunteer. Master Gardeners provide a unique bridge between the knowledge we learn via the university and the knowledge we gain from interacting with Connecticut’s citizens.”
Teacher and 4-H Volunteer Brings Gardening, Nutrition and Fitness to Students in the Classroom and Beyond
By Kim Markesich
Originally published by Naturally@UConn on January 26, 2016
Twenty-eight years as an elementary school teacher has not dampened the enthusiasm of 4-H volunteer Marcia Johnson. She’s upbeat, energetic and clearly excited about teaching. Five years ago, Johnson created a school gardening program for her students at John Barry Elementary School in Meriden. When Johnson took a position at Meriden’s Nathan Hale School, she created the 4-H Environmental Education and Garden Club. She says, “I love the 4-H curriculum, and the kids really enjoy it.” In 2013, Johnson brought the Junior Master Gardener curriculum to her program, and a year later, she decided to complete the 4-H volunteer training so she might bring 4-H to students in her after-school and summer clubs. This year, thirty students joined the club from grades three, four and five. High school students volunteer to assist with the program.
“I am by no means a gardening expert,” says Johnson. “I am learning along with the kids. For two years before we planted our first seed, I collected information on gardening curriculum at every grade level. I’m always searching online for gardening ideas. I would love to take the Master Gardener Program at UConn.” The students planted eight raised beds filled with strawberries, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash, basil and green beans, in addition to a few annual flowers chosen to attract pollinators. Johnson added a hydroponic tower to house a lettuce crop. She uses the harvested produce to teach the children healthy cooking and food preparation. Students are able to take produce home as well.
Umekia Taylor, associate extension educator with UConn Extension, was so impressed with Johnson’s program, she awarded the school a 4-H CT FANsIM mini grant that provided raised bed kits, curriculum materials and tools, as well as programming assistance. Over the summer, two 4-H CT FANsIM staff spent two days a week with Johnson’s students, providing fun activities that focused on gardening, nutrition and fitness. Cheyanne Stone, a former teen mentor and student at Green Mountain College in Vermont, worked as a 4-H leader and CT Fans IM public service specialist. Shawn Mogensen is a 4-H CT FANsIM graduate assistant from the College’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “I can’t get over how fascinated the kids are to see things grow from a seed,” Johnson says. “We live in such a technological society where kids go to a restaurant and food suddenly appears. We rarely take the time anymore to teach children about nature.”
Johnson is continually looking for new club activities to provide experiential learning for her students. She brought in chicken eggs to incubate in the classroom. After the eggs hatched, Johnson taught the students about caring for the chickens, and it was decided that the thirteen chickens would be given to local farmers with the knowledge and resources to raise them.
Kathy Olsen, a retired teacher from Meriden, now known as the Bee Lady, visited the students and spoke about bees and set up a honey tasting. Students were given bread sticks to dip in various types of honey. Johnson likes to involve parents in the club as well and brought Olsen in for a parent seminar.
In addition to Olsen, Connecticut registered beekeeper Robert Gavel, of Meriden, visited the club with an observation hive. “He teaches them everything from A to Z about keeping bees and the importance of bees,” she says.
Johnson never tires of working with her students. “It’s the best part of my day. The kids just love it and they never want to go home.”
She is also the recipient of the American Farm Bureau’s White Reinhardt Award and received a grant from the Connecticut Agricultural Education Foundation.