Blooming Masterworks

Ventura County’s greenest thumbs—volunteers, one and all—keep the community colorful. Writer SUSAN BROWN takes a walk in the garden. Principal photography by Kristine Ellison

Faulkner Farm in Santa Paula is the main venue for the UC Hansen Trust’s agricultural and educational activities. The handsome red barn in the background was built in 1886.


f you have a question about gardening, the Master Gardeners—a group of community service volunteers who love to garden—have an answer. Sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), the Master Gardener program has experts in virtually every field related to the garden, from flowers and vegetables to soil, pests, plant diseases, and water conservation. There is just something laudable about people who volunteer their time and energy to create a more beautiful, greener world, all in the name of serving their community.

A late-summer harvest basket.

Last month, I met up with the Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Leah Haynes, at the Ventura County Fair. As we walked to the exhibit sponsored by the group, she asked me not to focus on her. “The volunteers are the ones who run the program,” she said. “There are 165 volunteers in Ventura County who put in at least 15,000 hours of community service a year.” Numbers I found astounding. Leah has been the group’s coordinator since 2006; she oversees all the volunteers and sums up the program this way: “The value of community service lies in the hearts of the dedicated volunteers.”

A garden sign invits visitors to taste the fruits of a labor of love.

I met two of these volunteers, Jeff Dodson and Dale Dean, at the fair exhibit, where they were busy answering garden-related questions. Jeff is an expert plant pathologist; he studies plant diseases—vegetable diseases, specifically. At one time he worked for a seed company, developing disease-resistant plants, and now shares his vast agricultural knowledge by hosting the fair exhibit and volunteering in the community.

Dale’s area of expertise is school gardens; he coordinates with the UCCE to plan and build gardens at local schools. He told me a story about starting a compost pile at an Oxnard elementary school: The first year was a disaster, with little interest from the students. But the following year, a group of five girls took up the project, and the year after that they used their compost to grow a beautiful vegetable garden. Dean beamed during this story; he truly loves when students take an interest in horticulture.

Volunteers Jeff Dodson (right) and Dale Dean at the Master Gardener exhibit, Ventura County Fair.

During our chat, Leah referred to Dr. Ben Faber, farm advisor for Ventura County, who explains the program with this quote: “Master Gardeners are librarians, and they know where the resources are in the area of gardening and horticulture.” To become a “librarian” each Master Gardener receives 80 hours of hands-on training before becoming certified; they then give 80 hours back to the community. (If you’re interested in joining the group, an orientation meeting will be held in early-September; call Leah at 805.320.4134 for details and reservations.)

Janet Foy presenting on floral arranging during a Grow Your Own Cut Flower workshop.

To further immerse myself in the Master Gardener culture, I attended a “Grow Your Own Cut Flower” workshop at the Hansen Agricultural Center in Santa Paula. Four workshops are offered per year, each focusing on a different aspect of home gardening. Preparation for the cut flower workshop—which included a hands-on floral arranging activity—started in February of this year when a team of five trainees planned and planted a 45-by-60-foot plot with seeds and seedlings that were then harvested the morning of the workshop. Freshly cut black-eyed Susans, dahlias, hollyhocks, and other beauties spilled out of large water-filled buckets. It was a flower lover’s dream. But the most impressive part of the workshop had to be the four Master Gardener speakers who gave the presentations. Their collective knowledge of growing and arranging cut flowers was phenomenal.

Volunteers Kim Harren (left) and Patricia Handfinger.

One of the presenters, Charleen Schuss, advised the group of about 100 who’d gathered inside an old barn which flowers to grow, where in the garden to plant them, and what kind of soil and fertilizer they preferred. The love of gardening seems to run in her family, evident from this line plucked (excuse the pun) from her bio sheet: “My mother was the type of lady who could not walk past a plant without dead-heading and sprucing up the little darling.”

Master Gardener Program Coordinator Leah Haynes at the Hansen Agricultural Center.

You’ve probably encountered a Master Gardener around town; they support school and community gardens—Camarillo Ranch House, Conejo Valley Botanical Garden, Ormond Beach Wetlands, to name a few—and assist with local agricultural research. They are available to answer your home gardening questions, free of charge, with un-biased, science-based information. Their website contains info on a wide variety of topics, and they host a Help Line (805.645.1455) on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The property continues a longstanding tradition of a fall pumpkin patch.

Near the end of the cut flower workshop, Leah asked if I’d like a group photo of the volunteers who helped that day. She rounded them up and when I ventured outside to snap their photo, I expected maybe half a dozen people—certainly not the numerous group of Master Gardeners that waited patiently next to a barn. Under the glare of the sun, I told them to smile, thankful that my camera had a wide-angle lens.


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