Taking advantage of extension programs like the Master Gardeners of New Orleans
Dr. Joe Willis and Chris Dunaway
jeffrey johnston photograph
Green Acres,” a sitcom from the late ‘60s, featured a New York City attorney and his dazzling wife who move from their posh neighborhood to the rural community of Hooterville. One of show’s supporting characters is Henry Wadsworth “Hank” Kimball, a bumbling county extension agent. In one episode, some city kids ask Hank how seeds know what to grow into. Kimball replies, “They just look at the pictures on the seed packs.” Kimball is decidedly not your average extension agent. The majority of county agents are prodigiously educated and are valuable resources who are often overlooked and under used.
“We offer advice on everything from how to raise your food to what you should do if a possum comes into your yard,” says Chris Dunaway, who has been an LSU AgCenter extension agent for 20 years.
So what exactly is an extension agent? The nation’s more than 200 land-grant colleges and universities are charged with getting what they’ve learned from their research out into the community. One of the ways they do this is through extension agents, who offer non-formal, non-credit and often free programs to the state’s residents.
Besides applying research and providing education in agriculture, extension also offers information on such things as breaking the cycle of poverty, encouraging healthful lifestyles, and preparing youth for responsible adulthood through programs like 4-H. They also provide rapid response to disasters and emergencies and are an especially bountiful resource during hurricane season.
In New Orleans, one of the most active extension programs is the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans.
Its volunteers are highly trained and provide proven, research-based educational programs to residents in Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
“Master Gardeners is a diverse community of men and women — accountants, teachers, entrepreneurs, librarians, nurses, physicians, lawyers, dog-walkers — of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds and all are grounded by an interest in the environment and ‘the good earth’,” says Beverly Gianna, who’s been active in the program for many years.
Since its inception in 1994, more than 3,500 individuals have participated in Louisiana’s Master Gardeners program. The gardeners receive an intensive, 18-class training. Then they become involved in a wide variety of volunteer programs from refurbishing the Butterfly Circle Garden in Audubon Zoo to manning display tables and sharing knowledge at the Gretna Farmers’ Market.
Susan Goss has been a Master Gardener for more than 15 years, first in Chicago and now in New Orleans.
“Plants I would coddle and measure progress with a ruler year after year in Chicago, I nearly have to beat with a stick here in Louisiana to keep from overtaking the windows.”
Goss likes the camaraderie of MGGNO and enjoys getting to know and share with other avid southeast Louisiana gardeners.
She believes it builds community and friendship.
“The difference in neighborhoods seems to disappear when we realize we share the same climate, challenges and triumphs,” she says.
Throughout the years, extension has seen its share of budget cuts. Once there were offices filled with agents, all eager to help, but it’s getting harder to get all their research out into the community.
“That’s where the Master Gardeners help us out so much,” says New Orleans agent Joe Willis. “They fill that gap. They help with the community and school gardens. They also give lectures at garden clubs on a wide variety of subjects.”
Applications to become a MGGNO volunteer are due once a year usually in March. Both Dunaway and Willis say that if you are interested in learning the newest and best gardening techniques, contact them and you will be notified when the next MGGNO training series begins.
They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The office phone number is 658-2900.
For great gardening tips, check out the MGGNO’s website at mggno.com. It’s full of valuable information and best practice resources.
Learn about the Louisiana Super Plant program. Each spring and fall LSU AgCenter horticulturists unveil a list of Louisiana Super Plants. They are evaluated and selected for their superior performance under Louisiana growing conditions. You’ll find more information about them on the LSU AgCenter’s website: lsuagcenter.com
MGGNO Speakers Bureau is a free community outreach. Master Gardeners speak to groups about gardening. Visit mggno.com/speakers to request a speaker for your garden club, school, church or neighborhood and civic organization.