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Gardeners in demand

Front to back, master gardener Jan LeBard digs holes for raspberry bushes in the community garden at Cooper School with the help of fifth grader Austin Carmichael, 11, while his classmate Dale Howard, 11, scoops up water for the plants with small construction cones June 3. (Maria Lockwood)

Master gardeners are digging in to lead local sustainability efforts. They have their green thumbs planted in projects throughout Superior - some for food, some for beauty. Everywhere volunteers gather to grow, members of the Lake Superior Master Gardeners Association can be found.

"They are awesome, involved," said Susan Anderson, executive director for Superior Public Museums. "I don't think people in the community realize all they do."

Millie Rounsville, executive director of Northwest Wisconsin Community Service Agency, called them "invaluable."

This month alone, master gardeners lent a hand to plant community gardens at Cooper Elementary School, Head Start and Solid Rock Mission. Work is ongoing at three gardens outside of Fairlawn Mansion. They led public classes on home gardening this spring and are in the process of fashioning a garden for the Douglas County Historical Society. Cathy Casper, president of the association, has plans to return red tulips and geraniums to the corner of Belknap Street and Hammond Avenue outside the Harrington Arts Center.

"This group is such a phenomenal group," said master gardener Sheila Fillmore. "They are community-minded, service-minded, helpful and looking for opportunities."

Like a strawberry plant sending out runners, group members continue to find new projects to tackle.

"We just want to be involved," said master gardener Jan LeBard.

The volunteers are happy to get their hands dirty.

"They're creative, fun and have a ton of energy," Anderson said. "They always have smiles on their faces."

This group even makes house calls. Master gardeners will be working this year with an elderly lady who can no longer physically garden as she had in the past.

Planted in the late 1970s, the Wisconsin Master Gardener program was intended to support the needs of home and community horticulturalists. As sustainability efforts increase nationwide and home gardening becomes not only chic but valuable, master gardeners provide a crucial link to our agrarian roots.

"In the past, many of us grew our own food or knew where to purchase locally," said Jane Anklam, horticultural and agriculture educator for Douglas County UW-Extension. "Now we have an entire generation or two that sincerely does not know how to sustain themselves without food transported over great distances on refrigerated trucks."

Fillmore noted the resurgence of home gardening as early as two years ago. People were looking for information on growing fruits and vegetables to save money and ensure the food they eat is safe.

Master gardeners have the answers these people need.

"Every one has their own knowledge," Rounsville said. As they extended garden beds and began planting near Solid Rock this spring, she said, master gardeners offered planting techniques, soil testing, tips for utilizing space and information on what types of plants do well in the area. Along with know-how, they provided muscle and cheerful smiles.

"A lot of times I think they're moral support," Rounsville said.

The seeds of master gardening knowledge are sown during 36 hours of training provided through UW-Extension. It's a lot to take in - soil types, fertilization techniques, trees, flowers, vegetables and more.

"We want to start being called master gardener volunteers," Casper said. "People think you know everything."

"You know a little bit about a lot as a master gardener," LeBard agreed.

And, Anderson said, they love to share what they know.

Master gardeners must take 10 hours of continuing education and complete at least 24 hours of volunteer service annually to retain their titles. With so many worthwhile projects to choose from, LeBard said, she usually puts in closer to 200 volunteer hours per year. For the Superior woman, it's worth it.

"You meet so many neat people," LeBard said. "I never met a gardener I didn't like."

The group holds its annual plant sale from 4-6 p.m. Thursday in the parking lot of Citizens Bank, 1612 Belknap St. Master gardeners will be on hand to answer gardening questions and offer tips. They also hope to sow the seed of volunteerism. Although the Lake Superior Master Gardeners total 65, only about a third of them are active in projects.

Although they have branched out to many venues, Casper said, the harvest could be greater. She noted that more volunteers are needed to tend the many ongoing garden projects and help the group launch new ones. You don't have to be a Master Gardener to help. A list of projects and information on the Lake Superior Master Gardener Association can be found at Prospective volunteers can also contact Casper at (715) 398-7191.

For more information on becoming a master gardener, contact Anklam at (715) 395-1363 or e-mail jane.