How Does Your Gardener Grow?

Learn to Grow Your Own Food through Santa Barbara County's Master Gardener Program

Master Gardener trainees from the 2007-2008 class at Arroyo Gardens listen to a presentation from Margaret Trejo, director of Resident Services for the Housing Authority City of Santa Barbara.

Perhaps your thumb is at least lime, if not quite olive, so you figure that’s green enough for a start. You garden, but want to know more, to grow more, to help more. Luckily, there’s something just for you: the Master Gardener Program of Santa Barbara County, cosponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

“We offer 80 hours of training to individuals who are willing to be part of the program,” explained Michael Marzolla, master gardener and 4-H youth development advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension. “In return, you have to give service back to the community in school gardens or community gardens or by providing information on our help line and the Internet. The training is basically almost all by PhDs in horticultural topics covering everything from subtropical fruit trees to vegetables. It’s all based around sustainable agriculture and integrated pest management.”

Anyone interested in the program should contact Marzolla (692-1735 or and plan on attending a required orientation on Thursday, September 25, 13 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Blaksley Library. “We’re way ahead on all the trendy stuff like organic, local, sustainable,” Marzolla promised. “There’s no doubt that’s the bread and butter, or should I say the whole grain bread, of the program. It’s a great way to help citizens in the community and give back to the community by helping people grow healthy food and improve their diet while managing resources more effectively. These classes involve the basic fundamental issues facing all of us right now and certainly in the headlines.”

Helen Fowler, who after years of home gardening and retiring from a career in nursing, is now cochair of our area’s Master Gardener Executive Committee (the program is in all 50 states, D.C., and Canada). “You get four months of classes,” she said. “It’s pretty intense.” Fowler also enjoys the camaraderie of the group, stressing, “The other volunteers tend to be highly professional-doctors, lawyers, graduate students. It’s nice to have something that brings us all together with such varied people. It’s so much that every person gets out of it what they want. One lady, she took a class with me and really enjoyed people contact, so she works in the garden shop at the Botanic Garden. It meets her needs. I want to be out there working in the dirt.”

Marzolla points out that the classes in Santa Barbara-covering topics from plant propagation techniques to basics of landscape design-are even more comprehensive than some. “Each county varies depending on climates, and you’ve got several, here,” he said. “People can grow stone fruit in cooler locations, while there are other areas where people grow bananas and coffee. We cover from A to Z, basically.”

It seems that the group also likes eating the alphabet, for Marzolla claimed, “We’re foodies, too. People trade off making snacks for the class, and we had to rein them back a bit.” Mary Ellen Hoffman, another master gardener, recalled, “One woman in our class, Laurel Lyle, she was one of the cafeteria people at Peabody Charter School. She was basically a gourmet cook. Those kids got not only healthy food, but really good food. I always looked forward to when she was bringing snacks.”

Still, it seems like it’s the service portion of the program that people relish even more than the good eats. Each trainee agrees to serve at least 80 hours as a volunteer during the year of their instruction. Volunteers also commit to at least two subsequent years of volunteer service and, to retain master gardener status after graduation, they must serve a minimum of 40 hours annually through participating in approved volunteer activities, attending supplemental trainings, and attending monthly meetings. “The more people you can train and get into the community, that’s great,” insisted Hoffman. “I feel reasonably well-educated at the Botanic Garden when I’m asked how to care for a plant. I think that’s the most important thing.”

In fact, Marzolla hopes each class catches a wide net of students. “We usually get people who are hobby gardeners, and it’s great they have some experience,” he said. “But others bring experience that’s really needed in the program in fields like public relations, Web design, or fund-raising.

“People who do the program have a blast, they find it really enriching,” summed up Marzolla. “Transformative would be a good word, absolutely.”


To sign up for the Master Gardener Program, call 692-1735 or email, and make sure to remember the required orientation on Thursday, September 25, 13 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.


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