Resuming In-Person MG Plant Clinics

The Master Gardener Program began in Washington State in 1973, when David Gibby and Bill Scheer (who were then Washington State University Extension agents) proposed recruiting and training volunteers who could respond to gardeners’ questions as a way to serve the needs of home and community gardeners (Gibby et al., 2008). Since that time, the program has endured and expanded. Today, Master Gardener programs are active in all 50 states, nine Canadian provinces, and in South Korea (Langellotto et al. 2015), and most recently, Puerto Rico!

Receiving and responding to the public’s gardening questions remains a core part of our mission. In 2019, for example, a total of 6,321 questions were submitted to OSU Extension through eXtension’s Ask an Expert Service. Of these, 4,925, or 78%, were related to home gardening, insect identification, urban forestry, or other questions commonly fielded by Master Gardeners. Of the 4,925 Ask an Expert questions that were related to home gardening, Master Gardener volunteers fielded and answered 3,650 questions, or 58% of all of OSU Extension’s Ask an Expert questions in 2019. And, these numbers do not include the thousands of gardening questions that are fielded and answered by Master Gardener volunteers at Plant Clinics located in Extension offices, at Farmer’s Markets, or at other sites.

When COVID-19 hit, it put a halt to all in-person Master Gardener activities, including Plant Clinics in Extension offices and at Farmer’s Market. Now that many Oregon counties have entered Phase 2 of the Governor’s Plan to Re-Open Oregon, some Oregon State University Extension Offices are moving from a restricted operations model to a modified operations model. Master Gardener Programs in at least two counties have included in-office Plant Clinics as part of the Modified Operations Plan for their County Extension Office.

In case you are thinking of resuming in-person Plant Clinics, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • According to OSU Extension’s Decision Tree for Adult Learners, in-person Plant Clinic activities can not occur during the ‘Restricted Operations Phase’ (i.e. counties in Phase 1), but can be considered for counties in the ‘Modified Operations Phase’ (i.e. counties in Phase 2).
  • If your Plant Clinic activities can be effectively accomplished, remotely, you should continue to focus on remote delivery of this public service. However, as we know, many Plant Clinic questions yield better answers if clients can drop off a plant or pest sample. Also, many of our clients are not able to submit Plant Clinic questions, online. Finally, some Master Gardeners have limited internet access, and are not able to easily access and answer questions in an online environment. If these scenarios describe your situation, and if it is safe and prudent to do so, you may want to consider resuming Plant Clinic in your County Extension Office.

Additional Things to Consider For Plant Clinics in OSU Extension Offices:

  • The public may not be allowed into the Extension office, even during the Modified Operations phase. You thus should consider putting out a station where clients can drop off plant samples and/or questions. For Master Gardener volunteers that are not able to access and answer questions, online, this station can also serve as the pickup site for plant samples and questions. Think about how samples can be submitted and retrieved, in a safe and sanitary way.
  • You will want to limit the number of volunteers working in an Extension Office Plant Clinic, so that adequate social distancing can be maintained, and should have a sign-up system in place for Clinic shifts. Volunteers must complete the OSU Extension COVID-Awareness training prior to participating. Volunteers must agree to relevant OSU policies prior to participating, including OSU’s policy on face-coverings in public and common settings.
  • Volunteers who are high risk for serious illness from COVID-19 should not participate in face-to-face volunteer activities. Volunteers who are sick or who have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 or symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 are to refrain from participating.
  • If you are confident that your county and your Master Gardener Program is in a good position to restart Extension Office Plant Clinics, work with your Office Manager to write Plant Clinic into the County Extension Office Phase II reopening plan. The plan will be routed to your Regional Director, and then to OSU administrators for review and approval.
  • Remember that the health and safety of you, your colleagues, volunteers, and community is paramount. It is better to err on the side of health and safety. Do not rush to re-open in-office Plant Clinics if it is not prudent to do so, at this time.

For Plant Clinics at Outdoor Farmer’s Markets or Other Outdoor Sites

Plant Clinics at Outdoor locations are surprisingly more complicated to consider. This is because our Outdoor Plant Clinics are usually held in conjunction with a collaborating organization, which will require communication and coordination before an Outdoor Plant Clinic can resume. In addition, our Outdoor Plant Clinics are often held in spaces where the general public gathers, such as a Farmer’s Market or retail site.

Because the health and safety of our volunteers is paramount, I don’t think that it makes sense to set up outdoor Plant Clinics at this time. If we did, we would be putting rotating shifts of volunteers in direct contact with a large number of people. For this reason, I would suggest holding off on Outdoor Plant Clinics at Markets and Retail sites, at least until we move into Phase 3 of county re-openings.

Let’s recap how Master Gardener activities have been approved, thus far, during this COVID-19 crisis and Oregon’s phased approach to re-opening. I think it is important to recap what has been approved, thus far, because we are seeing some counties be moved down to a earlier phase, as case counts rise.

  • Baseline: during baseline phase, we were under the Governor’s ‘Shelter in Place’ order. During this phase, we received approval to work with community partners with distribute plants in our communities. A key point to this approval was that the community partners served as the distribution site during this phase, to limit the OSU faculty, staff, and volunteer travel and gatherings.
  • Phase 1 / Restricted Operations: during this phase, we received approval to resume work in Master Gardener demonstration and community gardens.
  • Phase 2 / Modified Operations: during this phase, we are just starting to see some counties receive approval to resume Plant Clinics in Extension offices.
  • Phase 3 / Full Return (Yet to Come ~ Date Unknown): is when we expect to see a return to in-person classes, meetings, and events.

Stories of race, culture, place, and people surround us, even in the garden. We must face them.

Photo by @blcksmth – Quote by James Baldwin

What are the stories we tell about our lives, our history, our gardens, our favorite flowers? I’ve been thinking about these things, and how we can personalize what’s happening in the world. How we bring issues of justice and equity into our lives as gardeners.

What can we do? How do we start? Why haven’t we done this earlier? What does this have to do with gardening?

These are all questions I’m hearing from Master Gardener leaders and volunteers throughout the state. Via Zoom, phone and email, I’ve been doing a lot of listening in my new role as statewide outreach coordinator, and asking questions.

And in the way of the world right now, I’m incredibly thankful to be learning so much, even as I’m unlearning stories I thought I knew. For example, while I have sentimental childhood memories of visiting Mt. Rushmore on a classic family road trip across the country, I know now that project defiled sacred Lakota land and that the creator, Gutzon Borglum, was deeply involved in the Ku Klux Klan.

I wonder why I never learned in school about what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, or the important significance of June 19th.

Facing our need as Master Gardeners to better serve our community through a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion means uncovering the truth, questioning our stories, and checking our own assumptions. It’s why I’m turning to the words of James Baldwin right now: Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Let’s start with the plants themselves.

Me with a favorite ajisai (hydrangea) as big as my head.

Take hydrangea, one of my favorite plants. But it wasn’t always called hydrangea. Known and revered for centuries in Japan as ajisai, the flower was caught in the colonization sweeps of Joseph Banks. When it was presented at Kew Gardens in England, the “newly discovered” plant was renamed hydrangea, effectively erasing its Japanese cultural history and lineage.

And then there’s the dahlia….

A cocoxochitl in my garden last week, also known as a collarette dahlia named Pooh from Swan Island Dahlias in Canby.

Named for Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, the dahlia was brought to Europe by the Spanish after the conquest of Mexico. Grown in the beautiful and sophisticated gardens of Montezuma, the Aztecs called this flower cocoxochitl, where it was grown for its grandeur, function and as a food crop. The tree dahlias grown here could grow to thirty feet tall and with hollow stems three inches in diameter, they were used for transporting water. All of this rich, Mexican, cultural history vanished when it was claimed and named by Europeans.

“This naming of things is so crucial to possession—a spiritual padlock with the key thrown irretrievably away—that it is a murder, an erasing, and it is not surprising that when people have felt themselves prey to it (conquest), among their first acts of liberation is to change their names (Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka). That the great misery and much smaller joy of existence remain unchanged no matter what anything is called never checks the impulse to reach back and reclaim a loss, to try and make what happened look as if it had not happened at all.”

—Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Story)

The author Jennifer Jewell writes about her interview with Jamaica Kincaid:

In my conversations with Jamaica Kincaid … she said this: “The thing we have liked the most about gardens is the love of a flower from somewhere else. Most people don’t know that the marigold and dahlia were part of Montezuma’s gardens. If we could just honor one another, it wouldn’t feel so badly to have taken them. Honoring one another is one way perhaps that we redeem ourselves; I am very interested in redemption,” she told me. Redemption. An interesting word – Jamaica talks about how we as people can work to honor one another – work to re-find and retell and re- share histories which were hidden – stolen – histories that some strove to erase. But they are still there those histories – embodied in the plants and the seeds and the art and the myth and the lived history of peoples and places.

I have two stories to leave you with. One is a tiny example of what can happen when we begin to ask questions and see things with a new eye. I recently noticed the description for Trachelospermum jasminoides on a favorite plant resourcing site. Common names listed were star jasmine and confederate jasmine. Do we really need to celebrate the confederacy with one of my favorite plants? Probably not. I mentioned it to the website owner and within ten minutes, the name confederate jasmine was gone.

But then there’s the story the woman riding her bike by our garden told herself a few weeks ago. My partner and I were gardening in our front garden, and the bicyclist pulled a u-turn when she saw our giant stand of romneya coulteri. Approaching my partner she asked about the flower, first inquiring if she was the landscaper. My partner is Mexican-American, had a bandana holding back her hair, and earbuds in her ears. The woman repeated the question, this time overpronouncing with the assumption she might not speak English. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I’ve never been assumed to be the landscaper in our front garden. And that was my white privilege.

Romneya coulteri

We all have stories to unlearn and we’re in a special moment where we can use new eyes in the way we see and move through the world. And we can act. Even in our gardens.

Resources mentioned in this essay:

By LeAnn Locher, Statewide Master Gardener Outreach Coordinator