Master Gardener Program Update: August 7, 2020

Status of Face to Face Master Gardener Activities

It has been 136 days since OSU effectively shut down all face-to-face activities, in response to Governor Kate Brown’s ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ executive order. As I take stock of Oregon’s Master Gardener Program, today, I can see that we are gradually and cautiously returning to limited face-to-face activities. Please remember, that all face-to-face programming and non-essential travel during the Modified Operations phase must be approved by your regional director, via the Extension Modified Travel and Programming Request form. Please make sure to cc me on your requests, so that I can continue to keep track of the evolving landscape of the statewide Master Gardener Program.

To date, here are the face-to-face Master Gardener activities that have been approved for county Extension offices in the Modified Operations phase are listed below. Please note that these activities represent low-density, outdoor activities, with the exception of low density Plant Clinics in select Extension offices.

  • A trial run of a virtual plant sale has been approved, for potential scaling up of a fall, public, virtual plant sale. Master Gardeners are hosting a ‘closed’ sale, open only to other Master Gardeners, to try and identify and work out potential kinks in protocol that may be issues for a larger, public sale.
  • There are two Citizen Science projects that have been approved. In one project, select Master Gardeners will travel to help our state partners monitor invasive pests. In the second project, Master Gardeners will travel to an OSU research farm to help evaluate plant that are part of butterfly bush research project.
  • One hybrid training opportunity has been approved. Master Gardeners will participate in self-guided plant identification activities, and will ‘meet’ via Zoom for a follow up session.
  • Master Gardeners are working in Extension office plant clinics in two counties. Plant clinics at markets, fairs, retail stores, and other high density public venues are still off-limits, at this point.
  • Master Gardeners are working in demonstration and community gardens across the state. Unlike the Restricted Operations phase, when only activities that were focused on critical services for food security and/or facilities maintenance, that approvals have been expanded for counties in the Modified Operations phase to include maintenance of compost piles and worm bins.

Creating Opportunities for Social Interactions and Celebrations

On yesterday’s weekly Zoom call, we discussed how we might thank and celebrate our Master Gardener volunteers, while also adhering to public health and safety guidelines. Here is what we came up with:

  • Governor’s Proclamation of Master Gardener Week in Oregon, November 2-6 2020
  • Celebratory / Thank You Video featuring OSU administrators, faculty, staff. We’ll be asking high level administrators (Anita and Alan) to deliver messages of thanks. We will cut in video of MG faculty and staff, holding up signs with different thank you messages, and points of celebration/resilience. Will ask LeAnn to help storyboard. Am seeking video production assistance from OSU Faculty Multimedia Services.
  • Annual State of the MG Program Address (to be delivered by Gail, as a webinar)
  • A three-film Gardening Film Festival. Gardeners can live stream films at home. We will arrange for Q&A with directors, as a Zoom webinar or meeting. Potential Films: The Love Bugs (Entomology Focus),  Land Grab or Plant this Movie (Urban Ag Focus), and a third movie that should have a plant focus.
  • The week concludes on November 6, with the final Board Meeting of the Oregon Master Gardener Association.

Upcoming MG Coordinators Zoom Meeting Topics

  • August 13th: 2021 MG Training Plan, including plan for 2020 trainees who could not complete training.
  • August 20th: Developing MG Program Priorities & Values (including workshopping DEI training scenario that we did not get to on July 30th)

August 27th: Open to Your Suggestions, but could be focused on planning and progress for the 2020 Oregon Master Gardener week celebration.

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.

Resuming MG Activities: Now What?

June 13th has been the date that we have been waiting for! Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-09 suspended higher education instructional activities (including non-credit instruction through Extension). Executive Order 20-17 extended this moratorium on instruction until June 13th.

So, what happens on June 14th? On June 12th, the Governor issued Executive Order 20-28. This Executive Order notes that in person instruction will be subject to restrictions, including the adoption of minimum standards for face coverings, physical distancing, and sanitizing. Because we are a program within Oregon State University, we are obligated to follow OSU’s resumption plan (and in fact, the links I have above for face coverings and physical distancing are OSU recent guidance on those subjects).

We are now entering what OSU Extension has been referring to as the ‘restricted operations’ phase, where we can cautiously resume some MG Program activities. This doesn’t mean that we can rapidly return to business as normal (I wish!). Instead, we’re working to resume work in ways that limit risk of illness to volunteers, faculty, staff, and our communities.

OSU faculty and staff developed guidance for resuming work within the MG Program, and this guidance was reviewed and approved by OSU Extension administration. Briefly, work in MG gardens is approved under OSU Extension’s restricted operations phase. MG Coordinators have been submitting requests (through DocuSign) to resume work in specific gardens. Several requests have been approved, today.

As noted in the guidelines, other Master Gardener activities, including plant clinics, classes, workshops, and meetings have been approved for the modified or full operations phases of OSU Extension’s resumption plan. According to OSU’s resumption plant (pages 19 and 30), OSU will remain under restricted operations until at least July 13th.

To all of the MG Coordinators, volunteers, and friends: I thank you for your patience as we work through a new way of doing business in the midst of a global pandemic. I thank you and SALUTE you for all **ALL** that you’ve done to support gardening education and outreach in your communities. Your work has helped to blaze new trails for the Master Gardener program in Oregon, and has helped to engage many new learners and clients with OSU Extension. Your resilience is paying off in the form of building stronger local food systems, reducing unnecessary pesticide use, and promoting an overall love for plants and the beneficial insects that associate with them.

So, what now? How are we going to restart our on-the-ground work in MG gardens? Here are a few of the steps that need to happen.

  • MG coordinator should develop a sign-up and/or sign-in system for garden work. This will help to limit the number of people who are working the garden at one time. This system will also aid in contact tracing, should there be a documented risk of COVID-19 exposure at a garden.
  • Volunteers will need to complete OSU Extension’s COVID-19 awareness training before returning to work in the gardens. You can sign up for and complete the training online, at this link: https://envisionextension.thinkific.com/enrollments
  • There is a checklist that we are asking gardeners to review and sign, before returning to work in the gardens. The checklist is on the last page of the ‘Guidelines’ file that is shared in this post.
  • MG Coordinators should complete the template for resuming work in gardens, and route through DocuSign for necessary signatures.
  • MG Coordinators will also be working to set up a communications plan, that may include posting signage at the garden.

Although it is surely disappointing to not be able to jump back into business as normal, I hope that a return to work in the gardens provides some light that we are moving towards happier days. I also know that the time away from the garden may find you greeted by weeds that were demanding attention months ago. I tried to find an inspirational garden quote about weeds, and stumbled upon one from Robert Michael Pyle, who was scheduled to be our keynote speaker for 2020’s Mini-College (which had to be postponed, due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings).

But make no mistake:  the weeds will win; nature bats last.  ~Robert M. Pyle

Not exactly the inspirational ‘get out into the garden’ quote that you might have been looking for. But I still love this quote, because it suggests a degree of needing to let go, rather than raging against the indomitable nature of . . . nature.

Happy gardening to all.

Letter to MG Program Partners

Dear Friends and Partners of the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program:

The OSU Extension Master Gardener Program partners with numerous organizations across the state, in support of our mission to make sustainable gardening information and educational opportunities open to all Oregonians. Our partnerships include local Recreation and Parks offices, Food Banks and Food Pantries, School Districts, Correctional Facilities, Gardening Non-Profits, Public Housing Authorities, Local Governments, and the Oregon Master Gardener Association and its non-profit chapters. I value our partnerships beyond measure, and recognize that our outreach efforts and our organization are elevated as a result of our collaborations.

I wanted to share an update on the current status of OSU Extension Master Gardener activities, in the context of the Phase 1 reopening of Oregon counties that began on May 15th. As a state agency and an institution of higher education, OSU Extension is under different guidance than Oregon businesses. For example, Executive Orders 20-17 and 20-09 suspend in-person instructional activities at Oregon Higher Education Institutions through June 13th.

In short, I am still in a holding pattern and awaiting direction from OSU and OSU Extension, related to face-to-face activities, events, and instruction. I have drafted, and am awaiting administrative feedback on a plan to resume limited face-to-face Master Gardener activities that adheres to state, university, and OSU Extension guidance. OSU expects to receive guidance from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, later this week. OSU and OSU Extension expect to update their respective resumption plans, shortly thereafter. I am hopeful that the Master Gardener resumption plan might be reviewed, edited as needed, and approved shortly thereafter.

At this time, I would ask that we continue collaborative partnership by:

  • Keeping lines of communication open: sharing (as possible) resumption plans, and thinking about how we can jointly meet any mandated requirements for face-to-face activities.
  • Recognizing that we are bound by OSU guidance: and unable to resume face-to-face instructional activities until at least June 13th.
  • Presenting clear and united communications to volunteers and to the public that we serve: until the Master Gardener program gets the green light for face-to-face activities from OSU, we are not able to resume face-to-face activities.

    I look forward to continued and fruitful partnerships. Most of all, I look forward to the day that we can again partner to promote a love of and success with gardening, via hands-on, face-to-face, and fun activities.

    I hope that you continue to stay safe and be well!! Should you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to your local Master Gardener coordinator and/or to me.

    Sincerely,

    Gail Langellotto
    Statewide Extension Master Gardener Program Coordinator
    Oregon State University