By Emily Herb, Master Gardener Volunteer
In March 2020 the Benton County Master Gardeners were facing the same shut down challenges as everyone else in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched itself toward Oregon and the waves of closures, cancelations, and eventually quarantine were announced day after day. In the Benton County Master Gardeners I am a member of the Community Gardening Education Team. Spring and Summer are our main programmatic seasons and we had many events, including several sessions of a hands-on basic gardening class called Seed to Supper in the Garden, that folded along with everything else. Honestly, as much as I care about gardening, these classes were not my main concern at the time. I had to let them go, along with so many other things, and see what this era would bring.
I was out in my vegetable garden one of those March days, doing my best to center myself when I heard my phone “bling” with a new email. With the frantic pace of change and announcements from all sectors of my life, I knew I needed to take a look, even as I was trying some escapism out in the dirt. This new email was from a member of the Community Gardening Education Team asking members to please consider joining a Zoom meeting that day to brainstorm the idea of moving our Seed to Supper classes online. I must admit that I had been ignoring this email chain because I was already overwhelmed with my paid work being moved to online and the thought of any more screen time made me queasy. Also, I am a strong advocate for hands-on learning, so the idea of teaching gardening online didn’t appeal to me. My mind was closed and thus I closed the email, without replying, and got back to my gardening. But, as I worked my mind started working. I started seeing that there could be a way to be “hands on” online. I thought, “we could make movies! Everyone in their backyard could make movies as they went about putting their gardens in and we could share that online!”. I took my phone back out of my pocket and shared my idea with the group and committed myself to the afternoon meeting.
The Community Gardening Education Team (CGET) team is made up of a bunch of wonderful women who have a desire to educate the community about growing their own food. There is a strong social justice bend to this group and I thoroughly appreciate them. During that afternoon meeting we had a powerful conversation about how we could be useful and relevant to the vegetable gardeners of Benton County, especially during the lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elizabeth Records, the Educational Program Assistant for Master Gardeners for Linn and Benton Counties, shared with the Team the staggering number of people who had signed up for the online gardening class that the extension service had made available for free, as a response to the pandemic. People seemed to have a newfound enthusiasm for growing their own food as they were stuck at home during uncertain times. We talked about how we could reach these people, how we could get seeds and plants into the hands of people who needed them, and about how we could educate people and help them make gardens with what they had on hand in the homes that they were confined to.
Two exciting ideas came out of this meeting. One was to move forward with offering Seed to Supper online through Zoom and a subgroup from CGET moved forward with modifying the curriculum of that class to meet the challenges of the online environment, but also with the thought that they could add warmth through personal pictures, gardening stories, and maybe even some backyard movies! Another idea was to host Virtual Veggie Q&As to try to meet the needs of the new gardeners at home through answering their questions live and in real time during a Zoom call in session. I was among the group that decided to launch that effort. I am so glad that despite how shut down I was feeling in the garden that morning that I opened myself enough to join this meeting and be carried away with the creativity and meaningful work of CGET.
A couple of weeks later I found myself with Elizabeth and two other Master Gardeners, Sue and Jennifer, on Zoom getting ready for our first Veggie Q&A. I’m afraid as we were all still novices to Zoom we had a number of technical difficulties, but regardless of that, we made it work! We had a good number of participants and the four of us found our rhythm answering questions, posting resources, and sharing the new online space with our participants and each other. Since that first Q&A we have had a total of 6 Virtual Veggie Q&As and all of them have been well attended and enjoyed by facilitators and participants alike. The spontaneous nature of the call in format makes it a very lively and authentic exchange with people getting answers to questions they have right then about problems they are having in their vegetable gardens or advice they are seeking about plans they have for the future. We are not always able to answer all the questions, but in a way that adds to the authenticity and vulnerability of the experience! And we can always promise them to research their issue later and email them an answer. Recently we have pulled in other Master Gardeners to answer questions and I hear that our idea has even spread to other counties! We are getting better with our technology as well, and Elizabeth now has us streaming Live on Facebook as well as making podcasts of our sessions after we are done. We didn’t have any idea that our small attempt to reach people and be relevant during the pandemic would get so big.
Another little side story related to all of this is how Veggie Q&A opened the door to reaching out to a community in Oregon that previously had little contact with Master Gardeners. In my professional life I am a Sign Language interpreter and when we started hosting the Veggie Q&As I posted the advertisements for them on my Facebook page. One of my Deaf friends reached out to me to see if there would be a possibility of offering a similar opportunity in Sign Language. My friend and I worked with the Master Gardeners, who were very excited about this opportunity, to set this up and since then have had two Veggie Q&As in American Sign Language that have been open to all of those who use that language. Similarly, we currently have a person who will be joining our next English Veggie Q&A to see if it would be possible to offer a Spanish session. New ideas lead to more new ideas!
I believe many stories will be written about all the new things we learned how to do professionally, personally, and within our community groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is one of those stories. I don’t think telling these stories is a way to put a positive spin on the whole thing, but rather a reporting of our experiences during a time when we had to give up on doing things in person and physically together and figure out a different way of being. Not figuring it out meant giving up on meaning and purpose. I hope that next Spring we will be back to offering Seed to Supper actually in the garden, but I bet that we keep offering it online as well! I also imagine that we will keep up with our Virtual Veggie Q&As and use them as a way to reach more and more people. Opening up to the limitations of Spring and Summer 2020 brought forth our creativity as a path toward meaning and purpose. I am proud of how Benton County Master Gardeners and the Community Gardening Education Team moved into that space and brought gardening to more people during uncertain times.
To listen to our podcast of Veggie Gardening Q&As, CLICK HERE.