Sowing the Seeds of Service: Ventura County Master Gardeners 3

When Nicole Vanole became a certified Master Gardener through the Ventura County Master Gardener Program, she didn’t know it would transform her life.

“The people I’ve met, the friendships, working in teams—all of it has been very enriching,” says Vanole, now executive co-chair of the flourishing Master Gardener Program. The national program is chartered through the United States Department of Agriculture and sponsored locally by the University of California Cooperative Extension of Ventura County and the University of California Hansen Trust.

Master Gardeners are trained, certified horticultural volunteers who share their knowledge with home gardeners and provide the area locals with “non-biased gardening information… through public service, educational outreach and research programs.”

Leah Haynes, Ventura County’s Master Gardener Program Specialist, joined the program in 2006 and has been instrumental in driving its growth.

“There are 225 Master Gardeners in Ventura County who volunteer about 25,000 hours each year” to local gardening programs.

In exchange for the program training, participants agree to complete 20 weeks of classes in addition to apprenticeship and volunteer work. Once certified as Master Gardeners, additional education and volunteer time are “required annually to renew certification.” Notes Haynes, “Individuals are accepted into the program based on their ability to volunteer and support university research programs and outreach programs to educate the public.”

“We usually have between 60-70 people interested in joining the program and we accept around 35 people (per class). We would like to accept everybody, but not everybody is interested in volunteering,” Haynes explains.

Informational meetings about the upcoming session, which runs from November through May, will begin in September and serve as “my opportunity to share” about the scope of the program, says Haynes.

“Typically, Master Gardeners are individuals who are interested in science, but we have people from all walks of life.” Although about 20% of program participants work full-time jobs, Haynes notes that many of them are retired and have the time necessary to devote to the program.

For those who are not able to volunteer, a variety of weekend workshops and classes are offered to the public, including a monthly summer series that will be held June through September at the Goebel Center in Thousand Oaks.

In addition to educational programs, area Master Gardeners provide speakers and maintain facilities locally. True Colors Garden and Learning Center in Thousand Oaks, for example, is a partnership with Calleguas Municipal Water District, the city of Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Recreation and Park District.

“We installed five drought-tolerant gardens there,” says Haynes. “That relationship has really spearheaded an effort for us to educate the public about drought tolerance.”

Another popular component of the program is the Home Gardening Helpline. More than 20 rigorously trained volunteers take phone calls, answer emails and assist those who visit the Ventura Helpline office in person by providing “scientifically-based horticultural knowledge.”

Says Helpline Committee Co-Chair Kei Zehr, “Plant health and wellness questions are probably the most common” questions asked of Helpline volunteers who, with the support of a staff arborist and the horticulture experts at UC Davis, answered over 600 gardening inquiries from the public last year.

Zehr, who became a Master Gardener in 2009, says, “Through the years, we’ve been able to grow this program and serve the needs of the community. It’s been really satisfying being part of the planning and … actually seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Thousand Oaks resident Vanole also notes that “The program offers opportunities that may appeal to those who may not be physically able to do gardening work. There are other things,” like research, Helpline assistance and administrative work, “that you can do besides actually putting your fingers in the dirt,” she says.

“The thing that I like most about the program is that we grow leaders that really are committed to providing UC science-based gardening education. We’re the best kept secret in Ventura County, and we don’t want to be a secret,” she adds. For detailed information about the VCMG program and the application process, as well as a calendar of events and educational programs, visit