Neighborhood Champions Grow Stronger Communities

Joan McIntyre on a Master Gardener tour of River Farm Photo © 2017 Christa Watters

By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener

In 2016, Joan McIntyre, then a recently certified Master Gardener with the Arlington/Alexandria unit of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), had an idea for an innovative program. Many of her colleagues regularly shared gardening information with their neighbors on an informal basis, but she envisioned expanding the organization’s public education outreach through a more formalized collaboration of Neighborhood Champions.

These individuals would be Extension Master Gardeners (EMGs) who volunteered to share their horticultural knowledge through neighborhood listservs, newsletters, Facebook groups, or Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social networking service. They might also lead events and activities, such as garden open houses, presentations to civic associations, or community-wide gardening projects.

Today, about 16 Extension Master Gardeners regularly share monthly articles prepared by Joan in their neighborhoods. Most recently, these short contributions have focused on how homeowners can enjoy the outdoors and protect themselves from ticks and mosquitoes without harming pollinators.

EMG Leslie Cameron makes especially good use of social media to spread the word on sustainable gardening techniques. In addition to sharing Joan’s articles on the Fairlington-wide Facebook page, Leslie is on a small editorial team that creates daily posts for the Fairlington Arbor Grounds and Gardening page with tips on small space gardening, the importance of native plants, and ways to support wildlife. She has also written an article for a print newsletter column on environmental stewardship that will reach 20,000 Fairlington residents.

Fairlington Arbor Facebook post.

Many Extension Master Gardeners participate in collaborative gardening or landscaping projects in their respective neighborhoods. Last spring, due to the pandemic, the Langston-Brown Community Center in North Arlington was required to restrict access to its raised bed garden. In response, EMG Lynn Berry, a volunteer who provides garden support to seniors, established a seed center in her basement where she grew a variety of tomato and pepper plants. When the plants matured, she worked with Senior Program director Elizabeth Poole to distribute plants through the center’s USDA free lunch program. Seniors were delighted to receive vegetable plants they could raise at home.

In another example of community engagement, EMG Anne Reed worked with a small group of residents in the Glencarlyn neighborhood who are concerned about stormwater runoff from their properties into Four Mile Run. Together they installed such features as drains, walls, and berms to slow and divert water to drainage culverts, minimizing both hillside erosion and pollution of the nearby stream.

Nancy Davis, a Master Gardener and Tree Steward, and her husband actively collaborate with neighbors as members of the Glencarlyn citizens’ association Tree Committee. This group works hard to educate neighbors about the threats to the tree canopy when developers raze mature trees to build larger homes. In addition to encouraging residents to protect their trees with the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, a current project involves producing a brochure on 45 tree species within the community that can be viewed on self-guided tours. In the future, the tour will be enhanced with an interactive program using mapping software that includes photographs and videos keyed to GPS locations of the identified trees.

Gingko tree identified by Tree Stewards for Glencarlyn tour brochure
(Photo courtesy of Nancy Davis)

With COVID-19 and the closing of VCE headquarters at Fairlington Community Center, the networking principles of Neighborhood Champions came into play to distribute free vegetable and herb seeds that normally are made available at Master Gardener plant clinics. Beginning in early April, Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad delivered boxes of seeds to EMG volunteers throughout the Arlington and Alexandria area. Some EMGs provided seeds at socially distanced events, while others created signs offering seed packets to neighbors from their front yards.

After the initial spring seed distribution, the Extension Seed Project was reorganized with three Master Gardeners providing centralized pick-up locations in the region. Residents were able to visit the MGNV website and complete an online form requesting their preferred types of seeds. While the supply of seeds for the year has now been depleted, over 12,000 packets were ultimately distributed. These networking efforts in a time of crisis have made vegetable gardening possible to hundreds of residents, including many first-time gardeners.

Seed distribution boxes with soil test kits and planting information. Photo © Anne Reed

As an outgrowth of distributing seeds in her North Arlington neighborhood, EMG Dorothy Acosta gave some spare seedlings she had grown to Lukas, a young neighbor. The boy’s mother sent Dorothy regular emails through the spring and summer, chronicling his success in growing the vegetables, harvesting them, and sharing them with neighbors. The mom feels that the gardening project made quarantine “bearable and interesting,” while Dorothy found it gratifying to help a budding gardener. Inspired by his gardening success, Lukas has taught  cooking classes as a Junior Chef at Williams-Sonoma to raise money to feed hungry children in the community.

Extension Master Gardener Robbie Randolph, Seed Project Coordinator for Alexandria and a resident of Del Ray, also enjoyed seeing how sharing seeds is meaningful to young families. She planted containers of fragrant herbs – rosemary, mint, and lavender – for children to enjoy as their parents picked up their seeds and clipped sprigs for the youngsters to carry home. She feels a stronger connection with neighbors, who now turn to her with their gardening questions.

Robbie Randolph’s rosemary plant at toddler height.
Photo © Robbie Randolph

The lockdown prevented EMG Kathryn Kellam and four colleagues from hosting their scheduled series of spring and summer garden open houses, but she is pleased with the forging of a stronger, support network of Master Gardeners in Alexandria.  Meeting as a team helped the women build enthusiasm for the challenge of inviting neighbors to tour their gardens. They hope to reschedule the tours — which will showcase spring ephemerals, ornamental lilies, kid-friendly landscaping, a pollinator paradise, and a food forest — next year in a modified, more intimate form.

Kathryn Kellam’s young food forest to be featured in a future garden open house Photo © Kathryn Kellam

Thank you to Robbie Randolph from a young friend with a “curious gardening mind.”
Photo © Robbie Randolph

In the four years since its conception, the Neighborhood Champions program envisioned by Joan has encouraged Master Gardeners to find new ways to act as ambassadors and provide needed services and gardening advice within their neighborhoods. These champions are simultaneously building a stronger network among themselves.

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