Neighborhood Champions Grow Stronger Communities
From a Sept. 23, 2020 post by Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Neighborhood Champions is an ongoing program of public outreach spearheaded by Extension Master Gardener Joan McIntyre, in which EMG volunteers share their horticultural knowledge with their neighbors through social media, presentations to civic associations, events such as garden open houses, and community-wide gardening projects. A major focus has been sharing short monthly articles on how homeowners can enjoy the outdoors and protect themselves from ticks and mosquitoes without harming pollinators. There are plans to expand to other sustainable landscaping topics such as the importance of rebuilding the local tree canopy.
Read on to learn about some examples of how Neighborhood Champions grow stronger communities.
MG 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 created the Fairlington Gardening Community Facebook page, which posts daily on gardening, landscaping, sustainability, native plants, and the natural world. Topics include the importance of native plants, avoiding invasive plants, small space gardening, and ways to support wildlife.
With a small editorial team, Leslie and other Fairlington grounds committee members and gardeners have written articles for a monthly column called “For the Love of Nature” in the print newsletter, the All-Fairlington Bulletin newsletter, which reaches 20,000 Fairlington residents. EMGs Angela McNamara and Anne Wilson also contribute to the For the Love of Nature column.
Leslie, Angela, and Anne are also members of a Fairlington-wide group of gardeners and grounds committee members, and they work with other members to encourage the use of native plants, discourage invasive plants, and adopt other best management practices across Fairlington’s seven associations.
Many Extension Master Gardeners participate in collaborative gardening or landscaping projects in their respective neighborhoods. In the spring of 2020, 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.
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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.
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.
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 of 2020 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. The seed distribution program was repeated in 2021.
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.
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 – in a modified, more intimate form, as soon as the pandemic allows.
In the four years since its conception, the Neighborhood Champions program envisioned by Joan McIntyre in 2016 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.