Horticulture heroes


Lorene Yates has dedicated hours and hours to learning about
weeds, worms and compost. She’s attended lectures on irrigation,
she’s learned how to diagnose sick plants. She’s even taken an
eight-hour test to prove it.
Hollister – Lorene Yates has dedicated hours and hours to learning about weeds, worms and compost. She’s attended lectures on irrigation, she’s learned how to diagnose sick plants. She’s even taken an eight-hour test to prove it.

“It’s about learning more about what I’m doing,” explained Yates, who had always “played around” in her gardens but never had a clue about botany or horticulture until she became a master gardener in 2003.

Like every other master gardener in the area, Yates underwent extensive training and testing to get to where she is. She attended four-hour classes on flowers and vegetables once a week for four months in San Jose through the University of California Cooperative Extension, passed an eight-hour written test on her knowledge of plants, and spent 20 hours in her first year manning the master gardeners’ telephone hotline to offer advice to locals who may not have such a green thumb.

All this to achieve the rank of master gardener, a title now held by 6,000 people in California and almost 60,000 across the United States and Canada.

“Gardening is a lot of fun,” Yates said. “It’s an easy form of mild exercise and mental relaxation.”

But even with all that relaxation, master gardener training and re-certification, which masters undergo every year by taking advanced horticultural classes and volunteering their time with gardening novices, can be a full-time job. San Juan Bautista Master Gardener Jim Sleznick estimated there are probably less than a half-dozen master gardeners in San Benito County.

“It’s really a volunteer organization. I’m a mentor for the five students from South County who are studying to become master gardeners, encouraging them to volunteer and telling them what options they have available,” said Yates, who prefers answering questions that come in over the hotline over all her other volunteer activities.

“It’s actually a lot of fun. People call and sometimes you’ll have no idea what the answer to their question is. They call and say ‘What should I plant in this strip of shade?’ or ‘What’s wrong with my tree? It looks like this,'” she said. “Then we take their name and number and go find the answer in our big library and call them back.”

Yates and San Benito County’s other master gardeners cite this desire to teach their hobby while learning more themselves as a key factor in their drive to spend hours in the classroom and out in the field.

“It gives you that personal enrichment of doing it, and a professional knowledge,” said Sleznick, who’s been a certified master gardener since 1991. “You’re working with the University of California people and there are some really brilliant people in that system, so it’s a stimulation. And when you have an opportunity to share it with others, it’s a good feeling. It’s stimulating to talk about (gardening) and hope that rubs off on people.”

Sleznick, who graduated college with a degree in botany and spent his career working in the national parks system before retiring, never thought much about gardening beyond the potted plants in his backyard before his daughter enrolled in an ornamental horticulture design class at Cal Poly. He became interested, took a certificate course through UC Santa Cruz Cooperative Extension, and soon moved on to the master gardening program.

Once he got started, Sleznick was hooked. He immediately started a roundtable discussion group in Gilroy for San Benito County, Morgan Hill and Gilroy master gardeners who couldn’t make it all the way to San Jose for their advanced re-certification training classes. They’ve been meeting once a month in Gilroy now for the past 14 years.

“We just get together and talk plants for two hours, we have a guest speaker from time to time and we keep in touch,” he explained.

And every once in a while, Sleznick himself will give a lecture, speaking to gardening clubs about orchids or helping out grade-school children with their student gardens.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy meeting other people with similar interests and helping out with people from time to time when they have questions,” he said.

Sleznick, Yates and other local master gardeners will get a chance to answer questions and show off their knowledge of rare plants this weekend at the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners’ annual Spring Market in San Jose.

“I really enjoy participating in getting things ready for that, because that’s our major fundraiser of the year,” Yates said. “We sell heirloom tomatoes, all different kinds of chilies… things you can’t get at Kmart.”

Jessica Quandt covers politics for the Free Lance. Reach her at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or at [email protected]

Leave your comments