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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Advice to Grow By

By Jane Callier, Master Gardener

Answering these and hundreds of other questions each year, Master Gardeners have been patiently cultivating a sustaining presence in Napa County for 25 years. As part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), the program relies on scientifically based research to offer recommendations and advice to the home gardeners of Napa County. Each year, the Master Gardener program recruits a group of enthusiastic trainees who buckle down to learn the science of botany, soil, water systems and pest management. Along with these horticultural basics, volunteers also learn about growing and caring for fruit trees, ornamentals and vegetables.

A Seed Takes Root

It was long-time farm advisor Dean Donaldson and assistant Ashley Derr who started the Napa County program in 1995. The story goes something like this: Swamped by answering repetitive questions about horticultural problems, Dean thought about having a trained group of volunteers offering solutions to home gardening problems. To realize his idea, Dean based the program on the Sonoma County Master Gardener program and used the Oregon-Washington training manual as a reference text, supplementing it with UC research-based information. With these elements in place, the Napa County Master Gardener program was born.

Dean was a dedicated community member, serving as farm advisor and county director of UCCE from 1969 to 2001. He provided educational support to commercial landscapers, arborists, and other gardening professionals. His intent was not to offer an answer, but to provide science-based information to help them solve problems themselves. After his death in 2013, an endowment fund was set up to provide lasting support for programs and activities in our community, including scholarships, short courses and conferences.

Call for Help

At the onset of the Napa Master Gardener program, and still perhaps most important and well-known service to the community, is the help desk. Master Gardeners staff the help desk at their office at UCCE, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon. In the early years, most of the clientele were walk-ins, toting their sick plant or plant sample with them. Clients would also call seeking garden advice. Today, clients can also go to our website at and fill out a questionnaire describing symptoms of their plant woes, attaching pictures to show symptoms of a plant problem. MGs are then equipped with enough information to diagnose the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, MGs are unable to travel to home gardens for private consultation because of liability issues.

Taking It Public

Public workshops, where home gardening issues of every description are presented, are another long-standing way Master Gardeners have reached out to teach the community. Topics from “What’s Bugging You,” where insect pests and their prevention and treatment options are considered, to “Hydrangeas,” where gardeners learn how to grow and care for these beautiful plants. Along with the City and County of Napa, Napa Master Gardeners host compost workshops several times a year. Compost bins are offered for sale at a reduced price, and attendees learn how to make and use their own compost. Workshops are usually held on Saturday mornings and weekday evenings at the UCCE meeting room on Soscol Avenue. Master Gardeners also have a presence throughout the entire county, from Calistoga to American Canyon.

Farmers markets are a venue that Master Gardeners came to a little later in the early years. Here, those needing gardening advice or just wanting to discuss something about their gardens can find a trained ear.

At different times during their history, Master Gardeners have had information tables in every Napa County city.

The Master Gardener program has expanded to include “Tree Walks” in Napa’s Fuller Park, with programs starting in May and extending through October. Walks are based on Trees to Know in Napa Valley, a handbook first published by Napa Master Gardeners in 2002 as a tribute to arborist John Hoffman, a charter member of Master Gardeners. John trained volunteer classes and tended his own orchard until he was 86. The third edition of the tree book was published in 2015 and copies are available at UCCE.

Another publication by Master Gardeners for Napa county residents is the Month-to-Month Guide for Gardening in Napa County. The fifth edition of this manual will be published this year and will be available at UCCE.

Rounding out the educational opportunities, UC Master Gardeners of Napa County also provide library talks, a speakers’ bureau, newspaper articles, Latino outreach, a brand-new demonstration garden, grape growing advice, and a mobile help desk at garden centers in the spring of each year.

The Dedicated Team

At an average of twenty students per year, about five hundred master gardeners have been successfully trained to be Master Gardeners in Napa County. They have volunteered tens of thousands of hours spanning twenty-five years teaching home gardeners about everything from growing radishes to global climate change. To remain certified, Master Gardeners must donate 25 hours of volunteer work and complete 12 hours of continuing education per year.

In June 1995 an internal bi-monthly newsletter named All the Dirt had its first issue. Still published on a monthly basis today, it serves volunteers with information, a way to coordinate activities and make announcements. In February 1997, Yvonne Rasmussen became the volunteer coordinator for the Napa program.

Today, the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are proud to have about 150 active members. As always, class members develop strong bonds with each other and the program that serves to make them the dedicated, productive, knowledgeable, innovative and effective group that they are. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, Master Gardeners plan to plant twenty-five trees in our community. See more celebratory events at



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