Enrollment skyrockets for OSU Master Gardener vegetable course

CORVALLIS, Ore. – More than 17,600 people – at a growing clip of about 1,000 more each day – are signing up for a vegetable gardening course offered by the Oregon State University Extension Service, as people nationally abide by stay-at-home pandemic orders.

From Jan. 1 through March 19, 15 people had registered for the on-demand, online course. On March 20, OSU Extension’s Master Gardener program decided to waive the $45 fee and promote it on Facebook. As of 10 a.m. on April 1, 17,656 people had registered for the course.

The results have been stunning, said Gail Langellotto, a professor of horticulture and statewide coordinator of the Master Gardener program.

The introductory course covers basics including planning, soil, care, and harvesting. It will continue to be free through at least the end of April. The course, which has been offered online since 2008, is part of the OSU Master Gardeners Short Course Series offered through OSU’s Professional and Continuing Education unit.

“We were inspired to do what we could during this very difficult time, after seeing the actions of our colleagues,” Langellotto said. “Master Gardener programs in Polk and Lincoln counties were turning cancelled plant sales into opportunities to get free vegetable seedlings to food pantries and into their communities. Labs in OSU’s horticulture department were donating personal protective equipment.

“When we asked what could we do, we knew we had this course, and thought it might be of interest to a few folks.”

Master Gardeners play a large role in providing food to their communities, Langellotto said. OSU Extension Master Gardeners supported 23 school gardens and 46 community gardens in 2019. They also make significant donations to food banks and food pantries each year — 52.5 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables in 2019.

But these activities are on hold due to the pandemic. For example, one of the biggest food providers, Grow an Extra Row Garden in Clackamas County, can’t be planted this spring.

So, Master Gardeners are pivoting to alternative ways to provide that community support. They’re encouraging people to use the free gardening course at home to contribute to a national Plant a Row for the Hungry effort.

On March 20, Langellotto announced the free course on the OSU Master Gardeners Facebook account. The post has been shared more than 24,000 times — including more than 4,500 times in its first hours –and has drawn more than 1,700 comments.

“Because the Facebook post went viral, we're also reaching lots of folks from across the country who may not know that they have a university Extension office in their own backyard,” Langellotto said. “So, I'm also trying to use this as an opportunity to introduce folks to their local Extension office.”

Growing Your Own, an OSU Extension publication that covers a wide range of gardening topics and written by Langellotto, is assigned reading for the vegetable gardening course. Supplementary materials include Extension publications Vegetable Gardening in Oregon and Vegetable Variety Trials 2017.

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