OSU Extension Master Gardeners see big success with free Level Up Series

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As COVID-19 forced people to work and quarantine at home, interest in gardening skyrocketed.

The demand encouraged the Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardeners program to shift from in-person to online classes and trainings. Though they’d never done it on a statewide basis, webinars became one of first ways the group was able to distribute the information gardeners so vitally wanted. So, Master Gardener coordinators across the state launched Growing Oregon Gardeners: Level Up Series, which returns for a second year in 2022.

The webinars are free and geared toward experienced gardeners but with plenty of information for beginners, too.

“It began as ongoing education for Master Gardeners because we had to figure out a way to get them what they needed to get their recertification credits,” said LeAnn Locher, Master Gardener outreach coordinator. “That’s usually done county by county, but this was an opportunity to do a statewide, cooperative approach. It’s a great opportunity for our horticulture experts to be working in teams delivering science-based information they know so well.”

The series’ advantages are two-fold: a bigger pool of instructors and more people accessing courses.

“They reach far and wide,” Locher said. “The webinars have made it possible for hundreds more people to have access to gardening information they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s driven a record number of people to our Master Gardener website like nothing before.”

The program saw an impressive number of attendees to the Zoom classes – a combined 4,000 for 11 webinars – as well as 13,574 views on Facebook Live and 2,000 more watching the recordings, Locher said. The webinars have been viewed more than 500 times on YouTube and social media posts reached 219,317 individuals as of late December. Dazzling Dahlias, the most popular webinar, drew more than 2,000 across all channels.

About 40% of participants were Master Gardeners completing required credits; another 40% were Oregonians without a tie to Master Gardeners; and the last 20% comes from outside Oregon – even internationally, Locher said. The series has been so successful community colleges and the Oregon Landscape Contractors Board certification program offer credit for their constituents.

Bree Kime was so pleased with the webinars, she decided to apply to be a Master Gardener.

“I will forever be grateful to the Oregon Master Gardeners and their programs,” Kime said. “These free webinars have been so helpful in my journey of learning gardening. I have learned everything I know through these amazing people and these short webinars that are offered throughout the year. They have always been there when I needed help or had questions."

Accessibility and inclusion, which Locher said is a goal for the Master Gardener program’s mission, was an important part of planning the series.

“From the beginning, the team deliberately made the series as inclusive as possible, including use of land acknowledgements, closed-captioning, sharing pronouns and increased access through streaming on Facebook Live and social media outreach,” Locher said. “This has generated positive response and engagement from attendees, as well as questions from those not familiar with some of these practices.”

Many of the topics, like dealing with tainted soil and fire-wise gardening, were in response to current problems and often accompanied new Extension publications, Locher said. For example, Weston Miller, Extension horticulturist for Clackamas County, hosted a webinar titled Adapting Your Garden for Climate Change and co-authored Herbicide-Contaminated Compost and Soil Mix: What You Should Know – and What You Can Do About It.

Brooke Edmunds, horticulturist for Marion and Polk counties, wrote Top tips for gardeners to help fight climate change. Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes, was co-authored by Amy Jo Detweiler, horticulturist in Deschutes County, with Stephen Fitzgerald, Extension forestry specialist.

Topics suggested by last year’s participants have been incorporated into the 2022 series, which starts Feb. 8 and follows on the second Tuesday of each month at noon. Several of the webinars, which are recorded, will focus on ever-popular edible gardening, including Plant Grow Harvest Repeat: Succession Planting with author and Instagram sensation Meg McAndrews Cowden. Kicking off the series will be Dennis Brown, horticulturist and OSU Master Gardener, talking about the Science and Practice of Seed Starting, appropriate for February as gardens begin the seed-starting process.

“Ultimately the series demonstrated the power of the web as a program delivery method to existing Master Gardeners and provided a window into the quality of Master Gardener programming to the general public,” Locher said. “Team members both adopted new skills and relied on expertise from others to meet and exceed the demands of a live program for hundreds of participants.”

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