Clark County: Nearby Nature
Boxwood hedges outline the shape of our state, filled with brightly colored blooms. The festive flower display, nestled alongside northbound Interstate 5’s exit 500 ramp in Vancouver, welcomes drivers to Washington.
Volunteers replant the highway garden each spring. The project, a collaboration between WSU Extension Master Gardeners of Clark County and the Master Gardener Foundation of Clark County, typically requires some 2,500 blooms—petunias, begonias, geraniums, alyssum, and salvia, among others.
“One of the most popular designs was the apple,” says Judie Stanton, who became a certified Master Gardener in 2021 and joined the foundation board early this year. She chairs the development committee. “Other years we’ve done a sunrise or a quilt with nice patches of various plantings.”
This year, only about 550 sunpatiens were planted as volunteers are battling pesky yellow nutsedge, a noxious weed. “It’s invaded the area that we normally plant inside the boxwood hedge,” says Stanton, noting part of their abatement strategy is to plant the flowers in 475 pots above soil level. “Next year, we’ll hopefully go back to planting in the ground as always.”
Master Gardener and foundation volunteers have been beautifying the iconic “Welcome to Washington” sign since 2010, minus a couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The otherwise grassy median is maintained by the state Department of Transportation. “It raises awareness for our programs,” says Stanton, noting the best time to view the display is “probably mid-June. But it lasts from the end of May—Memorial Day—through the end of summer because we go back and weed as necessary.”
Read more about Master Gardeners in Clark County schools.
Jefferson County: Clean Water, Plant Biodiversity, and Pollinators
Native plants adorn a shallow depression a stone’s throw from the beach at Point Hudson. Purple iris, Oregon grape, ornamental grasses, dwarf pine, coastal strawberry, creeping raspberry, and more grow in the rectangular plot, anchored by a sign that explains this is no ordinary landscaping. It’s a way to clean rainwater and reduce flooding and runoff.
Below the surface, a special mix of sand and compost helps filter pollutants such as oil, grease, heavy metals, and harmful bacteria. “Stormwater runoff is one of the top priorities in this region. It’s one of the highest causes of contamination in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” says Bob Simmons, the Olympic region water resources specialist with WSU Jefferson County Extension since 2014. He spearheaded the project, which—along with another in Port Townsend’s picturesque Chetzemokah Park—is among east Jefferson County’s most visible and approachable rain gardens.
Throughout the Olympic Peninsula, small cities “don’t really have the funding or the expertise to put in rain gardens,” Simmons says. “Rain gardens are really beneficial. They enhance our landscapes. They provide habitat for insects, birds, and small mammals. They have their filtration properties. And they reduce flooding and recharge groundwater. That’s one of the reasons we put one in at Point Hudson. There was a big puddle at the end of the street that wasn’t infiltrating well.”
The Port of Port Townsend covered much of the cost. WSU Beach Naturalists and WSU Extension Master Gardeners of Jefferson County helped plant the rain garden’s 1,300 native plants. Sixth graders from Port Townsend’s Swan School and 4-H students also participated in the 2015 project, now one of 18 rain gardens located throughout east Jefferson County. There are twelve in Port Townsend, three in Port Hadlock, and three in Quilcene. All but two—including Point Hudson—were supported by the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) through grant funding. Simmons has worked on all 18, along with myriad community partners.
Simmons completed a stormwater assessment and priority list of high-pollution drainages for the MRC about 10 years ago. Not only does he design the rain gardens, but he recruits volunteers, hosts educational workshops, and oversees installations. Master Gardeners decide what to grow, help plant the plants and, in some cases, provide ongoing maintenance.
Their time and expertise are “very crucial,” Simmons says. “They help figure out which plants work well in our unique environment and are deer-proof, and they try to maintain color in the rain gardens throughout the year—not just spring and summer, but in the fall and winter when many plants die back.”
Plus, he says, “they’re fun people to work with. They’re passionate about the gardens—and not only the rain gardens but gardens for pollinators and aesthetics and air quality. Their scientific eyes are useful. They look at things differently from a homeowner who hasn’t been trained.”
Spokane County: Water Conservation
Clusters of feathery Karl Foerster grass hedge the fence line, adding texture, ornamentation, and privacy. Early spring through early autumn, bee balm, goldenrod, and echinacea provide pops of color as well as sustenance for pollinators. Herbs—sage, chives, thyme—grow alongside the blooms in beds blanketed with multiple types of mulch. Bark and different kinds and colors of crushed rocks help insulate the soil, holding it in place and eliminating the need for grass.
The WaterWise Demonstration and Research Garden, installed at Washington State University’s Spokane County Extension by the city of Spokane and Master Gardener volunteers two years ago, shows visitors what xeriscaping could look like in their own yards. The long, rectangular stretch, running some 30 by 130 feet along the fence near the building’s entrance, not only welcomes guests but, Tim Kohlhauff hopes, also inspires them.
“Our first goal is to try and convince people that they don’t need to use a lot of water to still have a beautiful garden,” says Kohlhauff, a certified arborist and the urban horticulture coordinator for the Spokane County Master Gardeners, one of the longest-running chapters in the state. “Saving water is a benefit to anybody who gets their water through a utility. They can save money and water.”
Using less water helps prevent runoff, curbs pollution, and recharges groundwater. It also means less maintenance and more wildlife habitat.
“There are a lot of native plants you can install to conserve water and support insects and pollinators,” Kohlhauff says. “Even if you keep some lawn, you can reduce in other parts and still be saving water and have a beautiful landscape that you want to spend time in.”
Xeriscaping features native and drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, and plants that not only survive but thrive with little to no water other than rainfall.
The WaterWise Demonstration and Research Garden in Spokane includes a wheelchair accessible pathway with a turnaround point at one end so people of different abilities can enjoy and take inspiration from the space.
The project is a collaboration between Extension and SpokaneScape, part of the city’s Public Works and Utilities. SpokaneScape provides financial incentives to city water customers who replace or largely reduce lawns in favor of drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, and plants. Its website lists native and drought-tolerant vegetation types and offers planting guides, design templates, tips, videos, and more.
The city, Kohlhauff says, did the “heavy lifting. They brought in heavy equipment and moved dirt. They did the irrigation and path construction.”
Through in-kind labor, equipment use, and materials, the city of Spokane contributed just over $8,800 to the garden. That’s the cost of everything save for the plants and labor to install the plants, many of which were donated starts from Master Gardener volunteers.
By the end of 2022, Master Gardener volunteers contributed 430 hours of labor to the project, including construction and maintenance.
The initial idea came about approximately four years ago: Why not transform a strip of dirt between the fence and the parking lot into a demonstration garden?
Before the project, Kohlhauff says, “It was just full of whatever weeds or grasses managed to grow there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted plans. Ground finally broke on the project in fall 2020. A landscape designer from the city created the scheme. Master Gardeners decided what plants to install and where to install them. “The planning stage was ongoing,” Kohlhauff says. “It overlapped with construction.”
Planting took place during multiple days in spring 2021. A recognition celebration was held that July. In all, 34 Master Gardener volunteers worked on the project, along with three employees from the city of Spokane.
Together, “they put in hundreds of hours on this project,” Kohlhauff says. “That’s one of the things I’m most excited about. Volunteers really took the lead on this. They felt so passionately about it.”
Today, Master Gardener volunteers continue to maintain the low-water landscaping, gathering to work in the garden once a week in spring and fall. Extension holds classes in the building, “then we take tours outside so people can see the garden and ask questions about the plants,” Kohlhauff says. “We’re also using pictures of the plants for traveling classes on waterwise gardening at different libraries around the county.”
Of course, members of the public are invited to visit anytime. Give Kohlhauff a wave if you go. He can see the garden from his office window.
Yakima County: Local Food and Soil Health
The idea took root in spring 2020 amid pandemic lockdowns, job loss, and increased demand on local food banks. As COVID-19 increased food insecurity, WSU Extension Master Gardeners of Yakima County wanted to use their skills to grow food for local people in need.
Master Gardener Karen Orange offered a former apple orchard that had become a grassy and unused field. Preparing the 5,000-square-foot plot took two years of planning and labor. Buckwheat and cowpeas were planted in 2020 and plowed into the earth to improve the soil. In 2021, Master Gardener volunteers spread composted horse manure and grew winter rye to further enrich the future West Valley Food Garden (WVFG). The rye was tilled into the earth in spring 2022, the same year as the garden’s first harvest.
“Soil is the most important thing. You have to have good soil if you’re going to have a good crop,” says Camille Smith, a Master Gardener since 2020 and co-leader of the WVFG project. Soil samples were sent to labs at the University of Massachusetts for testing and analysis. Results showed the Master Gardeners’ plot was fertile—and ready.
Ron Obert, husband of Master Gardener Gini Obert, created the vegetable beds, installing 28 berms, each 20 feet long. WVFG co-chair John Strong, a Master Gardener since 2011 and former president of the Master Gardener Foundation of Yakima County, designed and installed a drip irrigation system with a team of volunteers. They also built and installed trellises for vines. A $3,000 grant from Farm Credit Services helped cover expenses. Trickinnex Tree Trimming and Falling donated wood chips. Partially composted yard waste from Yakima County was used for mulch. Master Gardeners also created their own compost area on site, using red wigglers. “Worms are one of the best things you can do for soil,” Strong notes.
Master Gardeners met with food bank managers to learn what vegetables their clients preferred. And into the ground went Roma tomatoes, radishes, peas, carrots, cucumbers, four kinds of peppers, two types of beans, tomatillos, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, and spaghetti, butternut, and summer squash.
In all, Master Gardeners harvested 3,575 pounds of produce for the Highland Food Bank, which serves the rural upper Yakima Valley town of Tieton. It has a population of nearly 2,000 and a poverty rate of just over 42 percent. By comparison, the US has a poverty rate of 11.6 percent.
Throughout the growing season, volunteers pick produce and deliver it within hours of harvest to the food bank. This year, they added garlic, delicata squash, different pepper varieties, and Early Girl tomatoes to the mix. This summer, volunteers also held their first classes at WVFG, which Smith fondly refers to as an “experimental educational garden,” or outdoor community classroom.
Walla Walla County: Education and Outreach
They never miss a farmers market. At least, they try not to.
WSU Extension Master Gardeners of Walla Walla County has hosted a booth at Walla Walla Downtown Farmers Market since 2005. It’s one of the organization’s most visible outreach efforts, staffed by a small but dedicated group of volunteers, from May through October.
“We rarely miss a market,” says Amy Rosenberg, Extension coordinator for Walla Walla County. “We try to make every single one.”
Volunteers set up at the Farmers Market Pavilion on West Main Street from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. They split the market into two shifts, each staffed by two volunteers. There are 28 active Master Gardener volunteers in Walla Walla Country in all.
The last class, held in 2022, graduated eight Master Gardeners, including Rosenberg. Training is held every other year here.
At the farmers market, visitors to the booth include Walla Walla city and county residents as well as a healthy amount of tourists to wine country.
“We have some Master Gardeners that like to do the farmers market more than plant clinics,” Rosenberg says. “We have a couple that only want to do the farmers market, which is fine. We’re really using it as an outreach to recruit more Master Gardeners this year”—not just for Walla Walla but for Master Gardeners programs statewide.
“We have a flyer with a QR code that takes them to a page that lists all of the programs in the state so they can find their own county,” Rosenberg says.
Her boss, Walla Walla County Extension Director Debbie M. Williams, started the Master Gardeners program here in 2004 after completing training in Tri-Cities. One of the youngest programs in the state, the Walla Walla group is still growing. It doesn’t have a foundation to raise funds and doesn’t hold plant sales. There isn’t a full-time Master Gardener coordinator, either. In fact, Rosenberg says, “the Master Gardener piece is 10 percent of my job.”
In addition to the booth at the farmers market, Master Gardeners concentrate their efforts on plant clinics and maintaining a demonstration garden that wraps around the building that houses Extension. “It’s not a big demonstration garden, but we just put in a new irrigation system,” says Rosenberg, noting Master Gardener volunteer Alison Kirby has taken on the role of lead gardener for the plot, adding lots of native plants and making sure all plants are identified and mapped out.
The Master Gardeners hold four plant clinics per week: 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It’s seasonal,” she says. “We get pretty busy through the summer.”
50 years, 50 states (WSU Master Gardeners, Fall 2023, Washington State Magazine)
Videos: Master Gardeners at 50