Louisiana Master Gardeners meet, learn at annual conference

LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dan Gill gives an impromptu lesson at the New Orleans Botanical Gardens for Louisiana Master Gardeners on May 21 as part of the group's state conference. (Click to download. Photo by Mark Claesgens.)

News Release Distributed 05/25/09

KENNER, La. – Although he may be known to the culinary world as a leading New Orleans chef, John Besh also is a leading proponent of serving locally grown foods in his four restaurants.

“Our restaurants spend $8 million to $9 million a year on groceries,” Besh told participants at the Louisiana Master Gardeners’ state conference here May 21.

“What if we could spend that in our own backyard?” he asked.

The Louisiana Master Gardener program is an LSU AgCenter service and educational activity that recruits and trains volunteers to help meet the educational needs of home gardeners in Louisiana, AgCenter officials said. Volunteers present the public with unbiased, researched-based educational assistance and programs in consumer horticulture.

About 260 Master Gardeners from across Louisiana attended the 2009 event, said Linda Vinsanau, conference chair for the host Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans.

Besh, who was the keynote speaker for the conference, said Crescent City restauranteurs were scrambling for produce following Hurricane Katrina in late 2005, and they realized much of the historically available produce from local truck farms disappeared over the years.

“It opened my eyes to a great world of opportunity,” said Besh, who began working with residents of New Orleans to grow produce to supply the New Orleans restaurant market.

“Until you toil in the soil, it doesn’t hit home,” Besh said, adding that his restaurants now serve as much locally grown food as possible, including eggs and pork.

The four-day Master Gardener conference featured programs and workshops on sustainable gardening practices and other new trends in horticulture, Vinsanau said.

The program’s 21 speakers included national, regional and local experts in gardening, culinary arts, urban farming and horticulture technology. In addition to Besh and several LSU AgCenter experts and others, the program featured:

–Paul Soniat, the founding director of the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

–Mel Bartholomew, the originator and author of “Square Foot Gardening” and the popular television series bearing that title.

–Joe Lamp’l, nationally syndicated garden writer and host of the PBS series “Garden Smart” and DIY Network’s “Fresh from the Garden.”

The conference concluded with several community service projects in the New Orleans area on Sunday (May 24).

Jacki Morgan, a Master Gardener from Monroe, said she came to the conference to meet more Master Gardeners and to see what others are doing. She’s been a master gardener since 2006.

“I love to garden,” Morgan said. “I lived on a farm and wanted to educate myself to not have so much trial and error.”

Morgan said the conference was “great and informative.”

She said she was impressed by the Botanical Garden in City Park and how quickly it has been restored after the devastation by Hurricane Katrina. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

Jennifer Ates from Calhoun and Kathy Smith from Ruston also made the trip from northeast Louisiana to attend the conference. Both are in their fourth year as Master Gardeners.

Ates said she’s interested in organic, sustainable gardening and vegetable crops while Smith said she’s more interested in flowers and ornamentals.

Smith said she decided to become a Master Gardener to quickly learn more about good practices rather than learning by trial and error.

Ates said gardening is a never-ending learning process. “There’s always something to learn,” she said. “And Master Gardeners helps the process.”

The Louisiana Master Gardeners, a program of the LSU AgCenter started in Baton Rouge in 1994, was adopted statewide in 1997.

Louisiana boasts more than 1,500 active Master Gardeners who have completed at least 40 hours of intensive, practical horticultural training provided by the AgCenter.

After completing the initial course, Master Gardeners are required to volunteer at least 40 hours of service in their parish LSU AgCenter office or in community activities coordinated through the office.

After the first year, Master Gardeners are required to volunteer at least 20 hours and attend six hours of approved continuing education programming to maintain the title of Louisiana Master Gardener.

Kathy Toliver, a Master Gardener in New Orleans, said she had an interest in gardening but not much experience or know-how before she joined the program. She had bought a new home prior to Hurricane Katrina, and the aftereffects of the storm required redoing the landscape.

“I needed to learn how to take care of this,” she said of her home in the devastated New Orleans East area.

“Master Gardeners is one of the AgCenter’s most effective programs in the state,” LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson said. “We could not get the information out without the volunteers who serve the organization.”

Rick Bogren

5/25/2009 9:53:33 PM
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