816 North

Helping new gardeners blossom

Cass Sullivan gives instruction to the children participating in this year’s summer gardening program in Gladstone. The program is sponsored by the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City.
Cass Sullivan gives instruction to the children participating in this year’s summer gardening program in Gladstone. The program is sponsored by the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City. Special to The Star

On a hot summer morning, a handful of children and adults gather in front of what appear to be quite successful vegetable beds. Bending over with tape rolled around their hands, they carefully pull squash bug eggs off the stems of the leafy plants.

In one corner garden, 9-year-old Conner Babbitt has placed an arched fence over the bean plants he is growing. He says it was a must after deer discovered the fruits of his labor.

“One day they were there, and the next day, they got eaten,” Conner says.

The rest of his raised bed garden, including bright yellow and orange marigolds along with “relish” vegetables, are doing quite well. That includes Conner’s favorite — the okra.

“I like small things, and they are my smallest thing yet,” he says.

Conner had never gardened until a friend persuaded him to join the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City summer children’s gardening program. Conner and other 9- to 13-year-olds in the program are each working the soil at Fairview Christian Church in Gladstone in raised beds constructed and maintained by a group from the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City.

The master gardeners working and teaching here are a handful of the hundreds of pros who give thousands of volunteer gardening hours each growing season in the Kansas City area.

This small army of pros, trained by the University of Missouri and Kansas State University Extension Services, spend every growing season unleashing a flourish of vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees as a way of teaching others the basics of growing. At the same time, they provide extra programing to public spaces and nonprofits like museums and historic sites.

The Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City is celebrating 30 years this summer. The group is composed of gardeners from Platte, Clay and Jackson counties.

Around 350 gardeners in the program give more than 20,000 volunteer hours each year in 17 demonstration and partnership gardens. Johnson County’s program has been around 35 years and has 477 gardeners who give the equivalent of 22 paid positions in volunteer hours each year. Johnson County master gardeners tend eight demonstration gardens. Both sides of the state line also man a free gardening hotline the public can call to get answers to their toughest growing problems.

University of Missouri Extension regional horticultural specialist Lala Kumar says the master gardener program helps give their educational efforts more reach. Demonstration gardens, planned and planted by the gardeners and tended on a regular basis, allow the public to see what flowers, trees and shrubs can flourish in the area. Gardeners also host many vegetable gardens, which are used to demonstrate successful growing techniques. They offer much of the season’s produce to local food pantries.

“We always use volunteers to extend our services to the public,” Kumar said. “In our case, whenever we use volunteers, we provide some training. They become certified master gardeners.”

Courses cover horticultural topics from soil and disease to different types of lawns and how to grow fruit and vegetable gardens.

Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City requires a 10 week, 45-hour course that includes three take-home tests and 45 hours of volunteer work in the first year.

The training includes college-level information based on research about how to grow in the local climate and zone. Even the most experienced gardeners find they have something to learn.

“Most of the time, a lot of master gardeners are already doing some gardening on their own. They are always surprised by how little they knew about gardening when they start taking the course,” Kumar said.

Linda Fuson, a master gardener in Johnson County since 1999, agrees the classes were hard.

“I felt like I got dumber every week when I went to class,” Fuson said.

Fuson helps coordinate the master gardener group that cares for creates and cultivates the children’s gardens at Wonderscope Children’s Museum in Shawnee, which draws children from across the Kansas City area.

They have come a long way. When she started, the “garden” was simply a couple of raised planters in the middle of a parking lot. Now, they have created a wonderland of flowers, vegetables, compost bins, colored pavers, games and cut-outs to draw in both parents and the young children who patronize Wonderscope.

The goal is to educate, but gardeners keep the audience in mind.

“We entertain. We have hopscotch blocks, a table for tic-tac-toe, cut-outs, tunnels. It is supposed to be entertaining for the parents, as well,” Fuson said.

Last year, the group added a butterfly garden and became a monarch way station, planting milkweed and teaching about how urbanization is hurting the monarch populations.

Tom Armstrong, who also volunteers in the Wonderscope garden, believes the garden is an asset for the whole community. It was created in an area where the dumpsters used to stand. Now, it is a beautiful space open to public use even when the museum is closed.

“I call it the oasis in the asphalt,” Armstrong said.

Like many demonstration gardens created by area master gardeners, the Wonderscope garden provides an educational element that would not be possible for the museum to provide otherwise. Roxane Hill, executive director of Wonderscope, says the opportunity for kids to be outside in the garden environment is good for sensory development and allows the children a space to be creative and inventive. The museum uses the space for pop-up educational activities.

The master gardeners will also talk with visitors about gardening while they are tending the space on Thursday mornings.

“Our master gardeners have done an amazing job,” Hill said. “We’re a small organization. So it’s such an added benefit to us to have them and have their expertise. They interact with the children, and share with the children why they are doing certain things, and why they plan things in different spots. They help children think it through and understand what the process is.”

The Wonderscope garden has an uncertain future as Wonderscope has plans to move to the Missouri side of the state line, where the Kansas gardeners cannot follow. It would be very difficult to move their now well-established space. The gardeners are hoping their garden will stay but have only one more growing season guaranteed in the space, as Wonderscope is selling their building with an estimated spring 2019 move date.

While teaching and understanding gardening is the primary purpose, the gardeners say they stick with it because it is fun. Cass Sullivan helps coordinate the children’s gardening program in Gladstone.

“I like this program. I love the kids, they are so much fun,” Sullivan said.

She has been a master gardener since 2002. Like many other gardeners, she decided to become a part of the program after her retirement and discovered gardening was more of a challenge than she first thought.

“After you get through the 45 hours, you realize all the things you’ve done wrong. Then you try for the next 20 years to fix the things that you did wrong,” Sullivan said.

The children’s gardening program gives her and other volunteer gardeners the chance to teach directly. While they have a full program, sometimes the lessons are simple.

“With Connor, the other day, I said, ‘I see a tree.’ Connor looked up, but there was a tree growing in his garden, but he didn’t know what it was,” Sullivan said.

All of the demonstration gardens have regular gardening days where the plants are tended, watered and weeded. It also allows the gardeners to participate in another favorite part of the program — the camaraderie with others interested in gardening.

“As master gardeners, we love to eat, and we usually have stuff to eat at our gardeners’ gathering and the gardeners’ mingle,” Sullivan said. “You want to stay active, and this is a fun thing to do. I recommend it to anybody.”

Select demonstration gardens in the Northland

Platte County Community Gardens: 10609 N.W. Hwy 45, Parkville

Swope Park Community Center Demonstration Garden: 4201 E. 63rd Street, Kansas City

Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, 407 N. La Frenz Road, Liberty

The Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum, 6607 N.E. Antioch Road, Gladstone

Monet Garden (Overland Park Arboretum): 8909 W. 179th St., Overland Park

Shawnee Indian Mission: 53rd and Mission Road, Fairway

Wonderscope (Wonderscope Children's Museum): 5705 Flint, Shawnee

Gardening hotline number:

Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City Hotline: 816-833-TREE (8733)