Master Gardener program plants path to healthy communities

For recess at Cajon Park School in Santee, youngsters can choose to get dirty on the playground—or while gardening. Each classroom has its own plot of ground for planting and harvesting whatever seasonal produce the students decide to grow.

Surprisingly, many students prefer digging to dodgeball, according to Judy Crall, 66, a certified Master Gardener who volunteers with this garden and chairs a group of Master Gardeners who support the growth of gardens in schools throughout San Diego County. There are more than 300 school gardens countywide.


“It’s great to get children out of the classroom, out of the grocery store, to learn that things don’t grow on shelves,” said Crall, whose father and grandparents were farmers. “They learn about patience, responsibility and persistence to reap the fruits of their labor. These are life lessons to me. It’s wonderful to watch them succeed. They’re so eager to learn and do.”

The Master Gardener program has been involved with the development of both school and community gardens, most recently partnering with the Healthy Works initiative funding the growth of these gardens.

Master Gardener volunteers are required to donate at least 50 hours of service each year to maintain their certification. They educate people about horticulture and gardening at fairs, through presentations and special projects and by staffing the Master Gardener hotline (858-694-2860) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday - Friday.

Crall figures she donates about 20 hours each week, and she loves it. She recruited her daughter, Elizabeth, to help the Cajon garden grow.

She says most of the youngsters have never even seen a farm, and can be “squeamish” initially. “It takes a while before they can look at insects without screaming,” Crall said.

The students learn all elements of growing produce from composting, mulching, germinating seeds, planting, feeding, watering, battling pests and—of course —harvesting and eating. Their favorite plants are strawberries and chocolate cherry tomatoes.

Crall says the school gardens can vary from strictly container gardens to “showplace gardens.” At some schools, the neighborhood has pitched in to help make the gardens an asset for everyone. And some schools use the harvested crops in their lunch programs, she says.

Dennis Tucker, 68, is not with the Master Gardener program, but he has become one of the go-to guys at the San Marcos Community Garden. Tucker grew up helping on his grandfather’s cotton ranch, and worked in the produce business in San Diego. Now, besides tending two of his own plots at the community garden, he’s teaching special-needs children from a nearby middle school how to grow food.

With funding from HHSA’s Aging and Independence Services and coordination through the San Marcos Senior Center, the San Marcos Community Garden became a site for an intergenerational gardening project. Twice a week, about a dozen youngsters from Woodland Park Middle School tend their plot. Older adults work with them on growing lettuce, parsley, fava beans and other produce that they “can take back to class and eat,” Tucker said. “It’s pretty much one-on-one with these kids. They’re getting better and better. It’s a lot of fun to see. They are real enthused about it.”

Tucker said that one of the students uses a wheelchair and was not able to get down to the ground to join the others, so the group built a redwood planter box. Now he can be part of the fun.

Because budgets for these gardens are small or nonexistent, the coordinators count on the generosity of businesses, neighbors, and volunteers. Donations have ranged from seeds and used gardening equipment to horse manure from local ranches and mulch from tree trimmers. Local civic clubs and scout troops often lend a hand making planter boxes. If you are interested in volunteering or supporting the work at the San Marcos Community Garden, contact Georganne Grotey at (760) 744-5535, ext. 3602.

Another garden project supported by the Master Gardener Program and funded through Healthy Works is a pilot program at Edgemoor in Santee. The Edgemoor Volunteer Garden will offer 20 raised garden beds available for community residents and Edgemoor staff to grow their own vegetables. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, call Diane Hunter at (858) 495-5769.

If you want to help a school or community garden succeed in your neighborhood, contact your local school or city and see if they have a garden that could use any resources. For more information about these gardens and the Master Gardener program, visit

By Denise Nelesen