Cultivating Green Thumbs and More

By Irene Luck

The Central Virginia Master Gardeners participate in numerous community events annually, including the Louisa County Agricultural Fair held the last weekend of July. Not only do they volunteer to man the exhibition area, but they also have their own booth of information.

Virginia Cooperative Extension, or VCE – a blend of letters without much explanation as to its purpose or services. But, behind that nomenclature is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and opportunity for Lake Anna residents.

Virginia Cooperative Extension in Louisa County traces its beginnings back to the early 1900s as an outreach of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a land-grant university which later became known at Virginia Tech. Virginia State University, originally known as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, was formed about the same time as the black land grant institution. Today, both universities support the local VCE offices around the Commonwealth.

But, what does VCE do? Initially, the organization was focused on improving agricultural output and expansion. Today, the agents not only work in the areas of agriculture but also in community and leadership, natural resources, family, food and health, lawn and garden, and 4-H and youth in a variety of topics and programs.

“We are the local arm of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University,” said Jenny Thompson, 4-H youth development agent and unit coordinator. “We are able to access the research-based knowledge of both universities and disseminate it to the public, helping them resolve issues or concerns in their home gardens and lawns as well as providing education and enrichment classes.”

The Central Virginia Master Gardeners like to involve children in learning about nature and often offer activities for the youngsters. In this case, kids had the chance to decorate their own picture frames with items from nature.

With that said, just what does VCE offer to Lake Anna residents?

One of the most popular and helpful programs to residents is the Central Virginia Master Gardeners, which operates under the umbrella of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This program is led by Charles Rosson, who also fields questions about animal science and works with youth in related programs.

The Central Virginia Master Gardeners are trained volunteer educators who work within the community to encourage and promote environmentally-sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management education and training. All volunteers are trained, have at least 50 hours of horticultural classes, and return at least 50 hours of volunteer community service through their local extension office.

In Louisa, the Central Virginia Master Gardeners operate a Help Desk from 9 a.m. to noon April 1 through October 31 at the Extension Office. Citizens with questions about their gardens and lawns – including queries about blights, infestations, and other diseases or soil issues – can call the volunteers for help. They can also bring in examples of their concerns, such as samples of the diseased plants, any time to the extension office and the staff will try to determine a cause or send the sample off to VT or VSU for further identification.

“This is the biggest resource we have for homeowners,” said Thompson. “Particularly those who might only be here part time or are looking for non-invasive and environmentally-friendly ways to improve their gardens and lawns.”

The Central Virginia Master Gardeners also hold Backyard Gardening Seminars each March, and this year the volunteers will be traveling around the county with the “Central Virginia Master Gardeners Road Show” to assist residents with questions and concerns. [See sidebar for schedule]. The group, which is always seeking additional members, also work with the seniors at the Betty Queen Center and in the schools, demonstrating various gardening techniques and helping establish gardens at county and community properties.

Hands on classes are also part of the Master Gardener program, including this one on proper pruning techniques for shrubbery. Tours of agricultural and horticultural businesses are also scheduled as part of the program, such as American Colors in Orange County.
Photos courtesy of Central Virginia Master Gardeners.

The Central Virginia Master Gardeners also assist with the annual Louisa County Agricultural Fair by manning the exhibition area. Each year, volunteers also work the desk at the Virginia State Fair during Virginia Central Virginia Master Gardeners Association Day.

“They are our most prevalent ‘face’ in the community and interact with a wide range of individuals during their events,” Thompson said.

Virginia Cooperative Extension also offers programs for soil testing and water well testing, which also could benefit Lake Anna residents since everyone is on their own well and septic system. Instructions on how to have either tested is available by calling the extension office, and the testing is offered at a reduced cost compared to private laboratories.

Another program for Lake Anna residents involves food safety. Many are active in community groups, civic organizations, or the religious community and participate in events that involve serving food. Often, representatives of those organizations will take the Cooking for Crowds class offered by Crysti Hopkins, family and consumer sciences agent. Cooking for Crowds is designed for non-profits that do periodic one-day food sales throughout the year.

Those who participate in repeated frequent food service often take the ServSafe Food Handler course, a more in-depth training program designed for restaurants and others who regularly prepare and serve food. Both provide the attendee with a certification of completion, and the courses are encouraged by the local health department. Hopkins can schedule a session for a specific organization or multiple organizations that want to partner to meet the minimum class size requirements, and the courses are offered at no cost to the organization.

For the retired crowd looking for something to fill their time, the extension office has a multitude of volunteer opportunities ranging from short-term activities to lengthier commitments.

Thompson is also responsible for planning and implementing the annual 4-H trip to Holliday Lake in Appomattox for children age 9-13 as well as teen and adult counselor volunteers. Additionally, she oversees local programs such as the Louisa 4-H Livestock Club, Cloverbuds (an introductory program for younger children), the Teen Leadership Program, and camps to prepare students for numerous 4-H competitions.

“We are always looking for volunteers to help with our various 4-H programs or in any other program or even to lead new programs and activities for the community,” Thompson said.

Canoeing is one of the favorite activities at the annual 4-H camp at Holliday Lake in Appomattox.

Louisa County youth will attend 4-H Camp from June 4-8 this year with a maximum of 222 spaces open to campers. Each adult volunteer over 18 undergoes a background check if they may have contact with children, regardless of the program, and the teen counselors receive a minimum of 24 hours of training.

“We average 200 campers a year with 38 teen counselors and numerous adult volunteers,” Thompson said. “It’s a fun-filled, hectic week with the opportunity for lots of rewarding experiences for everybody.”

Hopkins also leads courses in financial literacy focusing on budgeting, credit reports, and homebuyer education; child care provider education classes; and customer service education to improve job skills. She also uses volunteers who have training or education in specific areas of her programs such as bookkeeping, finances, and first aid safety.

“Crysti helps families and individuals in building a realistic budget, meal planning, and food safety, particularly for our low-income families,” Thompson said. “Purchasing and preparing healthy foods is more time consuming and expensive than prepared foods but are more nutritious for families.”

Susan Colvin is the family nutrition program assistant working primarily with low-income families. Colvin’s position is paid with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and she focuses her efforts on SNAP (food stamp) education and working with children to improve their nutritional health. Colvin visits Thomas Jefferson and Trevilians elementary schools, teaching them the “MyPlate” program – a redefining of what was the food pyramid previously. Colvin also stresses the benefits of reading and understanding food labels, as well as proper hand-washing techniques.

Showing animals at the Louisa County Agricultural Fair is one of the activities of the Louisa 4-H Livestock Club. The participants raise the animals all year, tracking expenses and profits as part of the program.

In her work with the adults, Colvin teaches basic nutritional skills such as baking or roasting meats instead of frying, meal planning skills, and food safety and storage.

Thompson stressed that these programs are not the only opportunities to become involved in what the extension service has to offer.  “Virginia Cooperative Extension is a situation-based program, and we review the county’s needs and evolution regularly,” she said.

The staff is currently working on a situation analysis study to see where there are gaps in what’s being offered to the community. One of the topics Thompson sees as a focus is working with preventing childhood obesity, and another is safety for area latchkey children. “I was a latchkey child, but my parents taught me things about keeping myself safe such as locking doors, not answering the phone or door, etc.,” she explained.

Members of the Louisa Explorers Club check out the health of the stream by looking for various forms of life during an outing last summer.

The analysis will also look for potential short-term classes, known as “spin clubs.” These can be one-day sessions such as the benefits of freezer meal preparation or the improvement of computer skills by teaching new programs. Some sessions can last weekly for several weeks for hobby-focused things such as crocheting, knitting, pottery, painting, etc.

“We are always looking for volunteers to lead these classes, and we know there is a vast wealth of knowledge at the lake in these areas,” Thompson said. “I encourage anyone who has an idea about a potential class to contact us.”

The Virginia Cooperative Extension has outgrown its home in the Louisa County Office Building and recently moved into a two-story home the county purchased. The new facility offers more space for the programs, including a two-car garage that will be renovated and used as an indoor/outdoor classroom. The new facility also provides the opportunity for more intimate classes in cooking and food safety with its kitchen while the agency continues to utilize its larger meeting room and demonstration kitchen on the second floor of the county office building.  The home atmosphere will also allow the Central Virginia Master Gardeners space to design a demonstration garden, landscape project, and container and shade gardens.

“We will have lots of opportunities to do smaller projects in the home environment while retaining the larger space at the county office building,” Thompson said. “It really opens up our flexibility and the opportunity to schedule classes at the same time, particularly those that will interest youth and adults simultaneously.”

The Virginia Cooperative Extension office is located at 200 East Main Street, Louisa, and the phone number is 540-967-3422. You can also visit the agency’s website at https://louisa.ext.vt.edu for more information on various programs and schedules.