When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors abandoned the county Master Gardeners program last year, its volunteers might have packed up their rakes and hoes and gone home.
Edye Clark, the group’s president, said that a few members did leave the organization but that most pulled together and worked harder to carry out the group’s mission to educate the public about organic gardening.
“We’re still here,” member Normalee Martin said, as the organization completed its first year of operating without staff support from the county’s Extension Office.
“It has been a struggle. There’s no way around it,” Clark said. “Not having the paid support in the Extension Office has been a real tax on our membership. But people have really stepped up.”
Supervisors eliminated the urban horticulture program in April 2012, after a series of budget work sessions in which the board cut programs it deemed not to be core functions of government. The $88,000 budget reduction cost urban horticulturist Deborah Dillion her job.
“Debbie Dillion definitely knew her job, and she excelled in it,” said Martin, of Leesburg. “She was the grease for the wheels. She kept the organization moving smoothly.”
“She was the one who supervised the program, organized the training and handled a lot of the personnel issues,” said Clark, of Round Hill. “She just kept the organization running, which freed the membership up to serve the public.”
At the beginning of last year, there were 186 master gardeners who volunteered about 12,500 hours of time annually, according to county budget documents. Although 26 new master gardeners were trained this year, the organization’s membership has dropped to about 160.
Clark said that some left the group for “political” reasons, unhappy about the board’s decision to end county support for the program, but that most stayed.
“Ultimately, [we had] to decide, if we go away, who does that really affect? And it was our clients,” Clark said. “It was the county residents, not the Board of Supervisors, that would be truly impacted.”
Clark said that the board was operating under some misconceptions that worked against the master gardeners during the budget deliberations last year.
“One of the biggest misconceptions — it certainly was by the Board of Supervisors — is that we don’t serve the eastern portion of the county,” Clark said. “We actually provide more services to the eastern portion, because it’s more densely populated.”
Clark said she also thinks the board did not fully understand the group’s membership or mission.
“A lot of people get the idea that we’re basically an old ladies’ garden club,” she said. “We have many males in the program. We have a wide range of ages, from people in their 20s to people in their 80s.”
The main mission of the Master Gardeners program is educating the public about organic gardening, Clark said. Master gardeners give presentations to schools, Scout troops and other community groups. Through a weekday help desk, volunteers answer questions from the public about flowers, vegetables, trees and lawns. They conduct gardening clinics, offer a lecture series and provide information at special events, farmers markets and stores such as Lowes in Sterling and Southern States in Purcellville.
The group also maintains a 20-year-old demonstration garden at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg. The garden is open to the public, and master gardeners are on hand twice a week to answer questions and give advice about growing vegetables and ornamental plants.
The organization trains 25 to 30 new master gardeners every year. After a year of classes, the trainees are required to volunteer at least 75 hours of their time before they attain master gardener certification: 25 hours in the demonstration garden, 25 hours at the help desk and 25 hours assisting with other activities, Clark said.
Kathy Reed, who joined the organization last year, disagreed with the notion that the master gardeners do not provide a vital governmental service.
“Clean water, food security . . . those are the kinds of things government has taken on,” said Reed, of Round Hill. “And that is one of the things that we absolutely assist with: science-based education on how to keep the water clean through what you do at your own home and on your own farm. That’s why we felt strongly that master gardeners should be supported financially by the government. And that’s why we were so distressed when that budget got cut.”
Members are organized into 17 volunteer teams that handle different aspects of the organization’s mission. They include a children’s garden team, a training team, a garden-to-table team and the grass-roots team, which focuses on educating people about lawn care. Clark said that new teams for publicity and community partnerships have been added since Dillion’s departure.
The loss of county staff support has meant that the organization’s officers and teams have had to absorb many of the functions Dillion used to carry out, Clark said.
“It pulls volunteer hours away from [other activities]. That’s my biggest concern,” she said. “For every 10 hours you spend on administration, that’s 10 hours you don’t spend working the help desk or at a clinic or in the garden.”
Reed said that the full effects of the budget cut will not be known for several years.
“Debbie also recruited a lot of the volunteers personally,” she said. “She would get 20 to 30 new people into the program every year who do the legwork of the education out in the community and the demonstration garden.”
Asked whether the group has had to drop any of its activities since Dillion’s departure, Clark hesitated.
“Not yet. Our mission is broad right now. We have a lot of hands reaching out to different parts of the community, and it’s really hard for any of us to think of not serving that community anymore.
“At this point, everybody’s stretching just as far as they can,” she said. “But I think we are going to have to reassess.”