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Thousands throughout Oregon sign up for free, internet-based gardening program

Gardening is apparently a popular option for people who are following statewide social distancing requirements.

Interest and enrollment in the OSU Master Gardener vegetable course has skyrocketed according to local and statewide staff with OSU Extension Service.

"It is through the roof," said Amy Jo Detweiler, professor and extension horticulturist for extension service offices in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties.

Nearly 18,000 people statewide had signed up for the free, online version of the course by last week and about 1,000 more were signing up daily as people nationally abide by stay-at-home pandemic orders. From Jan. 1 through March 19, 15 people had registered for the on-demand, online course. On March 20, OSU Extension's Master Gardener program decided to waive the $45 fee and promote it on social media. As of 10 a.m. on April 1, 17,656 people had registered for the course.

The results have been stunning, said Gail Langellotto, a professor of horticulture and statewide coordinator of the Master Gardener program.

The introductory course covers basics including planning, soil, care, and harvesting. It will continue to be free through at least the end of April. The course, which has been offered online since 2008, is part of the OSU Master Gardeners Short Course Series offered through OSU's Professional and Continuing Education unit.

"We were inspired to do what we could during this very difficult time, after seeing the actions of our colleagues," Langellotto said. "Master Gardener programs in Polk and Lincoln counties were turning cancelled plant sales into opportunities to get free vegetable seedlings to food pantries and into their communities. Labs in OSU's horticulture department were donating personal protective equipment. When we asked what we could do, we knew we had this course, and thought it might be of interest to a few folks."

The social media post promoting the course was shared more than 24,000 times — including more than 4,500 times in its first hours – and has drawn more than 1,700 comments.

"Because the Facebook post went viral, we're also reaching lots of folks from across the country who may not know that they have a university Extension office in their own backyard," Langellotto said. "So, I'm also trying to use this as an opportunity to introduce folks to their local Extension office."

Helping complement and localize the course, the extension service offices in Central Oregon have offered additional virtual courses.

"The (Master Gardener) class will cover the basic skills for vegetable gardening but will not be regionally specific," Detweiler said. "I suspect there will be good information that one could glean from this course, but they would want to make sure to pull in the local components with our local publications and classes. We offered Growing Vegetables in Central Oregon via Zoom webinar on March 14 instead of all the face-to-face classes including the one that was to be offered in Prineville."

Detweiler said she will be offering several remote classes including the veggie gardening one early this month and will be posting short video clips of the Central Oregon Gardening Facebook page to keep people gardening through this time. 

The link for free course is https://workspace.oregonstate.edu/course/master-gardener-series-vegetable-gardening?hsLang=en, and local gardening classes and publications will be listed at https://extension.oregonstate.edu/deschutes/home-garden-landscape-0.

Master Gardeners play a large role in providing food to their communities, Langellotto said. OSU Extension Master Gardeners supported 23 school gardens and 46 community gardens in 2019. They also make significant donations to food banks and food pantries each year — 52.5 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables in 2019.

But these activities are on hold due to the pandemic. For example, one of the biggest food providers, Grow an Extra Row Garden in Clackamas County, can't be planted this spring.

So, Master Gardeners are pivoting to alternative ways to provide that community support. They're encouraging people to use the free gardening course at home to contribute to a national Plant a Row for the Hungry effort.


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