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AgCenter gardening course reaches more than 35,000

Richard Bogren
LSU AgCenter

It started as a way to address the number of telephone calls and emails that had increased to hundreds a day as people stayed home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and had myriad questions as they started gardens — some for the first time.

“We weren’t able to conduct a regular Master Gardener class,” said LSU AgCenter horticulture agent Chris Dunaway.

And with a waiting list in the hundreds, Dunaway, along with horticulture agents Anna Timmermanand Joe Willis, decided to offer an online Home Gardening Certificate Course.

“We thought, ‘We can do this. We can make a class,’ ” Dunaway said.

Timmerman started with a statewide survey and discovered widespread interest.

The agents decided to offer a 10-week series of online classes at no charge to participants. In early June, they started a signup process on Eventbrite.

The horticulture agents who serve Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes in the Greater New Orleans area soon saw their idea for an online home gardening certificate course balloon to tens of thousands of participants from across the country and even around the globe.

Registration was opened on a Friday afternoon with the expectation of 250 participants. It filled so quickly that the organizers increased the number to 500. Then more.

By the time the first session was offered less than 10 days later, more than 25,000 people had registered. Now, the number is more than 35,000.

The registration information was shared with Mississippi cooperative extension, then word spread to Alabama and eventually farther afield, Timmerman said. Participants are from all over the country, including New Jersey, Michigan, Arkansas and Pennsylvania.

“We even have foreign students,” Willis said. “Some are in Australia, where the climate is similar to Louisiana.” 

The 10-week course includes two sessions per week.

The programs include lectures with slide presentations, in-field demonstration videos and lab sessions people can do at home along with voluminous reference material for students who want to dig deeper.

This is all posted to a webpage set up for the course on the LSU AgCenter website. 

“The assistance from AgCenter technical experts on campus like Liz Black, Anna Ribbeck and Randy LaBauve have been invaluable. We couldn’t have done this without the AgCenter being in full support,” Willis said.

One “lab” activity on soils asked participants to dig cores of soil 6 inches deep, put the soil in a glass, add water and shake it up. “When the soil settles, you can see layers of sand, silt and clay,” Willis said.

The participants used the information from their soils lab to determine the type of soil in their gardens.

Participants post their lab results and participate in class discussions on a Facebook page set up specifically for the course.

Another lab asked participants to dissect a flower. 

“We started with the basics — soils and botany — and went on from there,” Willis said.

The labs are things people can do at home, Timmerman said. The agents worked with Willis’s wife, Paula Barton-Willis, a science teacher, to improve their teaching skills and develop teaching materials appropriate for older children who are taking the course. Barton-Willis also presented some of the lectures and lab sessions.

“We have all levels of people participating with various interests, abilities and experiences,” Barton-Willis said.

The New Orleans area horticulturists recruited other AgCenter specialists to contribute video presentations, including agent Mary Helen Ferguson; horticulturists Ed Bush, Heather Kirk-Ballard and Kiki Fontenot; turf specialist Ron Strahan; Michael Breithaupt from the soil and plant analysis lab; and AgCenter plant doctor Raj Singh.

Master Gardener volunteers also play important roles, including editing closed captioning for the videos and moderating the Home Gardening Certificate Facebook page.

All volunteers are Master Gardeners, who are required to provide 20 hours of volunteer work and six hours of continuing education to maintain their credentials, Dunaway said. With COVID-19, participation and volunteering in the program meet those requirements.

“This provides an opportunity for Master Gardeners to meet their volunteer commitment and serve as a refresher,” Timmerman said.

The certificate program started with a pretest do gauge participants’ general knowledge of gardening, and the participants will be asked to take a posttest to see how much knowledge they gained.

“We initially thought we would evaluate everyone for the certificate,” Dunaway said. “But with the number of people who are participating, we’re using the honor system.”

The entire course is available online at https://bit.ly/GNOhomegardening.

Dunaway, Timmerman and Willis have improved on many of their skills as they have produced the materials.

“I learned from Paula how to make learning more fun by creating better slideshows — more pictures and fewer words,” Willis said. 

Dunaway said he has improved his skills at recording and editing video. 

“New Orleans Master Gardener volunteers who have been critical to our success include Katie Semmes and Peggy Soileau, who helped with closed captioning, and Stephanie Gross, who helped with video editing,” Dunaway said.

Timmerman learned in real-time to coordinate the tech aspects and student communications element of the course, which can amount to hundreds of emails a day. 

“This has been a challenge,” Timmerman said. “We had no idea of what we were getting into.”

The team agrees, however, they will never forget their experience during the summer of COVID-19.