Clara Mullins came to meet me late last year when I visited the Leon County Extension Office. And why wouldn’t she? She jumps at the chance to talk with strangers about plants.
She finds her audience at the nursery and garden store where she’s given a presentation about butterflies. She visits an elementary school to cultivate plants and students’ curiosity about them. She sets up a table at Springtime Tallahassee, where people who came out to eat and hear music find themselves asking Clara about the trees in their yard. Then, they walk away with a brochure about pollinators and the plants those birds and bees prefer.
To reach enough people one by one to grow a greener Florida, we need people by the thousands. Fortunately, we have Clara and her thousands of Florida Master Gardener Volunteer peers.
April is National Volunteer Month. Our Master Gardener Volunteers remind us at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences how much our Extension efforts are multiplied by people who promote plants out of passion, not for a paycheck.
How else to explain why Eileen Hart took the first Florida Master Gardener class ever, in Hillsborough County in 1979, and still travels the county giving talks to people about native plants, ferns and camellias?
Laurie Albrecht started as a Master Gardener Volunteer, turned her plant passion into a job as educational coordinator at the UF/IFAS Extension Mounts Botanical Garden and then, eight years ago, into her present position as a Palm Beach County Horticultural Extension agent.
Santa Rosa County Master Gardener Volunteer Suzanne Spencer established 70 miles of roadside wildflowers, giving an extra glimpse of color to countless motorists while saving the Florida Department of Transportation an estimated $1,000 a mile a year.
The stories go on and on. Their common thread is volunteers meeting people where they are, whether it’s in their car at 70 mph or in third grade learning about how certain plants are better than others at attracting butterflies.
Clara even does house calls as part of a Florida Yards & Neighborhood team. It’s Clara’s willingness to get out into the community that makes her such an important part of outreach efforts, says Mark Tancig, our Leon County commercial and residential horticulture agent.
Leon County Extension Director Marcus Boston adds he invited Clara to meet me because she’s a leader. She oversees the volunteer effort which has turned Bed 4 of our demonstration garden into a magnet for bees, wasps, hummingbirds and the people who are fascinated by them. She takes the lead on instruction in an online monthly 4-H horticulture club.
As someone engaged in this work day in and day out, Boston makes the point as well as I ever could: we simply could not reach the population we’re designed to reach (everyone!) without faithful volunteers. In Tallahassee, he reminds me, that population includes people wearing Florida State University garnet and gold.
Clara changes people’s relationships with plants. Often it’s deepening those relationships, like the time a motorist driving by the Extension office was so dazzled by the blooms in the beds Clara maintains that she pulled over and went into the office to ask Clara about them.
Other times, Clara sparks the interest of someone who wasn’t even aware of a desire to identify what’s growing around them. You can’t put a price on that.
Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).