By BECKY McKENDRY
Capital News Service
LANSING – Anita Callender’s garden is her refuge.
“My garden is a Valium,” she said. “It is a tranquilizer. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
As the coordinator for the Western Wayne County Extension Office’s Master Gardner Volunteer Program, Callender is looking forward to January, which marks the program’s 35th year in Michigan – and another year for her to pass on her love of gardening.
The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is a gardening and horticulture education program across the U.S. and Canada, for people of all ages and experience levels. Volunteers attend a series of research-based classes for 45 hours, then complete community service projects to become certified.
In Michigan, the program has been offered in 52 counties at least once.
Despite the economic downturn, Callender says she’s been impressed with membership levels over the past several years.
Perceptions are changing about gardening in an urban environment, she said, and those who can afford it are still signing up. “Membership’s pretty steady around here. It’s gone down a bit but I think it’s just the fees. It’s been rough around here.”
Callender says she will be looking into scholarships to help interested residents pay the one-time $300 fee.
“Everyone who wants to should be able to experience how soothing gardening is and how it can connect you to your community,” she said.
Community is the theme of sorts for the program, Callender said, and something they plan to live by as they tackle this upcoming year’s projects.
Community service projects slated for 2014 include the rejuvenation of Belle Isle, a garden for a shelter for abused girls in Dearborn Heights called Vista Maria, and harvesting food for food bank donations.
On the other side of the state, the Kalamazoo County Master Gardener Association is preparing for similar projects.
“Our volunteers have gardened at the county jail, answered gardening questions from shoppers at local garden centers. We’ve harvested over 10,000 pounds of food for donations,” said vice president Patti Pittman of Kalamazoo.
“We’re just looking forward to being even more active in our community,” she said.
Pittman says she expects classes in 2014 to draw another small but steady uptick of membership. A few years ago, the association had 120 due-paying members, and they’ve since increased to approximately 160.
The program has also started to see a wider variety of volunteers, she said.
“Some people come in not knowing the difference between a plant and a weed, and some of them work as landscapers or groundskeepers,” Pittman said. “But they all leave loving gardening and knowing how it can bring people together.”