Gardening for Good

Spring Edition 2024 | Living Power Magazine

Of all the post-retirement activities and hobbies, gardening ranks among the top pursuits of those with more time to spend on the things they love—and no wonder. A study published last year in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health found people who garden, particularly in community gardens, increased their overall well-being by exercising more, eating more fiber, and staying connected to others in their community. A 2018 study from the journal Clinical Medicine found that gardening reduces stress and can also lower the risk of developing dementia.

The benefits of gardening, however, go far beyond the personal. Some have found ways to garden that also benefit the environment, those with food insecurity, and the community at large.

Master Plan

In 1979, NC State Extension launched its volunteer initiative to help guide homeowners in making environmentally sound decisions in their landscapes. Now 45 years later, the NC State Extension Master GardenerSM program has grown to an extensive network with outposts in every county in the state, with volunteer opportunities in 75 counties.

“These are programs that engage people from the community—local citizens and residents and people who are interested in learning more and also want to volunteer,” says Charlotte Glen, NC State Extension Master Gardener program manager.

The Extension Master Gardener program isn’t simply a horticulture class. While participants do learn about gardening best practices during their training—which includes 40 hours of instruction and a 40-hour internship—those skills simply serve as the basis of the real work done by volunteers.

Once trained through their local extension office, volunteers begin working in their communities on projects that include installing plant labels with QR codes linked to the Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox—the extension’s plant database—in demonstration gardens. Both those initiatives, alongside workshops and other educational outreach, are designed to educate the community about growing their own food, as well as planting gardens that benefit local ecosystems.

“With our Extension Master Gardener program, we’re focusing on home gardening,” Glen says. “The goal is improving quality of life and helping people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and helping people take care of their yard in a way that protects the environment.”

Extension Master Gardener volunteers also have been instrumental in setting up and maintaining community gardens across the state. These gardens, along with home gardening initiatives, have become an important part of the Extension’s work to reduce food insecurity in North Carolina.

“There are a lot of different activities across the state around helping people grow their own food, whether it’s starting a garden in their yard, being more successful with their gardening, or working with community gardens,” Glen says. “It’s building local production so people don’t have to rely on food being shipped in from somewhere else to a grocery store that may be miles from their home.”

Extension Master Gardener volunteers Ann Farnham (left) and
Susan Levy (right) lead therapeutic horticulture activities for
groups at the Siler City Center for Active Living.
Photos by Steve Broscious

Some Extension Master Gardener volunteers also operate therapeutic gardening programs, designed to improve both physical and mental health in their community. “They’re helping people through gardening, basically helping them improve their health and wellbeing,” Glen says. “The program helps whether it’s physically through the exercise of gardening, or mentally, because there are so many benefits of being around plants.”

Master Gardener volunteers also sometimes get to be a part of statewide research initiatives conducted by NC State, such as a recent study that explored how managing perennial stems increases the ability of residential landscapes to provide habitat for some pollinators, such as bee and wasp species that live and reproduce in plant stems.

“We had volunteers in different counties across the state collecting stems and sending them to some of our researchers on campus, and lo and behold, they found pollinators in them,” Glen says. “And that’s the land grant’s mission—to do research and then through Extension, take that information out to the people and make a difference.”

Glen says the Extension Master Gardener program offers a wide range of roles across the state, and no matter the job, those who give their time can be certain they’re making a difference in not only their community, but the world. “It’s not just a gardening class,” she says. “It’s for people who want to learn about gardening, and then use that knowledge to help others.”

To learn more about the NC State Extension Master Gardener volunteer program, visit

A Fresh Perspective

During her tenure as principal of a K–12 school that catered to students with significant intellectual and physical disabilities, Kelli Howe knew she wanted to enact programs that would prepare these kids to obtain jobs upon graduation.

Outside the facility, several old greenhouses stood in a state of disrepair, remnants of a horticulture program the school offered during the 1970s and ‘80s. Howe thought they could be salvaged and obtained funding from the school board to refurbish them. Around that time, an acquaintance brought Howe an article about the Charlotte-based nonprofit 100 Gardens, which builds and operates aquaponic gardens in schools, prisons, and communities in need.

“I learned about aquaponics and it seemed to be the perfect fit because it’s very repetitive, predictable, and schedule-driven, which is what a lot of special needs students, especially students with autism, need,” she says.

Aquaponics is a farming method that raises edible freshwater fish and vegetables together in a symbiotic environment. A tank holds fish, such as tilapia or catfish, which provide natural fertilizer for vegetables that are rooted in water in a separate tank. The vegetables absorb nutrients from that fertilizer, providing clean water that goes back to the fish.

“We started off in a very small way—we raised about $2,500 and got one very small table, one tank, and seven fish,” Howe says. “We trialed that for about five months, and the kids loved it.”

That first tank led to a larger enterprise at the school that still operates today and provides all the lettuce for a local restaurant. After Howe retired, she joined the board of 100 Gardens and now works with the nonprofit as education director to install aquaponic systems in schools and other locations across North Carolina. She says she enjoys the work she does with 100 Gardens not only because it’s fun, but also because it gives her a chance to enact change that can potentially improve our environment.

“It’s a relationship—aquaponics is a symbiotic system, and that’s the same way I’ve always felt about the earth,” she says. “These gardens are a way to show people their impact on the earth and how if we don’t improve our situation, we will no longer be able to garden outside. It just gives a different perspective.”

To learn more about aquaponics, visit

Sustainable Seeds

Teri Stanley has always loved gardening. Growing up in a farming family, she developed an early appreciation for cultivating plants, be they vegetables or flowers. After retiring from Nash County Schools, Stanley dedicated more time to gardening, and she found she liked starting from scratch with seeds rather than buying plants.

“I like flowers, and it’s nice to plant from seeds, so you know what you’re getting,” she says. “I also like to have fresh vegetables—it’s nice to go in the yard and pick things and know where they came from.”
While the growing season is pretty long in North Carolina, Stanley says you have to start planting prior to the last frost to have flowers and vegetables—which can take months to grow—ready when summer hits. So she devised a way to recycle items from her home to create mini-greenhouses for seedlings.

Stanley uses empty plastic juice bottles and milk jugs filled with dirt to plant her seeds, putting them outside in her raised beds to grow. She says not only do the containers protect the tender sprouts from the cold, bugs, and birds, but they also facilitate a more conducive growing environment than indoors.

“When you grow seeds inside, they get kind of leggy, and this keeps them from getting leggy,” she says. “Plus, they are more acclimated to being outside, so it’s easier to transplant them from the container.”

Stanley says her homemade greenhouses allow her to garden not only more successfully, but more sustainably, as well. And she says this method reduces the investment in planting a garden, making it accessible to just about anyone.

“I try to recycle as much as I can,” she says. “And with that and a packet of seeds, even if you don’t have good luck with your plants, you’re wasting maybe a dollar or 50 cents. But I promise you, if those seeds do come up, they will make you feel so good.”

The Five Gardening Tasks To Complete in February

Take steps now to ensure a great fruit crop, get your roses ready, and prepare to start seeds

February is the shoulder season in many parts of the U.S. It’s been in the 50s the last few days, and the irises and tulips have started to emerge. For most gardeners, this fills some with both excitement and anxiety with a capital A—am I already behind? You’re not, because February is the time to catch up.

So in this, the shortest of all months, you have not one, but two jobs:

  • Wrap up all the things you’ve not yet accomplished for winter while preparing for spring
  • Get your fruit positioned for an amazing season

Work that will determine what kind of fruit harvest you’ll have

Start by pruning any fruit trees and shrubs you haven’t gotten to yet. This includes blueberries, currants, huckleberries, winterberries, and all other berry shrubs. Prune and train your grapes, and prune back your fall-bearing raspberries. Check with your garden center to see if it’s time to prune summer-bearing raspberries and other cane fruit. If you’re planting fruit trees or shrubs this year, the window is now open. It’s also the right time to relocate any trees or shrubs that might do better elsewhere. You can start planting rhubarb, too.

Once you’re done with the structural work above, it’s time to think about fertilizing all that fruit. Your garden center can help you with fertilizer specifically for fruit trees, vines, and the special acidic fertilizer that blueberries love.

If you’re up for the challenge, consider cloche-ing or wrapping your strawberries to encourage early fruiting.

Take care of your roses

As with fruit, now is the time to give your roses the late winter chop. If you’ve never really paid attention before, this kind of pruning helps encourage your roses to grow strong vines with prolific blooms. Just letting them grow without any pruning or training can result in scraggly and crooked vines. Check out a guide to pruning roses, sterilize your pruning clippers and wear arm protection. You’ll start to see roses in the garden center, and you can start getting them into the ground later in the month. All roses will benefit from fertilizer as well.

Now is the time to divide (some of) your plants

There are a wealth of plants in your yard that benefit from occasional dividing. Dividing gives plants more space to grow, more ability to absorb nutrients, and allows roots to flourish. They’re also two plants for the price of one. Now is the ideal time to dig into those herbaceous perennials and divide those suckers and relocate. To do so, you dig up the entire plant, generously going around the root ball. Lift it out of the ground, and then tease apart the roots with your hands or a sharp knife. You want each division to have at least three shoots. Replant them within the day, and give them a drink of water and a little shade for a few days. Now, this isn’t all perennials, but the fall-blooming perennials. Asters, astilbe, iris, bee balm, blanket flower, bleeding heart, daylily, phlox, hosta, lambs ear, agapanthus, ornamental grasses, and sedum are some common plants you could look to divide.

Resist the urge to clean up

The first week of 50-degree weather sends everyone into their yards, eager to be back outside. While you can embrace the feeling, resist cleaning up the leaves and woody stems you so graciously left in fall. The beneficial insects that are using the leaves and stems to hibernate aren’t ready to exit quite yet. You’ll want to wait until closer to summer. In the meantime, those leaves and stems are becoming useful mulch and compost. Redirect the energy into tuning up your lawnmower for the spring and hunting down every slug and snail that survived winter.

On the precipice of seeding

We’re still too far out to seed tomatoes, eggplants, and your summer vegetables. You can, however, get a crop of spring vegetables started, including broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and other short crops. If you can find starts at the garden center, they can go in the ground about now, too. What can definitely go in the ground now are pea seeds, including sweet peas.

What you can seed right now is your earliest annual flowers: your petunias, portulaca, sweet alyssum and trailing nasturtiums, the flowers for your hanging baskets and window baskets. You can start your ginger and turmeric inside.

Mostly, you can use this time to get your seed starting supplies cleaned and sterilized with a mild bleach solution and ensure you have all the seeds you want for a bountiful year.