UC Master Gardener Program
University of California
UC Master Gardener Program

Growing Creativity in the COVID-19 Era (Part 2 of 4)

For the past three months, COVID-19 and social distancing requirements have changed the way the UC Master Gardener Program serves our mission to extend trusted gardening information. With a resurgence of interest in gardening, UC Master Gardener volunteers adapted to the pandemic using new and innovative ways to share gardening support and help.

This is the second feature of a four-part blog series. Read our earlier post about how volunteers in Amador County learned new skills and quickly brought program resources online in Part 1 of this 4-part series.

Join us as we celebrate the innovation, creativity, and flexibility of UC Master Gardener volunteers and county staff during this unique time!  


If you happened to pick up a newspaper or visit a news website in the Bay Area at the beginning of the pandemic in March, you likely read about the “Great Tomato Plant Share,” a community giveaway of nearly 5,000 plants grown and donated from the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa and Alameda Counties.

Ned Lange (left) and Devra Laner (right), UC Master Gardener volunteers, prepare tomato starts for transfer to Title 1 schools in Alameda County. As of June 11th, more than 1000 families have received food plant donations for their homes and gardens.

When the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County's annual tomato plant sale, attended by thousands of Bay Area residents, was canceled due to COVID-19, volunteers and staff wasted no time organizing ways to get the plants into the hands and homes of community members. “We didn't want the plants to go to waste, we wanted to get them out into the community,” said Dawn Kooyumjian, UC Master Gardener program coordinator. “Rather than composting the plants at a time of heightened interest in home vegetable gardening and food security, we saw an opportunity to connect with Oakland Unified School District through our school garden support team, which supports gardens in Title 1 schools by mentoring teachers, parents, and FoodCorps volunteers.”

According to UC Master Gardener, Devra Laner, at least 1200 families in Alameda County are now growing donated plant starts in their home gardens. “We just celebrated our eighth week of plant donations at seven different school locations within Oakland Unified School District. I would estimate we are close to 1500 plants given away,” says Laner.  “The number is a little hard to calculate because we are distributing the bush beans as a 4-pack, and we have 6-packs of scallions and stir fry greens coming up in a couple of weeks.  So if you count by the plant, rather than the pot, it's actually more!” 

Devra Laner and fellow volunteer Ned Lange have spearheaded the giveaway and have no plans to slow down. “We are proud of the work this team is doing. We hope we can keep it up all summer," says Laner. 
UC Master Gardener Program Volunteer, Ned Lange accompanies UC CalFresh Representatives Haley Kerr and Leticia Christian at West Oakland Middle School. 80 tomato and basil plants were distributed at this giveaway.

Additional plants were donated to local community and school gardens and sold to nurseries struggling to keep up with the increased demand. Plants care instructions on how to grow were available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic.

“Typically, our plant sale is our largest fundraising event of the year, bringing in $85,000 or more to support our mission of helping people learn or improve gardening skills. Because of COVID-19, we turned the ‘Great Tomato Sale' into what our volunteers call ‘Our Great Tomato Share' to support underserved communities,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension for the Bay Area. "The work done by our volunteers was enormous in terms of goodwill and transcended county lines. They are to be commended for their generosity and overall positive impact on Bay Area communities. Collectively they spent thousands of hours preparing for what turned out to be one of, if not the largest giveaway in the history of the program. I personally had the privilege of not only receiving and growing some of their plants in my own garden but was also able to participate in one of the plant giveaways. My appreciation and gratitude go out to all who participated and were instrumental in not only propagating the seedlings but also quickly shifting their actions from a fundraising activity to one that has generated such a significant amount of goodwill."

With the loss of its largest fundraising event, the program is thinking creatively about how to raise money for its educational workshops or garden supplies to support its community and demonstration gardens. If you would like to support the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa or Alameda County, you can make a gift by selecting the county name in the dropdown menu here: https://donate.ucanr.edu/?id=3_15.

Read more about the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa and Alameda Counties plant giveaway on local news website, KRON4, and on the UC Master Gardener Program of Alameda's website

UCCE Bay Area County Director, Frank McPherson, and UC CalFresh Representative, Haley Kerr, help distribute tomato plants and basil seedlings grown by UC Master Gardener volunteers at West Oakland Middle School in May

While COVID-19 has affected all communities and volunteers differently, the resilience, creativity, and flexibility of UC Master Gardener volunteers and coordinators continue to inspire and impress. The stories featured in this four-part series here are a small snapshot of the innovation and strength that this food community and garden education community has to offer.

Please note: Reappointment for the 2020/2021 Program Year began on June 1st and ends July 30th. The UC Master Gardener Program celebrates and appreciates ALL volunteers, regardless of their ability of contribute hours during this unprecedented time. Volunteers who choose to remain active and reappoint will be approved, regardless of the number of volunteer or continuing education hours completed this year.  Volunteers will not be responsible for making up any incomplete volunteer and continuing education hours in the following program year. However, all volunteers must complete reappointment in order to remain active or limited active in the UC Master Gardener Program.

Posted on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 at 6:15 AM


This was a wonderful idea!

Posted by Rosalie J Hayles on June 28, 2020 at 11:57 AM

Leave a Reply

You are currently not signed in. If you have an account, then sign in now! Anonymously contributed messages may be delayed.

Security Code:

Webmaster Email: mgwomack@ucanr.edu