Courtesy of the UCANR News 

Although training is required to become a University of California Master Gardener, the benefits of gardening can be experienced by anyone and everyone.

“As long as you’re willing to get your hands dirty,” said Laurie Menosky, a UC Master Gardener volunteer in Orange County, “you can learn to grow all sorts of things.”

In early April, Menosky partnered with ETN Medical Infusion (a clinic in Orange County) and the Sustainability Program for Student Housing at UC Irvine to teach students how to grow tomatoes. Menosky welcomed all in attendance, including families with toddlers who seemed fascinated by the 60 tomato plants atop one of the tables in the room.

The UC Master Gardener Program is a part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. During her presentation, Menosky taught participants how to choose varieties that fit their taste and growing environment, how to cultivate a thriving environment, and how to control pests and diseases using integrated pest management practices.

“We have 16,000 residents at UCI and sustainability is one of our values. One of the ways we engage students is through on-campus gardens,” said Rachel Harvey, sustainability program manager for UCI Student Housing and a UC Master Gardener volunteer in Orange County.

UC Irvine has one teaching garden reserved for undergraduate learning, and three gardens operated and maintained by graduate students. “I was on the waiting list for a garden plot for a while, but it was totally worth the wait,” said Johanna Rinaman, a fifth-year Ph.D. student studying physical chemistry.

While the highlight of the event for many people was the opportunity to take a tomato plant home, another important takeaway was how gardening can be a good activity for your mental health. Sarah Nghiem, family medicine specialist at ETN Medical Infusion, who worked closely with Menosky, was instrumental in developing the mental health content for the day, encouraging attendees to attempt gardening with a mental health perspective.

Nghiem and her team received funding from the Orange County Health Care Agency through the Mental Health Services Act to work with transitional aged students (15-24 years-old) on understanding the importance of mental health, which led to the collaboration between UC Irvine, her alma mater, and the UC Master Gardeners of Orange County.

“I didn’t do any gardening during the winter, and I felt a lot more anxious and depressed during that time,” Rinaman said. “I know gardening improves mental health because I’ve immediately felt a difference whenever I spend time with plants.”

Rinaman, whose father taught her a lot of what she knows about gardening, said that having access to a 4 feet by 6 feet plot to grow her own food is one of the many things she loves about UC Irvine.

Like Rinaman, Menosky turns to gardening to decompress, especially during the long days of summer. Teaching others about the physical and mental benefits of gardening gives her an opportunity to share her experience and, hopefully, help others find new ways to manage stress.

“We often have attendees come back years later telling us how our information has helped them and how much more they are enjoying their time in their gardens,” she said.

To conclude her presentation, Menosky instructed participants to line up for their own tomato plant. Attendees took their plants outside to transfer them from a small pot to a grow bag – a type of container that helps root structure development.

Cassie Ekwego, a third-year transfer student studying civil engineering, couldn’t hide her excitement after carefully lifting her plant. “I don’t think I realized how attentive you need to be when working with plants,” said Ekwego, reflecting on what she learned from Menosky’s presentation.

Now that she has her own plant to care for in her own home, Ekwego is eager to put her new knowledge to the test. “I love tomatoes, but this is going to be a huge responsibility for me,” she said.

Randy Musser, UC Master Gardener program coordinator for Orange County, said that while he enjoys talking to avid gardeners, bringing gardening to new people in the community is special to him. “This tomato workshop is particularly exciting for me because it is an opportunity for the UC Master Gardeners to grow our connection to UCI and young people just starting off on their gardening journey,” said Musser.

With a generous contribution from UC Master Gardener volunteer Sheila Peterson, Musser was able to purchase enough supplies to help attendees, like Ekwego, jumpstart their gardening experience.

Students, whose stress levels can skyrocket throughout the school year, value opportunities to be outdoors, try something new and be in community. “The garden is a different type of classroom. It’s a place where students can learn and experiment, hopefully in a way that reduces stress,” said Harvey of UCI Student Housing.

Ekwego, who tried gardening for the first time while volunteering at UC Irvine’s teaching garden, is just one of the many students inspired by their experiences. “Gardening reminds me that it’s OK to get my hands dirty,” Ekwego said.