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Master Gardeners of Berks Bestowed Search for Excellence Award

By Penn State Extension

Master Gardeners of Berks Bestowed Search for Excellence Award

The Search for Excellence program recognizes the outstanding work of Master Gardeners throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and honors projects in six program areas: youth programs, demonstration gardens, innovative projects, workshops/presentations, special needs audiences, and community service projects. In October 2020, Masters Gardeners of Berks County were awarded first place in the community service category for their Treatment Court Garden project.

The Master Gardener Treatment Court Garden Project was initiated by three Berks County judges as an alternative to incarceration for multiple DUI offenders without previous criminal records to provide education and community service opportunities. Berks County Treatment Court Judge Eleni Geishauser commented that the Treatment Court Garden Project, “… fits so perfectly into our model, because what we are trying to do is build individuals who live in recovery and all of those skills are found in our program with the Penn State Master Gardeners.” She believes counties across the state can develop programs similar to the one in Berks County and that Master Gardeners can be major contributors to the recovery process for individuals in other counties, as has been done in Berks.

The garden is located within community garden space across the street from Opportunity House, a residential homeless shelter in Reading, PA. There are two main goals of the project. The first is to provide basic gardening instruction. For this educational goal, Master Gardeners conduct two instructional garden sessions per week during the growing season for the Treatment Court clients, Opportunity House residents, other garden plot renters, and neighborhood residents who stop by. Some of the topics included in the weekly classes were soil testing, seed planting, transplanting, pest control, crop rotation, weeding, watering, and general garden maintenance. Through these biweekly sessions, participants gain an understanding of food growing by witnessing and participating in the gardening process from seed planting to harvest and in the process become aware of the impact of weather, insects, and diseases on the growth of plants.

The second project goal is to provide fresh vegetables to the homeless shelter and Treatment Court clients.

In the initial season, five garden beds were cultivated and used for instruction solely for Treatment Court clients. With a new partnership between Opportunity House, Treatment Court, and the Penn State Extension Master Gardener program of Berks County, the garden area has since grown to 23 beds. Bill Finlay, Master Gardener co-chairman of the project states, “It was rewarding to see folks who may not have had much experience with growing vegetables arrive at the garden each week excited by the experience of watching vegetables they had planted grow, and to partake of the harvest.”

The impacts of this project are significant. During the 2019 gardening season, more than 50 Treatment Court and Opportunity House participants received over 400 hours of gardening instruction and the garden yielded more than 500 pounds of produce provided to Opportunity House and Treatment Court clients. Comments made by participants in the garden indicated that they were routinely surprised and delighted by how good fresh produce tastes. Additionally, several clients developed a long-lasting interest in gardening. One participant rented two beds adjacent to the Treatment Court allotment so he could grow his own vegetables alongside the demonstration garden, while another client continued to attend the gardening instruction sessions after her commitment to Treatment Court had been fulfilled. The Master Gardeners are looking forward to resuming this project and reaching additional residents with gardening knowledge, appreciation, and fresh produce.

For more information about the Master Gardeners of Berks County, including how to become a Master Gardener, please contact program coordinator, Natalie Marioni at 610-378-1327 or [email protected]. If you wish to reach a trained Master Gardner for home gardening assistance, please email [email protected].

The Pennsylvania State University encourages qualified persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact us at 610-378-1327 in advance of your participation or visit.