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Dorothy Johnson Certified Extension Master Gardener

Dorothy Johnson

Certified Extension Master Gardener

Dorothy Johnson in the Master Gardener World

The year of 1977 began my adventures as part of the University of Minnesota’s Master Gardener Program.   The U of M Extension Service publicized a new volunteer program, where trained gardeners were to volunteer within the county they lived in to assist residents, gardening groups, the local county fairs,  and more, with advice to garden with success..  Minnesota’s  many active garden clubs were contacted by mail, and through the U of M Department of Horticultural Science, when professors were presenters at garden groups’ meetings.  At that time hundreds of garden clubs were active throughout the state; and most were affiliated with the Federated Garden Clubs state association and with the Minnesota State Horticultural Society organizations.

I had been a member of the Bloomington Affiliated Garden Clubs for 6 years, as a member of Larkfield Garden Club, and had moved to West St.Paul a few months before the training began.  In Bloomington, the 10 or more clubs were very active in community improvements, and held beautiful flower shows each year. The club had received a civic beautification award from Sears after planting trees in the City’s outdoor baseball fields, and had decided to develop a Japanese Garden on the campus of Normandale College.  I was a stay-at-home Mom, and had time to help with fundraising, especially selling the newly-designated City tree, the Japanese Tree Lilac, and serving on the Japanese Garden’s development committee.

The Bloomington group helped at the Horticulture Building  during State Fair weeks, so I had met several women from other garden clubs in our new neighborhood while volunteering at the Fair over the years.  I made more new friends when I joined  Rainbow Garden Club, and some of them encouraged me to get involved with the Master Gardeners in Dakota County.  When January came, a carload went together for the MG training sessions at the U of M’s St. Paul campus.  The first class was about 125 people from the 5-county metro area, mostly from Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.  There were 10-12 of us from Dakota County.

Recalling those days, I realize that I must have been among the youngest person involved with the training, which is likely why I am one of the few remaining MG’s from the first training class.  (At the 35th Anniversary MG Conference in 2012, I realized that I had been a MG for half of my life!)

In the early years as a MG in Dakota County, we met to decide what projects we could handle.  For about 10 years, the schedule included writing for local newspapers, one-on-one advice, using U of M slides and scripts to speak to groups, organizing and staffing County Fair events, teaching 4-H gardening units, planting and maintaining small gardens at the fairgrounds, and more.  One special project was working with the immigrant Hmong farmers, as they began produce gardens for selling at Farmer’s Markets. After a couple of years, the most involvement was answering questions at local garden centers, with very busy springtimes.  When the garden centers began to give us money, we knew that we were valuable to the businesses.

By 1987, I was working full time for the Minnesota State Horticultural Society as Executive Director.  I had been able to volunteer in the office for 2 summers before being hired, and had recently finished a degree in communications and small business management.  During the 10 years I worked there, the organization moved forward with improvements for the  Minnesota Horticulturist magazine (Now called Northern Gardener), purchased a building near the U of M St.Paul Campus, and served Minnesota’s home gardeners in many ways.  Each year I was able to travel throughout the state to present seminars and tours, through the Society’s District program structure.  The Society worked principally through volunteers, and  couldn’t have reached nearly as many people without the help of Master Gardeners.

In those years, I continued to volunteer primarily in Dakota County, including helping several garden clubs come together to form a large, new club which held meetings at Gerten’s Garden Center. During the past 30 years, land use has dramatically changed in Dakota County, evolving from large farms using the land to hobby farms and suburban housing developments.  The local Extension Office staffing and MG program grew larger and became very well organized to meet a growing list of residents’ needs.

In 1999, my husband and I returned to Nisswa, where we both had grown up, and I joined the Crow Wing County group.  About 4 years earlier, I became a volunteer at St. John’s University, as the entire campus became dedicated as an Arboretum.  The planning aspect of creating schemes to use the land as an educational tool has worked well, as the Natural Science curricula is now integrated with the prairie, wetland and oak savannah areas in many ways.  Staff and volunteers (including MGs from Stearns County) aid elementary students’ science curriculum with both in-class learning on field trips’ hands-on experiences.

The first year I moved to Nisswa, I learned about the new city-owned cemetery being developed in Breezy Point.  Four of us Crow Wing County MGs took on the project of helping develop the “natural” concept of Pelican Woods Cemetery.  We worked together to plan logical places to develop plantings, and, working with volunteers supported by City staff, the garden took shape within a few years.  There has not been much money available to support the project, and  a DNR grant for using native plants went a long way to gain educational focus within the property.  The planted areas continue to be tended by volunteers.

Other than continuing with regular landscape helping at the Cemetery,  most of my hours are giving individuals gardening advice.  What fun and interesting challenges arise every time when people around me bring up their latest gardening dilemmas!

I view the Crow Wing MG group as one of the best in the state.  The group’s members find niches within the many good projects; new opportunities and challenges continue to be met with enthusiasm; the new multi-generational projects are exciting.  Leadership is excellent.  MGs’ Garden Expo, community ed, and seminar for groups provide education to meet the many Northern garden challenges.  Not the least of MGs accomplishments is that Crow Wing County Commissioners have respect for the many successful projects they have seen over the years.  Credit is due not only to the local MG group, but to the U of M Extension Service for recognizing  and  providing support materials, so MGs can meet the needs to create successful natural resource management projects.