Austin Master Gardeners

Karen Sandal cuts sunflower blossoms at the University of Minnesota Extension Junior Gardener plot in Austin. The garden is used to teach gardening to kids while also raising crops to donate to the community. 

AUSTIN — Therese Manggaard is hoping to harvest the dividends of the seeds she's planted.

"The most rewarding part is sharing my passion with the youth," Manggaard, a Minnesota master gardener, said. 

Manggaard runs the University of Minnesota Extension Junior Garden at the Mower County Fairgrounds. The garden, which has grown from a trio of 3-foot by 12-foot strips of vegetables when it began 12 years ago, is now an 80-by-80-foot garden.

This year, the master gardeners worked with a STEM group from Austin schools to teach the kids how to garden while helping raise about a thousand pounds of produce to be shared with two local community organizations.

The students spent seven weeks helping start and tend the garden, with the end of the session meaning taking some food home and earning some recognition at the Mower County Fair, where young gardeners from the program earned one champion award, one reserve champion, 12 blue ribbons and 10 red ribbons. 

"I hope getting the kids involved in the (Mower County Fair) gets them coming back," she said.

Manggaard said that in addition to the awards, a little prize money helped spur interest for the kids. But beyond prizes and a little cash, she hopes the students learned the joy of a garden. 

"An important part of a garden is the sensory experience," she said. To this end, she grows some lamb's ear, a perennial herb, that is soft to the touch. There are also bright sunflowers, colorful marigolds, and, of course, a variety of vegetables in an assortment of colors. 

While the students' part of the garden is done, the fruits of their labor are still helping the community. On alternating weeks, about 100 pounds of produce is donated to either the Mower County Senior Center or the Salvation Army Food Pantry. 

The most recent harvest included potatoes, peppers, apples, rutabagas, green beans, squash, carrots and tomatoes, not to mention some sweet ground cherries, a member of the nightshade family that has a sweet, tomato-like fruit. 

"One vegetable does not a meal make," said Karen Sundal, another master gardener who helps run the Junior Garden program.

Looking at the ground cherries, Sundal said next year she hopes to grow the plants over a pallet to keep them off the ground better. "Every year is a learning experience," she said.

That was certainly true this summer, Manggaard said. Between the late start they got on planting and the challenges the wet weather brought, the growing season was yet another lesson for the master gardener group that volunteers at the Junior Gardener farm. 

Sundal said about half a dozen master gardeners help run the program, but she's hoping more people will become interested in becoming a master gardener in order to bolster their ranks. Previous gardening experience, she added, is not a requirement. 

While Manggaard has a two-year horticulture degree, Sundal said she has an MBA and worked in logistics. But she came to the master gardener program because of a love of plants.

"When my kids were babies, we'd go out in the woods and find wildflowers," she said. "Wildflowers are my first love."

Mangaard added that while she has an educational background in horticulture, that's not where her career took her. 

"I got a job not related to horticulture, but I realized that was my passion," she said. "I'd sit by the window looking outside wishing I was gardening."

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