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Fall 2022

Ask a Master Gardener Tables Are Back!

AAMG table with John Fike and Tery Lizarraga
AAMG table with John Fike and Tery Lizarraga
by David George

We’re back! Ask a Master Gardener (AAMG) tables reopen at Farmers Markets.
An interview of John R. Fike, AAMG Co-lead, by David George

Although UC Ask a Master Gardener tables reopened in limited numbers in 2021, all Farmers Markets that we normally attend in Contra Costa reopened this past summer. Through hot and cold weather, thick crowds and thin gatherings, our intrepid UC Master Gardener volunteers of Contra Costa County have answered questions, handed out free seed packets, offered Quick Tip advice cards, and engaged in fun and informative conversations with attendees.

Dr. John R. Fike, who, along with Laura-Brainin-Rodriguez and Bill Miller, oversees our Ask a Master Gardener (AAMG) tables at local farmers markets this year, sat down with me in Walnut Creek at our demonstration garden (at the corner of N. Wiget and Shadelands Dr.) to discuss the reopening experience, share some fun stories, and offer advice on how to maximize an AAMG table visit.

What was your professional career prior to joining the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County, John?
“After receiving my PhD in Radiation Biology from Colorado State, I went to work at UCSF. I focused on how the human brain responds to various forms of damage, for example traumatic brain injury or cancer therapy. It was tough work, and we were always under pressure to bring in federal grant money. Honestly, it was a relief to retire after 34 years, and to focus on my interests in gardening, pesky bugs, and healthy soils.”

What do you find most rewarding about running the Ask a Master Gardener tables?
“What I find most rewarding is the opportunity to work directly with our community, providing helpful, research-based information to folks who stop by. The challenge is to make sometimes complex information understandable to our gardening community because folks show up with diverse backgrounds, experience levels, and perspectives. As booth staffers, we must always ask ourselves the question, ‘So What?' Providing just information is not enough. We ask folks what is important to them and, based on their answer, provide real meaning to the information and how to address their specific gardening issue. It’s much more interesting to me to chat with folks and have a real conversation. Visitors to our tables often share fun stories or dilemmas. Plus, we learn and grow as well. I learn something new every time I volunteer in a booth, which is a lot. It is loads of fun for me.”

AAMG co-lead John R.Fike
AAMG co-lead John R.Fike
So, how do farmers market AAMG tables benefit the community?
“Oh, in several ways! Helping answer immediate questions or concerns increase the community’s overall gardening knowledge. We all become smarter gardeners, especially beginners who benefit most from solid gardening advice. You know, when young families ask, ‘What do I need to do to grow my own food?’ Research-based best practice advice can have a great impact and can damp down some of the marginal quality information spread through the internet. We also see great benefit from pointing our visitors towards high quality educational resources that are now online and available to everyone. That way gardeners can go home and do further research using trusted resources and web sites.”

Any interesting or fun stories to share?
“Lots of them! There was a lady’s question about how to cure diarrhea in her local raccoons, and the “Mother Teresa” of gardening who could never kill even the worst bugs or pests (she asked what kinds of plants she could grow to feed her hornworms!). One of my favorite stories was told by an older man saying that he had tried everything to get his basil seeds to germinate with no success. Finally, he said he stripped naked and danced around the seed pots in the moonlight. Even that did not work! I thought about advising him that seeds don’t normally respond to naked basil dances by old men – but I didn’t! Just recently, a table visitor declared that all biting bugs were female (which is generally true) and that males are useless. I refrained from reminding him that men are pretty good at taking out the garbage and fixing stuff without instruction manuals.”

AAMG table with congressman J.R.Garamendi
AAMG table with congressman J.R.Garamendi
"LOL!." Seriously though, how can the public better prepare for discussing a gardening problem at a UC Master Gardener table?
To start, check moisture levels around your tree’s or plant’s roots. Too much or too little water is the most common cause of plant failures. If root moisture seems adequate, take a couple of photos to share with table staff. Is this the only plant affected or is it one of many? In what city or neighborhood is your garden located? Do you have a specimen of the bug or plant to share? Oftentimes we don’t have an immediate answer to your question asked at the table, but if you have photos and samples, we can get you in touch with some real experts in our county: our Help Desk.

Any other advice you’d like to share with our readers?
Be persistent about finding causes and cures. Don’t accept the first advice that comes along, especially from dubious web sites. You can trust UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) and UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County websites. But my most important advice is to stop by our table the next time you visit a farmers market. We offer alternatives and workable solutions to gardening issues. Don’t be shy. No question is too entry-level. The only stupid question is the one that’s never asked. We have a talented group of volunteers staffing our tables and they’re all there to help folks. Let’s make it fun!

Thanks, John for some great advice, stories, and tips on how to make the most of the next Ask a Master Gardener table visit. There’s still time this fall season to stop by. We hope you do!  

Check here for when and where will we have a UC AAMG table at local Farmers Markets? 

David George and John R.Fike are UC Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County
Photo credits: UCANR