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The Latest Dirt - Dec 2022

When You Meet Them

Be sure to say hello to our wonderful new group of trainees, the Class of 2023. They have taken the time to introduce themselves to us with, what must be for them, painfully brief bios, but nonetheless packed with information about their lives and their passions. There are 25 new trainees—20 from Central County, three from West County and two from East County. We enjoyed editing these bios and we think that we speak for all of us when we tell them we look forward to meeting them in person in our projects and Demonstration Gardens. Each year, a new class of volunteer UC Master Gardeners re-invigorates our organization and helps to expand its mission. They are our seed corn with the potential to produce in the future even larger and more diverse harvests in the communities we serve. We also thank Fletcher Oakes for all of his beautiful portraits of the new class. Editors


Sangita Baxi (Walnut Creek, 2 years)

Growing up, my brothers and I would help my mother in the outdoor garden—weeding, mowing grass and trimming hedges, planting vegetables in a tiny plot, and digging holes for her prized rose bushes. Every spring was the same. We moved every few years and the latter half of my childhood was spent in the Midwest. After I’d been on my own for a bit, I realized I missed working in the garden and set up a container garden on the balcony of my apartment and grew herbs, flowers, tomatoes and eggplants. I was hooked!

Every few years, I moved and each time I would set up an outdoor container garden, growing an assortment of herbs, vegetables, flowers, and trees. I most often grew them from seeds, especially plumeria and citrus trees. The last few years, I’ve focused on indoor tropical plants, and have found a lot of joy in both growing and sharing plants and experience. I still have a few outdoor container plants: citrus trees, strawberry plants, herbs and spices and, new to me this year, carrots.

I am currently a doctoral student in policy analysis with a focus on health and health care, planning to graduate next year. Prior to my current program, I was a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company for many years, using my biology background to test new medicines for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Through the UC Master Gardener Program, I am excited to share my knowledge and increase access to an evidence-based understanding of gardening and natural systems to the community.


Nellie Beatty (Antioch, 14 years)

I spent the first 16 years of my life living in the Panama Canal Zone, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia. My family moved to southern New Mexico when I started my junior year of high school. I have experienced major earthquakes, a hurricane, and a full-scale revolution while living abroad. I am fully bilingual in Spanish because of my Ecuadorian mother and living abroad.

Living in the tropics, I assumed early on that everything grows. There was no need to worry about rain or seasons. There are just two seasons: the wet season and the dry season. The only difference between the seasons is that it does not rain as much in the dry season!

Relocating to the US and moving to a New Mexico desert town was a big culture shock. Not only was there almost no rain, there were also four seasons. Some similarities remained: my mom still planted her rose bushes and there was a plum tree to provide summer fruit.

I have always had an interest in gardening. As a child, I remember planting zinnia seeds and watching them grow. The Canal Zone has a wonderful garden, Summit Gardens, which is still beautiful today. We would frequently picnic there and wander among all the plants and fruit trees. Beyond Summit Gardens, I have visited many wonderful gardens in my travels including the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, the McBryde Garden in Kauai, and the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. Thankfully, my family also loves visiting gardens.

I became interested in becoming a UC Master Gardener when I visited their table at the Indiana State Fair. As a homeschool mom, I knew I would not be able to pursue this dream until I retired from teaching. Now, here I am! I am looking forward to learning all about what makes plants grow well and I want to share my knowledge with others.


Laura Callahan (Danville, 22.5 years)

I believe that I first started enjoying the garden when I was a toddler, and my parents would give me the hose and ask me to water the plants. I’m sure that watching my parents and how much they enjoyed having a yard was inspirational to me as a young child. They both grew up in Chicago, without much of a yard and spent countless hours beautifying their spaces.

Later, when I had my own family, I could see how much my own children enjoyed digging, planting and being outdoors. Now that my children are grown, I wish we had spent more time together doing that, instead of running around to the endless team sports that consumed our weekends. I am happy to see that many schools are now incorporating a school garden into their science curriculum and programs like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley are seen in many districts.

After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Food Science, I wound up getting hired by IBM as a systems engineer in the Los Angeles office of their Office Products Division. While it wasn’t food or nutrition science, which I was very interested in, it was a great job and I met my husband there in the training class. The Tech Sector was really exploding, and it was a good opportunity to be part of a dynamic company. My husband was from New York, so we decided to live there, and I worked in Manhattan for about two years. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed the fast pace of NYC, but I really missed my family and living in California. I convinced my husband to return, so I transferred to the Orange County office and we made that our home for the next 10 years. We started our family and lived in Irvine, CA. My husband’s career really took off and he was offered an executive position with a software company in Seattle. This is where I first heard about the UC Master Gardener Program. Someone in our neighborhood was a Master Gardener and had a lovely garden. I knew it would be something that I would pursue when I had a little more time.

I left IBM after 12 years and did a few part-time jobs, while I raised my three children. I decided to get a teaching credential and build on my science degree to become a middle school or high school science teacher, which I did for about five years. I loved teaching Biology and found it fascinating. I’m currently retired, although I stay quite busy as caregiver for my 87-year-old mother as well as for my husband who has recently had some health challenges. My husband and I find the garden and our “yard work” a good outlet from the stress of everyday living and hope to spend more time growing, planting and learning about gardening. I am interested in using my skills from the UC Master Gardener Program to teach students about the connections between their science knowledge and the joys of gardening. I am also interested in working with seniors either in Community Gardens or at Assisted Living facilities.


Lydia Camara (Danville, 18 years)

My literacy in the plant world started at botanical gardens. I’ve lived in over 20 places all over the country, until I planted roots here in the East Bay 19 years ago. In every place I’ve lived, I always found myself called to the local botanical garden. I didn’t know it then but that is probably why I chose to study Biochemistry. Now I spend my days with brilliant scientists and engineers working on bringing star power to earth in the National Ignition Facility and Photon Science Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I spend my free time cooking, baking, running (well, jogging, I’m slow), practicing yoga, camping, listening to music, traveling, and learning the scientific botanical names and the phytochemical constituents of the traditional Cherokee herbs. I call them herbs, but many people might call them weeds. Their way of being in the world fascinates and delights me. They are all made of such beautiful specific details.

I share my home with other garden enthusiasts: my husband, Jeff, who encourages me to know the plants around our homestead, and my two small dogs who can often be found sniffing the flowers in our garden beds or nibbling on a leaf. My garden helps me remember we are not in charge of the world and many other living things draw strength from plants. Plants grow, working many wonders. It is their duty. While I may have started my plant education with science, I’ve come to understand helping plants thrive is as much an art as it is a science. The sweetness in the meeting of science and art in the botanical world is immeasurable. I look forward to helping our gardening community find their own sweet spots.


Michael Camara (Antioch, 24 years, Walnut Creek 2 years)

I’ve been an avid reader from an early age, treasuring its seamless departure from a boring living room into an exciting and mystifying new world. I quickly realized my favorite stories involved a fantastic connection to nature. From Tolkien to Thoreau, I developed a deep appreciation for the subtle beauty of untouched wilderness and as I matured so did my reading. In high school, I read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for the first time, which I maintain is as much poetry as scientific literature. My interests quickly manifested in all things verdant. I built a terraced garden in my parent’s backyard, started seeds on my windowsill, and filled every inch of available real estate with tropical plants, herbs, and flowers.

Now my hobbies center around vivarium’s, conservation, and, of course, digging in the dirt in my garden. But my true passion has become finding a way to integrate technology with sustainable agriculture. As an engineering student, I am having great fun building automated systems for my more finicky topicals and hope to turn this pursuit into something more beneficial for the agricultural industry to lessen the impact of environmental degradation on our most delicate ecosystems.

Joining the UC Master Gardener Program will not only give me the knowledge to strengthen my passion, but also provide me with an incredible opportunity to bring that passion to others in our community. This is honestly a dream come true!


Jim DeFrisco (Danville for 30 years)

While in kindergarten, my teacher had us make applesauce from fresh apples, sparking a lifelong passion around food preparation from raw ingredients. As time went on, I would help my grandfather tend our small vegetable garden and harvest tart cherries (since Mom offered to make pies if I did the gathering and pitting) and cook at restaurants to pay my way through college. Eventually, we moved our family (three kids) to a spot where we could grow our own vegetables and share the bounty with friends and neighbors. I planted a dozen olive trees on our property 15 years ago and harvest them each year to mill our own olive oil.

Another passion is long distance bicycle touring. I’ve ridden across the US and down the west coast and try to get out on the road with friends for a few weeks each year. On a recent trip in August, we biked in Oregon from Eugene through Bend to Crater Lake.

I spent most of my career in the software business, programming and managing at a handful of startups and a few big companies. During retirement, I plan to pursue a project I’ve been thinking about for decades, which will combine my passions around growing and preparing food with my software experience.

This is my second time through the training program. I was part of the 2012 class and enjoyed helping to get Our Garden established. I had to step away a few years ago when my wife got sick. She is fine now. I’m excited to return to the UC Master Gardener Program after retiring from full-time work this past June. My reasons for wanting to join the program have not changed. I want to learn as much as I can about responsibly and efficiently growing food at home and to share that knowledge with the community.


Jan Diamond (Richmond, 30+ years)

When I was studying biology at UC Santa Cruz 45 years ago, I debated whether I should study “plant pathology” or “people pathology.” I couldn’t decide so I went to graduate school in environmental toxicology. But I was clearly not suited for the lab work involved, and after an inspiring venture translating in a Guatemala rural hospital, opted for “people pathology” and went to medical school. I treated AIDS patients in prison in the 80’s and 90’s, then worked in Contra Costa County clinics for almost 30 years. Since my retirement a few years ago, I’ve been very involved in training health care providers to treat hepatitis C, giving talks throughout California, as well as teaching primary care to Nurse Practitioners and medical residents in community clinics in East Oakland and San Pablo.

I’ve always loved gardening, especially with native plants. I still really want to learn about “plant pathology” and, after all this time, I hope to develop some useful expertise in plant diseases and pest management. I am interested in discovering how to help transition our plant environments to adapt to our drier, hotter environments due to climate change. I really enjoy teaching and look forward to sharing what I learn through meaningful volunteer work.


Robin Harper (Orinda, 37 years)

When I was eight, we moved to a blue house on a short, quiet street. At the end of the street there was a narrow strip of trees, which seemed like a forest to my small self. Beyond the trees was an open field, with a shallow pond that filled with tadpoles in the spring and a hill to one side, perfect for winter sledding. For the next few years, these trees and this pond with its surrounding field became my playground and my refuge. Although I would not have described it that way then, I realize now it was my first intimate experience with nature. It set the stage for a lifelong love of the outdoors.

I spent my adult life working with technology-based entertainment — games, virtual reality and streaming films. I loved what I did, but even in my digital worlds, I was creating gardens and building treehouses. (The best part of a virtual garden is there are no gophers!)

Over the past few years, I have wound down my work life and welcomed the opportunity to dive into the areas I could only touch on before. Now that I have the time, I spend hours among the trees and plants in my own garden, taking cuttings and experimenting with propagation. I love hiking the East Bay Hills and exploring local gardens to learn what I can about native plants and our rich California ecosystems.

As a UC Master Gardener it is my hope to build expertise in native plant gardening and ecosystem conservation, and to share that learning and my love of plants and gardens with the local community.


Julie Lucca (Lafayette, 22 months)

I love to learn! My Nanu taught me most of what I know about gardening. I always felt a connection between food and medicine. I find that health is 'rooted' in consumption of plants. I earned my bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology and my Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Agriculture, both from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I have worked on some industrial and family farms and now work in secondary academia in biology and nutritional sciences. In my free time, I love to travel internationally, and I have lived and spent many months and years in other countries, specifically Europe and Southeast Asia. I usually travel every Christmas and summer vacation, but I am taking this year to establish my home, family, career, and becoming a UC Master Gardener!

I am of Mediterranean descent and am guilty of incorporating some old-world patterns in my American lifestyle. Yoga, harmony, as well as fitness are part of my daily practice, along with being the first mate to the world's best boat captain (my honey), fills my heart. Outside of swimming, dancing, fishing, dreaming and reading, I continue to practice speaking and reading French. “Donc, bavardez avec moi s'il vous plaît!” After I am more comfortable with French, I am considering American Sign Language. I greatly look forward to learning applied soil science and agriculture, being a part of this cohort, and giving back to my community! Honestly, I am most excited about learning new knowledge and skills and developing friendships.


Jim Marchetti (Antioch, 20 years)

We always had a garden. ALWAYS! As a young boy in Los Altos Hills, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have something growing in a rather large and somewhat chaotic garden. But my first gardening memory was in Bakersfield with my Italian grandpa. It is that specific memory that lit the fire of fascination on how things grow. Grandpa had a small piece of land out of town where he and other Italian men gardened together. We were walking through his section, and he asked me if I had ever seen how a peanut grows. My response: No, Grandpa, do you know how? He took my hand down to the dirt and we dug out a clump of peanuts and that was it. I screamed in delight and asked where the tree was, underground? He just laughed and we roamed his little plot for another two hours learning about strawberries, green beans, cantaloupe, zucchini and so much more.

Other than the time I spent on deployments in the Navy, I and my family have always had some sort of garden, but in the past four years we have really cranked up the volume and my daughter, Brandi, has taken the lead in our garden. To this day, I am still fascinated about how things grow, what works, what doesn’t, and most of all, enjoying the fruits of our labor. My daughter and I have given the gardening gene to her daughter, my only grandchild. She even has her own raised bed this year!

Volunteering is in my blood thanks to Mom. She taught me its value by showing me, not telling me. She was maniacal and served her fellow humans in numerous capacities: school yard duty, pre-school co-op teacher, neighborhood vanpool for kids with no one to get them to their games, scout meetings, etc., nine years on the suicide hotline on the 10pm to 4am shift three-nights-a-week. She started a community center at the location of my former elementary school, Eastbrook Elementary, in Los Altos. That place ran for four years until politics took it all away.

I was Executive Director of the East County Veteran Resource Center from 2011 to 2014, which was the most rewarding mission I ever set out to accomplish. When I learned about UC Master Gardener Program, I knew that was my next mission. Thankfully, UC Master Gardeners are deeply rooted (pun intended) and will outlive me. So, this mission is one that I am in for the long haul.

I am also an avid woodworker and have built many gardening related items: potting benches for a small farm in Oakley and for our own home here in Antioch, trellises for the ‘climbers’ to climb to the sky, a composting box, and soil sifters to get rid of annoying rocks and other debris. I’ve recently started building planter boxes.

Since 2017, I work for UC Davis Health (Go Aggies) in Sacramento as an Information Technology Supervisor of IT Business Resiliency (disaster recovery). Lisa and I have been married for 36 years. She has endured three deployments, a ‘boomerang’ move to Overland Park, Kansas and back to California five years later, three adult children and plenty of my ADHD shenanigans along the way—always with a smile, and an “Oh, it’s OK, sweetheart.” Let’s Grow!


Windy Martinez (Rodeo, 43 years)

I’m a long-term resident of West Contra Costa County, growing up in Rodeo and raising my family in Richmond and Hercules. I’m returning to the UC Master Gardener family 24 years after my first UC Master Gardener certification. I look forward to the opportunities recertification will provide. My gardening interests include community gardening, school gardening, urban gardening, container gardening and houseplants.






Jana Multhaup (Danville)

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the daughter of an avid gardener who continues to have a large garden at the age of 87. My grandparents were also gardeners and grew up on farms in eastern Washington. My brothers and I spent weeks during the summer at their home helping with the garden. This was not something I enjoyed as a child and didn’t think I would garden as an adult.

I graduated from Washington State University and moved to California to work for Chevron. I just recently retired from a 37-year career. When I bought my first house in Walnut Creek, it had a small vegetable garden in the backyard and a rose garden in the front. I had started to get interested in cooking and as my interest grew, so did my interest in gardening. My husband and I moved to the Oakland Hills in 1995 and gardening became much easier, because everything grew there. But when we moved to Danville in 1998, I had to learn a whole new set of skills, including composting and irrigation. My love for gardening has continued to increase over the years and so has my love of cooking with fresh ingredients from my garden!

In addition to gardening, we are avid travelers. I have traveled all over the world (six continents, 35 countries) as a part of my career and for vacations. We just returned from a five-week trip to Switzerland, Portugal and Spain where we hiked/biked in the Alps and walked the Portuguese Coastal Camino de Santiago. I have one son who is a senior at UC Santa Barbara and two stepsons who are grown and starting their own careers.


Dave Nicholls (Concord, 25 years)

I have now lived half my life in the East Bay, after moving here from the United Kingdom. I am a scientist (studied Biochemistry and Applied Microbiology) and have worked in informatics for software and biotechnology companies for the last 26 years. I love that my job challenges me in different ways, allowing me to combine my interest in computer software and my scientific education with the purpose of helping other scientists perform their jobs more efficiently, to develop drugs faster with the ultimate goal of saving lives or improving the quality of lives.

I enjoy fruit, herb and vegetable gardening and have transformed my backyard into an edible garden, with raised beds, trellises, vertical planter beds and a water-efficient, automated drip system. My next project is to create an easy-to-maintain composting system. Growing unusual varieties of plants is a passion of mine, I love browsing the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. I’m part of community plant swaps and seed sharing programs at the local libraries. I love to eat home grown organic produce and share with friends and family. The whole rewarding process of growing our own vegetable and fruits has encouraged my wife and I to also learn new ways of preserving, preparing, and cooking produce, which is a necessity when a large harvest becomes ready to pick at the same time.

I’m looking forward to joining the UC Master Gardener community, making new friends and learning a lot from both the UC Master Gardener Program and experienced UC Master Gardeners to improve my gardening skills and share this knowledge with my local community.


Pam Rhodes (Orinda, 30 years)

I am very excited about becoming a UC Master Gardener! Gardening has always been my passion. It started as a child when my father was so excited about his garden, and, basically, any time I wanted to talk to him or ask for the car keys, he would be in the garden and insist on showing off his latest blooming flowers or new garden discoveries. While that was annoying as a teenager, all my siblings inherited his love of gardening and are each pursuing different aspects. Besides the beauty of the garden, I learn so much about patience and acceptance and exploration. I find a peacefulness and gratitude nature brings to my life. Gardens are to be nurtured and learnt from, not to be controlled. That has been an incredible life-long lesson for me.

Now, recently retired, I’m thrilled to have more free time to explore the things I’ve had to shorten or postpone all these years. Gardening and giving back through philanthropy are top of my list and the UC Master Gardeners Program is a perfect cross section of both.

I’m also very happy to reconnect with UC. I’m from Los Angeles and spent four incredibly happy years at Berkeley as an undergrad. Northern California became my home, where we raised our two children. My career was in corporate marketing, which I loved, and it led to a fair amount of travel which is also a passion. Now I’m ready for a new challenge and to continue learning. Meeting fellow gardeners is icing on the cake!


Marian Rule (Walnut Creek)

I am excited to join the Class of 2023. I am a nearly lifelong Contra Costa resident, born and raised in cold, foggy Kensington, lived for a while in Martinez, and have now settled in Walnut Creek. I had short stints living in Yolo County (for college, UC Davis), in Marin County (Larkspur) and Alameda County (Alameda). This demonstrates my adventurous side. But, while those other counties were great, Contra Costa is where I feel I belong.

My early start in gardening was primarily weed pulling, helping my mom and grandmother. Both ladies were understated, but talented, gardeners. They were down home, practical women that mostly gardened to grow food, with an occasional foray into flowers. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I love weed pulling to this day, because it allows me to take the chaos of an overgrown garden and impose some order and organization. I am cursed to be a pretty organized and detail-oriented person and love to tame a mess. Most important, I have found that weed pulling gives me a great time to think. Some of my best ideas surface when I allow my mind to wander doing mundane tasks in the garden.

An early victory for me was in second grade, when Mrs. Blake’s class at Kensington Elementary planted “Indian Corn.” From those seeds’ milk-carton-beginnings, I transplanted my sprouts into my grandmother’s large garden. My corn plants grew, and I successfully harvested “Indian Corn” that my Mom placed in the middle of the Thanksgiving table that year.

A second victory was the middle school when my science fair project was “Can Plants Grow Upside-Down?” (Yes.) Spoiler alert: is this the best way to grow beans? (No.)

Fast forward to more recent years: The main thing the garden has taught me, as articulated by my ex-husband, Jim, a landscape contractor: “It’s hard to keep everything in the garden looking good at the same time; but the things that are looking great will get everyone’s attention, while the other areas are just getting ready for their day to be the star.” Here is a metaphor for life: it is hard to have everything be perfect at the same time. We should appreciate what is going well in the moment.

I do not consider myself a great gardener, but I am a great learner! In the UC Master Gardener Program, I look forward to learning much more and suffering less from the trial-and-error approach that I have used up to this point. Then, I hope to help others fast-forward to greater gardening success without having done some of the dumb stuff that I have done. Philosophically, I think a love of gardening is a great societal equalizer. Passion for growing things provides common ground that benefits the planet and gives people a way to connect over a common interest. I look forward to all I will learn in this program and (once I know enough) to share this knowledge with others!


Pam Schroeder (Orinda, 12 years)

My interest in gardening may have started with NaNa’s mint iced tea. When I was young, we lived with my grandmother (NaNa ) on Long Island, in New York. Besides being a great cook, seamstress and piano player, she was an avid gardener. I have vivid memories of her gorgeous big flowering hydrangea bushes around the house. She lovingly tended many beds of flowers and grew mint for her signature mint iced tea, which I still make with the mint that I grow today. (Recipe available!) My grandmother remained on Long Island, but my family lived all over the country and moved about every two years, providing great exposure to different cultures, landscapes and seasons.

Once I graduated from College, I enjoyed a career in advertising, marketing, sales and media, working for great companies that allowed me to learn, travel, grow and have fun doing it. During those years, I lived in apartment buildings in New Hampshire and Denver and high rises on the Milwaukee and Chicago lakefronts with no access to gardening.

I had the opportunity to travel extensively and was able to visit countries on all seven continents. It was on those trips that I was exposed to extraordinary natural beauty, including all kinds of flora and fauna. Trekking in the Himalayas, Patagonia, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Thailand and other amazing countries immersed me in the most stunning natural beauty I had ever seen. It moved my soul and changed me forever.

I moved to California at age 50 and had my first real house since college. It had an orange tree in the yard which I went bonkers over! I could pick an orange and eat it straight from the tree! A first! My husband, a California native, couldn’t get over my reaction to something he had lived with all his life and didn’t think was anything terribly special.

Our current home came with mature oak, bay, maple, dogwood, redwood and camelia trees, azalea bushes, rhododendron, and lovely raised redwood garden beds. That was when I had the opportunity and developed an interest in gardening—vegetables, flowers, trees, bushes—all of it!

I retired over four years ago and in addition to a lot of volunteer work, I was excited to be able to spend more time in our garden which has been a lovely privilege. I have been learning pretty much by just doing and have been a self-guided “google gardener.”

I am thrilled to be a part of this UC Master Gardener class because I am passionate about learning to take better care of the earth’s precious resources: soil, water, trees and flora. I want to be as knowledgeable as possible about all aspects of gardening so that I can not only be a better gardener but, more important, share that knowledge with others in the East Bay community.


Jon Schwartz (Concord 1996-2007; 2016-present)

I feel as if I’m coming full circle in my affinity for plants. When I was very young, I grew a large vegetable garden in my family’s backyard. I was fascinated by the plants’ structure, even taking to examining their parts with a magnifying glass.

For three years, starting at the age of 19, I lived and studied close to Jerusalem, Israel. There I worked in many areas of agriculture. I was exposed to growing commercial flowers, stone fruits, various vegetables in the nightshade family, garlic, onions and cotton. Those experiences were formative for me and became an integral part of who I am. But my life took several sharp turns from there.

Returning to the US, I graduated from UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, including 100 quarter units in three languages. During that time, my relationship with plants consisted of cooking in high-end restaurants to support myself.

In another shift, for 34 years I worked for the federal government, the last decade of which was at the senior executive level. I had the experience of managing large groups of volunteers during that time, engaged in anti-poverty programs. I also hired and trained large groups of visually impaired and deaf people for different tasks in the Treasury Department. This taught me a great deal about the subculture of individuals with disabilities. My tenure in the government took me all over the country, traveling extensively and residing in four different time zones in the lower 48. My wife and I always had memberships in the local botanical gardens, typically with reciprocity for similar organizations nationwide.

Shortly after my retirement, I began attending talks at the UC Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden, and it rekindled my fascination with flora. I asked a lot of questions, looked closely at the garden, and ultimately decided to apply to the UC Master Gardener Program. I’m very interested in learning much more about plants and the insects and other animals interacting with them, as well as about sustainability. Helping to impart this information to others is very attractive to me.


Reba Siero (Martinez, 39 years)

The challenge of learning about the soil, flora and fauna appeals to me, especially as it relates to imparting that knowledge to others in the community. Teaching what I’ve learned seems to be second nature to me. I love to see the light go on as someone understands what I have shown them.

In my career, I worked at Berkeley Lab and ran a particle accelerator. The excitement of discovery as the physicists and chemists planned and executed their experiments was wonderful. Though I was technical staff, the scientists were great about sharing what they were working on. At an old accelerator, there are always problems to solve to keep the machine running. I see those problem-solving skills as an asset when helping community members figure out how to address their garden issues.

I love all things related to fiber. My interests include knitting, crochet, embroidery, spinning, hand-dyeing of both fabric and yarn, sewing, quilting, weaving and machine knitting. I love bringing my math and science background into play as I learn new techniques and find creative ways to share my love of various crafts with others. I teach weaving at the Center for Community Arts in Walnut Creek and have been doing that since I retired from the Lab in 2016.

I’m planning to learn more about dye plants and look forward to creating my own natural dye garden, being ever mindful of our limited water resources. I hope to combine my love of fiber arts with new skills learned in the UC Master Gardener Program and share these passions with the community.


Marissa Smithwick (Martinez, 21 years, East Bay, 54 years)

Do you remember planting beans in grade school? Every morning I rushed to the windowsill to check on my little cup filled with dirt and those magical seeds! The smell of the damp soil awakened a primal curiosity in me. Imagine my joy when the first tender green shoot stretched up through the soil and out into the sun, slowly unfurling new leaves and reaching ever upward each new day! That was the beginning of my love for gardening, especially in containers and small spaces.

Growing up in Concord, I enjoyed every chance to help my mom and grandmother in the garden. Neither of them had a ‘green thumb’ and we didn’t have much area to plant but I loved getting my hands into the earth and playing a part in growing pretty flowers and shrubs. When we started moving around, potted plants became some of my best friends. I’ve made just about every mistake in the book—over watering, under watering, too much sun, not enough, spider mite invasion, just to name a few—but each adversity is a new challenge to learn from and correct the latest issues. It’s an unending journey of discovery and amazement!

I enjoy California natives and learning how to support a natural ecosystem of flora and fauna, especially pollinators, while working to discourage invasive species. Another passion of mine is seed collecting. Just about anywhere I go, if there is a seed head around, I’ll probably tuck a few into a pocket or purse, wrapped in tissue or a make-shift envelope from a store flyer. They might be found in front of my doctor’s office or at work, on vacation in the wine country or Monterey, neighborhood green spaces or at church. Of course, sometimes I have no idea what these happened-upon seeds are going to become when planted. But that’s half the fun!

A few years ago, I learned about mycorrhizae from a class at the local garden center. This unseen world below the surface absolutely fascinated me! Since then I’ve been learning more about soil microbiomes and the rhizosphere which are just amazing areas to explore. I was very pleased when my work in project management led to my current project constructing a new lab and office building to support the collaboration of biosciences and earth and environmental science areas, using next-generation research tools across scales from molecular to ecosystem. I feel blessed to play a small part in broadening our understanding of the soil-plant-climate system and how we can harness that knowledge to live better with gentler impact on our environment.


Doug Tambling (Born and raised in San Jose, Walnut Creek for over 30 years)

My first experience in gardening was with large sunflowers as a child, fascinated by the rate of growth and the size of the flower heads. I had a landscaping business in high school, starting with lawn aeration and irrigation, then worked crew with a tractor. I studied Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with propagation in mycology, vegetables and flowers for the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

I worked as metabolism chemist in pesticide development for over 12 years, both in the greenhouse and in the lab. Then I moved to direct field trials across North America with larger plots to support regulatory submissions, label instructions and restrictions of novel pesticides. I planted my orchard with Babcock peach trees, salvaged from the end of a greenhouse study and over the years supplemented with other fruit tree varieties. But now it’s mostly only citrus.

After over 20 years in Program Management in Biotech, I recently retired. I use a home greenhouse to propagate and extend the growing season, where I’ve gone overboard on growing heirloom tomato varieties from saved seed in past years. I have sold plants at farmers markets, wholesale to Orchard Nursery and contributed to the UC Master Gardener Great Tomato Plant Sale. I still grow several varieties to share with neighbors.

More recently, I’ve been propagating succulents (cactus, agave, euphorbias) from cuttings collected during a short year tenure down south in Thousand Oaks. I use the plants to transform garden beds to be more drought resistant and promote ceramic sales from my home studio, “Rainbow’s End”: rainbowsendceramics.com.

I have been teaching ski lessons at Bear Valley/Arnold and preschool at White Pony in Lafayette in my free time. I also have many ongoing home improvement and construction projects and have a home rehearsal and recording studio for performing keyboards with several bands. I have two older children, one just graduated college and the other is a Sophomore at Los Lomas. I plan to travel more with my wife, once the last bird has left the nest.


Chris Tanaka (Martinez, 35 years)

I have always loved creating things. As a child, I was in heaven with a piece of paper, scissors and scotch tape! I now improvise, recycle and re-purpose, as I try to de-clutter and organize in a purposeful way!

I am a Contra Costa Health Services retired nurse. I’m from Hawaii and spent my career working in a newborn ICU, advice nurse unit, and Health Plan QA/Disease Management departments.

My curiosity has taken me on many journeys, real and virtual. I recently raised a monarch caterpillar, not by intention, but loved every moment of learning and discovery! I volunteer at Dogs 4 Diabetics. I’ve carved Chinese narcissus bulbs into a Crab Claw style. I’ve baked Chinese char siu bao (“manapua” in Hawaiian). I’m learning pickleball. I hiked the Virgin River, called the “Narrows,” in Utah’s Zion National Park. I counted seals, online, for a research project. The degree of success, in each of these endeavors, has been different, but each journey was and continues to be fulfilling!

Being curious leads me to learn. I now know much more about the Monarch butterfly life cycle than ever before! I know that dogs are thinking creatures with integrity! I also know that my river hiking days are over.

I am a lifelong learner. I am tired of guessing! I want to know what it takes to grow beautiful, market-worthy vegetables and to share this knowledge with others. Along these lines, I value the natural beauty we all enjoy today. I want to contribute to the effort of preserving it. Growing food in a planet-friendly way is my mission. Friends’ faces light up when I share what I’ve learned at the Our Garden sessions. My son enjoyed harvesting a broccoli plant with leaves spanning over 12 inches! I need to learn more. I need the tools to be more successful and creative, in a planet-friendly way. This UC Master Gardener Program will be my ticket to this new experience. I look forward to every part of this new journey!


Holly Tse (San Ramon, 7 years)

I’ve always had an affinity with nature, advocating for the environment since the age of seven. Back then, I wrote to the government and asked them what they were going to do about acid rain.

When I was 30 years old, I took a 50% pay cut to work for World Wildlife Fund Canada as their Manager of Online Communications. I figured I could make a bigger impact by working directly on their website rather than by continuing to work in the high-tech industry and donating money. I’m happy to say, I did make a difference. If you ever “adopt” an animal from WWF-Canada and get a plush toy along with an adoption certificate, know that the plushie was my idea.

What excites me most about being a UC Master Gardener volunteer is the sustainability aspect of the program. While there are many ways to address climate change, it’s important to work together, and educate people on how to make more eco-friendly and sustainable choices.

I have no gardening experience, other than growing some green onions in a pot. But I find it fascinating that you can grow your own food in your backyard. It’s much more eco-friendly than transporting produce far distances—and much healthier and tastier too!

My husband and I became interested in gardening during the pandemic. Since my husband retired early, he dove into learning more about gardening. He also set up our first gardening boxes. That’s how he discovered the UC Master Gardener Program and also how I learned about it.

During that time, I was busy growing my online business—I teach people how to practice Chinese Reflexology and tap into the mind-body connection to improve their health and vitality. Now that my business has reached a certain level, I have more time to learn about gardening. As someone with a lot of experience teaching and speaking online, I look forward to spreading the word about sustainable gardening to encourage people to choose an eco-friendlier and healthier way to grow food.

Finally, here are a few random tidbits about me. I grew up in Toronto, rode a bicycle across Canada, wrote a book published by Hay House and love to swim. I’m a cat person, passionate about uplifting others, and I can write my name by holding a marker between my toes.


Zunaid Vania (San Ramon, 7 years)

My passion for plants has catalyzed my love for good food and the great outdoors. My family emigrated to Canada from South Africa when I was five and although I have limited memory of my time there, I relished my parents’ tales of abundant mangos, lychees, oranges, bananas, pecan nuts, papayas, pomegranates and pineapples. I also laughed at stories about monkeys climbing through the window from the mango plantation to cause mischief.

The multiculturalism of Toronto allowed me to explore some worldly cuisine, but once I started to travel, I could truly appreciate how delicious it was to eat fresh Ajwa dates after a long, hot day in the Medina desert, or sweet potato that perfectly complimented the delicious fish at the Oistins Fish Fry in Barbados.

Access to so much fresh, organic, local food is part of the reason my wife and I decided to stay in California after moving here 16 years ago. That fabulous climate in which to grow that food and access to nature is another big reason.

After my first canoe trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in my teens, I was addicted, spending every weekend I could camping, canoeing, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, caving, and snowboarding. I’ve gone solo winter camping, finished a continuous, 24-hour martial arts training, and jumped out of airplanes many times. Now my pace is more reasonable with just hiking, swimming, some biking, camping, backpacking, and, of course, daily gardening.

I’ve volunteered with a many different organizations over many years and found that I always had the most fun sharing my knowledge whether it was as a Scout Leader teaching physical fitness or rope work; or as a Robotics Coach teaching presentation skills, problem solving, and programming; or as a Wilderness Survival Instructor teaching private groups; or as the Weapons Instructor teaching stick and knife fighting to Krav Maga students.

Less formally, I’ve shared meditation insights, having practiced various meditation techniques over the past 40 years. I used meditation many years ago to cure myself of a disease which doctors still say has no cure. I practice Vipassana (the original “mindfulness”) and have enjoyed spending 10 days in complete silent meditation, 12 or more hours each day. I am also a Qigong instructor and a California Naturalist.

I’m looking forward to learning more, to sharing what I know, to spending more time outdoors, to making more new friends and to growing more food!


Eric Wendlandt (Walnut Creek, 25 years)

Before coming out to the West Coast for college, I was originally from New England, where I grew up on a multi-acre family garden that we all had to pitch in with! I’m a geologist by training, but now a technologist, as an IT Director at a large medical device company.

My interest in gardening was low-level until my kids started to go to college and then again when Covid-19 changed our world. Suddenly, I had far more time and, coincidentally with a home remodel, I planned a set of concentric raised beds in the sunniest part of my backyard. I was hooked! I now grow way more vegetables and fruit than I can ever use, sometimes even planting things I don’t much enjoy (eggplant) just for the challenge of growing them. Every summer, I appreciate that I seem to have a new and different success story, along with some failures too! I’m most looking forward to the UC Master Gardener Program undergirding with real knowledge and research my gardening experiences so far. I have a strong interest in natives and water-conserving gardening.

Besides putzing in my backyard garden, I enjoy skiing, hiking, traveling, and being with my family and two dogs. Some time ago, I inherited a small piece of land in an Austrian village where my grandparents are from. After working remotely with an architect for two years, I am just starting to break ground to build a small vacation cabin in the vineyards there. I sing with a Bay Area concert chorale, volunteer at their after-school music programs and manage animal services for my neighborhood with the Walnut Creek Community Emergency Response Team.


Vivien Williamson (Kensington, 25 years)

I grew up in Virginia with a mother from Rome, who made it through the very lean years of World War II by learning to forage edible plants. She was an amazing gardener! We always joked that my mother, Maria, could find what seemed like a dead stick, plant it in the ground, water it, and turn it into some magnificent plant.

I am not that talented, alas, but I am quite persistent. I have spent the last 25 years replanting my very large yard with California natives and redoing all the irrigation to make it water-wise. I have made every mistake in the book and have to remind myself regularly that gardening is like knitting—the doing is the reward. If it turns out okay, then so much the better!

When I am not outside digging and generally messing around, I am running my business as a mediator in Oakland.