Long Prairie Master Gardener has been digging in the dirt, helping others for 25 years

Betty Martin examines the leaves of a schefflera. Photo by Nancy Leasman

When Betty Martin of rural Long Prairie became a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener 25 years ago, answering gardeners’ questions was one of the main services a Master Gardener provided. That’s changed significantly since then, given that internet access has changed the breadth and scope of available information. As part of the local arm of the University of Minnesota, Betty is quick to point out that the information provided by Master Gardeners is that of best practices determined by the U of M.

Like all Minnesota Master Gardeners, Betty attended classes provided by the U of M.

“I saw a notice in the paper about becoming a Master Gardener. There was no charge and the classes were in Alexandria, every Tuesday and Thursday evening and all day Saturday for one month,” she said.

Betty grew up in a gardening family near Glencoe. “We had a big garden at home. My brother planted a raspberry patch and when the berries were ripe, we all went out and picked,” she said.

Leaving the garden behind for a short while, Betty became a medical technologist and met her future husband, Gary, in the medical lab. She worked in Hennepin County for five years and then in Sauk Centre for 30. She always had house plants and when time and space allowed, she added outdoor gardening. Gary was interested in forestry and their daughters, Kristen and Kelly, didn’t fall far from the family tree. Kelly’s green thumb is put to use outside her 9-5 life while Kristen is a forester with the Department of Natural Resources.

Indian holly fern. Contributed photo

Betty was one of four Todd County Master Gardeners in the early years of the program. County Extension Agent LeRoy Williams led and directed the group. “We didn’t have officers and didn’t even have a checking account for quite a few years,” she remembered.

“Our phone numbers were available from the county so we had lots of calls spring and summer.”   

They answered questions about tomato blossom end rot, whether Epsom salts should be used on asparagus beds, the best time to divide perennials and prune trees, how to care for a lawn and much more. At that time and with so few MGs, they didn’t attempt to offer events or have fund raisers.

Betty’s personal passion is house plants. “I probably have about 15-20 different kinds,” she said, adding that she likes unusual ones. Among those is a climbing sea onion, Bowiea volubilis. She described it as a green ball that grows mostly out of the soil, sitting on top rather than being covered by soil. It sends up frothy stems, similar to asparagus fronds. The plant is more closely related to lilies than alliums or onions. When the ball (actually a compressed leaf structure) produces offsets it may be divided. Betty got hers from a friend of a friend of a friend which is how gardeners often acquire plants.

Another of Betty’s acquisitions is a kangaroo fern. Native to Australia and New Zealand, this is a lush houseplant that thrives in partial sunlight to dappled shade. Other favorites are Chinese evergreen, native to Asia and New Guinea, and East Indian holly fern, a variegated fern originating in China and Japan.

A climbing onion. Contributed photo

While Betty continues to look for unusual house plants, she’s also taken on the role of leading the local MG group.  Betty is the chairperson for the group of 15 certified MGs in Todd County. Since 2010, the group, like those in many other counties throughout the state, has organized a spring garden day. (Douglas County has scheduled its 25th garden day on April 4.) Speakers, class instructors and garden vendors are invited for the day-long program. The Todd County MGs offered spring garden days for three years in a row and since 2013 have alternated the garden event with a spring plant sale.

“The plant sale is our only fund raiser,” explained Betty. “We dig up perennials and some of us start plants from seeds.” The MG plant sale (scheduled for May 30 at the Todd County Fair Grounds) is an excellent opportunity for local gardeners to acquire plants they can be assured will grow in the area, because they have come from the area.

The county fair is another opportunity for Master Gardeners to volunteer their expertise. As Master Gardeners, they are required to participate in continuing education as well as volunteer a minimum of 25 hours in their county. Betty and long-time friend and fellow MG Bonnie Alsleben share superintendent duties for the floral displays at the fair. Since in Todd County open class flowers are displayed under the grandstand where there are booth spaces available, the MGs use the adjacent space for educational exhibits and demonstrations. In former years, the themes have ranged from bees and other pollinators, to propagation, diseases of plants and encouraging children to eat their vegetables. The 2020 booth will show methods of growing plants in containers.

Betty helps with a special field day with a group of young girls. Contributed photos

Betty is thrilled that Ken Hovet, a MG for five years, has taken on the task of organizing garden themed bus tours. These tours, open to the general public, include several stops. The first tour, last spring, included a visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. The next one, in late summer 2020, will head in the direction of Morris and the Horticulture Display Garden at the West Central Research and Outreach Center.

It’s yet to be determined exactly how Betty will celebrate her silver anniversary of green thumbing. She became a Master Gardener because she loved gardening and wanted to share that passion. She’s delighted that more garden enthusiasts have joined the group and is quick to encourage anyone interested to learn more about taking the MG course which is now offered entirely online at www.extension.umn.edu/master-gardener/about-master-gardener. Those with gardening questions may visit Ask a Gardener at www.extension.umn.edu/master-gardener/ask-master-gardener.