A Master Gardener handing a visitor a fresh lemon cucumber at the Emergency Food Bank Garden in Stockton.

A Master Gardener handing a visitor a fresh lemon cucumber at the Emergency Food Bank Garden in Stockton.


There are great grocery stores where I live. From Trader Joe’s, to Costco, SaveMart, to Grocery Outlet, I have an endless number of food items to choose from within arm’s reach. Despite all of my weekly grocery store trips, I always make it a point to check out the local summer farmer’s markets. There is something special in selecting the freshest, most recently harvested, picked straight from the vine, ripe and ready to eat produce possible.

But what about homegrown eats? Is there something to be said about growing produce and herbs, picking a fruit, vegetable or herb straight from the vine, preparing it, and digesting it? Yes! The shorter the amount of time from harvest to consumption, the more bioavailable the nutrients. This is not only nourishing for the body but for the soul and the mind as well.

Home gardens take time to cultivate, from inception to execution. So, I’d like to provide you with an excellent local and FREE resource for San Joaquin County residents. The UCCE Master Gardeners of San Joaquin County program is a gardening hotline available to answer all of your home gardening needs. And if you live outside of the county, check to see if there is a Master Gardeners program near you!

Plant with purpose, plant with clarity, plant for the soul!

On a recent visit to the Swenson Golf Club summer Farmer’s Market, I scored 3 pounds of red grapes for $5. They were not quite ripe when I got them, but in a few days time they were sweet like candy. I also left with a contact card from The University of California Davis’ Master Gardeners Program. Here’s what happened:

A man from ten feet in front of me called: “Do you grow any of your own produce?”

As I approached the table, I learned from the volunteer that he was part of The University of California Davis’ Master Gardeners Program. Any question that I had about home horticulture, I could call their hotline, troubleshoot my problem, and receive a solution!

I absolutely fell in love with this concept because, for me, growing one’s own food is extremely important for a variety of reasons:

  • Eating fresh produce and herbs is healthy…that goes without saying.

  • Eating produce and herbs that are picked immediately from the vine…even healthier. More nutrients available for the body to absorb!

  • You treat every piece of food you eat with heightened care and respect when you are working for each piece of food you eat.

  • No need to depend on shipped produce over mountains, across valleys, or overseas. This is an important concept for a myriad of reasons, including the environmental relief it gives to our Mother Earth.

  • The action of planting and replanting can deepen one’s connection to earth.

  • Eating what you grow is a very basic, very humane, and very conscious concept.

  • The relationship you can form with plants is unmatchable.

Here is more information on this excellent and accessible hotline, the Masters Gardeners program, for the home owners, apartment renters, or just overall conscious beings who aim to seek knowledge, learn more, and do better for your world!

Marcy, Dulli, and I at the Learning Landscape at the Ag Center in Stockton, CA.

Marcy, Dulli, and I at the Learning Landscape at the Ag Center in Stockton, CA.

Name: Marcy Sousa

Role in the program: Master Gardener Program Coordinator (San Joaquin County)

Location: Stockton, CA

Years with the Master Gardener program: 12

Your gardening experience: 30+ (I started gardening when I was 3 or 4 with my parents)


AHS: How did the Master Gardener program begin?

The program first began in Washington State in the 1970’s. We started the first California program in 1980. San Joaquin County had a program in the late 80s and early 90s, but it slowly dwindled after the farm advisor overseeing the program retired. It was revitalized and re-started in 2007, and since then our volunteers have contributed 60,000 hours on projects in the county and have earned over 16,600 continuing education hours.

AHS: How did you become involved with the program?

I graduated from CSU Stanislaus with my degree in Permaculture and wanted to find a job where I would be able to teach people about sustainable gardening practices. Around the same time, our Master Gardener program was being revitalized so I applied for the position.


San Joaquin County Master Growers teaching a fruit tree pruning class at St. Joe’s Garden.

San Joaquin County Master Growers teaching a fruit tree pruning class at St. Joe’s Garden.

AHS: Who are some of the other members of the group? What does it take to become a Master Gardener?

Master Gardeners complete a 19-week training that meets for 5 hours a week (once a week). There are weekly reading assignments, take home quizzes and a final exam. Once they have completed the training, they are certified Master Gardeners. Within their first year they need to complete 50 hours of volunteer time in San Joaquin County. Every year after they need 25 hours of volunteer time and 12 hours of continuing education. Our Master Gardeners are made of people from all over the county with many different backgrounds and experiences, but they all enjoy learning, gardening and getting involved in their communities.


AHS: What is the program's relationship with The University?

The UC Master Gardener Program is a public service and outreach program under the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, administered locally by participating UC Gardeners who extend research-based information to the public.


AHS: Which of California's counties do you serve?

We serve only San Joaquin County, but there are 51 other counties in CA with Master Gardener programs. We have a partnership with San Joaquin County Public Works, Solid Waste Department and are funded by AB 939.  

Walkways are made of decomposed granite and are water permeable.

Walkways are made of decomposed granite and are water permeable.

AHS: What is the mission of the Master Gardener program?

The statewide mission statement is, “To extend research-based knowledge and information on home horticulture, pest management, and sustainable landscape practices to the residents of California and be guided by our core values and strategic initiatives."


AHS: Why is home horticulture important? Why should someone consider home horticulture?

There are lots of reasons to grow your own fruits and vegetables. You can save a lot of money by spending a few dollars on seeds that will yield pounds of fresh produce all summer or winter long. Growing your own food helps you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also a great way to get kids to try new things especially if they had a hand in growing or harvesting it. It lets you control when to harvest your food; vegetables that ripen in the garden have more nutrients than some store-bought vegetables that must be picked early in order to make it to the store when ripe.

I think people make better choices about what they put on their plate if they had a hand in growing it from start to finish. It’s satisfying to plant a tomato seed, nurture and care for it, watch it grow and harvest that sweet, juicy vine-ripe tomato a few months later.  Gardening is also a fun way to get outside for some fresh air and physical activity and it can be a good stress reliever.  You can decide what kinds of fertilizers and pesticides come in contact with your food. 


AHS: Where do you get your produce? What do you grow yourself?

I shop at our local farmers markets and fruit stands. I grow things my family likes to eat such as zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, and melons. I shop at local and chain grocery stores, too, but I try to buy local when I can.


All benches at the Learning Landscape are made from recycled plastic.

All benches at the Learning Landscape are made from recycled plastic.

AHS: Where are some of the Master Gardener gardens? What are a few of the things you can expect when you visit one of the gardens?

We have a Learning Landscape located at the Ag Center that showcases low water, low maintenance plants and sustainable landscape features like efficient irrigation systems, water permeable walkways, use of mulch and more.  There are several themed sections including California Natives, Mediterranean plants, plants for pollinators, an edible landscape that is currently planted with fruit trees and summer vegetables and a few other sections.


AHS: If I'm a newbie, what plant/crop should I start with to grow? When should I start to grow it?

Grow something that you enjoy eating. Many people grow tomatoes because they enjoy the taste of a fresh tomato right off the vine. Grow something that is hard to find at your local grocery store. If you grew up eating bitter melon, grow some!


AHS: What types of questions do you most frequently field?

We get lots of questions related to pest identification and management, common garden pests (fruit and vegetables), how to conserve water, how to attract pollinators/beneficials. We see a lot of “what’s wrong with my plant” type questions.

AHS: What is your favorite gardening tip?

Start with great soil. When starting a garden, it is important to have soil that is nutrient-rich and well-drained. Adding compost to your soil can provide so many nutrients for your plants and can help improve soil quality and water conservation.

Another tip or word of advice for new gardeners is: be patient as you cultivate your relationship with your garden. There are a lot of trials and errors. Before long, you’ll reap the benefits. 

My most favorite tip would be to remind people that the Master Gardeners are available to answer their gardening questions!

AHS: What is the best way to get in touch with a Master Gardener for advice on home horticulture or pest control?  

Residents of San Joaquin County can stop by our office with samples or questions. We are located at the Cabral Agriculture Center at 2101 E. Earhart Ave., Suite 200, Stockton 95206. Our number is 209-953-6112. Information can be found on our website or on our Facebook page. We are also on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and we write a weekly article for the Stockton Record that is printed on Fridays.


AHS: When can we visit? 

The garden is open all the time. It’s part of our landscape out front. There are signs and plant labels throughout the garden. Our helpline office is available on Tuesday - Thursday from 9 am to noon. 

Visit the San Joaquin Master Gardener’s Learning Landscape at the Ag Center in Stockton. 2101 E Earhart Ave, Stockton, CA 95206.

View and subscribe to their newsletter and learn about their upcoming events!

Do you have a Master Gardeners program in your town or city? If so, how have you interacted with them?

Do you grow at home? If so, what benefits have you received as a result of home horticulture?

Comment below!