by Mallory Moad
There’s a hidden treasure in central Fresno. While it isn’t a trunk of jewels and gold coins buried deep in the sand, it’s just as valuable. And you don’t need a funky old map with X marking the spot to find it — Google will do just fine.The Garden of The Sun is your destination for a horticultural adventure. Established twenty-seven years ago by the University of California Cooperative Extension as a teaching site and one of the first in California, it’s an acre’s worth of lush flora of all kinds. You’ll find fruit trees, berries, flowering perennials, herbs, vegetables, and more in a professionally-designed setting. The catch is, that everything you’ll see is suitable for growing in the Central Valley climate. Most, if not all, can easily be grown at home by folks like you and me. Because it’s a functional demonstration garden, you won’t see any showy exotic tropical blooms as big as your head or vines bearing fruit that smells like old gym shoes. But what you will find can have a positive impact on your environment, be it physical, mental or visual.
Although the Garden of The Sun is a peaceful place to just hang out and enjoy the scenery (and you are welcome to do just that), its real purpose is education. According to the University of California Cooperative Extension (or UCCE), Fresno County website, this organization is “dedicated to creating, developing, and delivering knowledge and practical information in agricultural, natural and human resources to improve the quality of life of Californians.” This is accomplished in a variety of ways, one of the most popular being classes.
Aimed at urban gardeners and conducted by experts from UCCE or members of their Master Gardeners program (more about these superheroes later), classes such as drip irrigation methods, proper pruning techniques, planting bulbs, and growing native plants are held at the garden. More classes are offered both in person and online via Zoom through the Fresno County Public Library. You can learn about such topics as edible flowers, mulch and how to use it, and how to successfully grow tomatoes. Classes are held year-round and are often season appropriate. It isn’t necessary to have extensive gardening experience to participate; some classes are tailored to a specific interest or experience level. Seeds To Supper, for example, is a basic beginners’ class in healthy urban gardening for those who are just starting out.
It’s a fact that gardening became popular during the Covid 19 shutdown in 2020, and according to Denise Cuendette, Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator for Fresno and Madera Counties, the interest has continued and there is a demand for information. Plans for future programs include composting, integrative pest management, waste management, and family-centered classes. “These will be hot topics,” she says.
So, who are these Master Gardeners? Where do they come from? In partnership with the University of California system, they are volunteers from the community who maintain the garden, teach classes, lead tours, and do community outreach. They are passionate about the work they do and enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience. Achieving a Master Gardener certification is a lengthy, involved process. If you think being able to grow a giant pumpkin or enough zucchini to feed everyone on your block year after year makes you qualified, think again. Denise explains, “Candidates have to complete a sixteen-week course. For four hours a day, they are in class with professional instructors from UC Davis and UC Berkeley.” There are exams, including a written final, as well as hands-on training that takes place in the garden itself. Denise currently oversees 250 Master Gardeners from Fresno to Madera. It’s a diverse group, but that wasn’t always the case. “The original Master Gardeners were either retired men or women who never worked outside the home.”The UCCE does more than train and educate home gardeners. “The UC system has resources that, when tied together, really make a difference in the community.” The UCCE and Fresno’s Master Gardeners have partnered with, or offered assistance to, other local community organizations. Besides presenting classes for the library, they have been involved with the creation of YoVille Community Garden & Farm, Valley Children’s Hospital garden, Fresno Discovery Center, and the Shinzen Friendship Garden’s Explore Valley Gardens project. The Garden of The Sun regularly hosts Education Day, where information from a variety of community services is made available to the public. Denise is a firm believer in collaboration. “We’re going to stand together and do ideas together,” she says. “A shared burden works better.” She enthusiastically remembers working with the Valley Center for the Blind, when a requested tour of the Garden of The Sun for blind and visually impaired adults and their caregivers became something more. Volunteers created experiences that emphasized senses other than vision, and although the project was a success, it was the caregivers who came away with new information that day. “They said it really helped open them up” to new ways to enrich the lives of their patients.
What’s next for UCCE and the Garden of The Sun? The Master Gardeners are working with the Master Food Preservers (think canning and pickling) on a new program. Denise credits “the foodies” for resurrecting these old school techniques and turning them into a trend. There’s also the annual plant sale in March, 2023, followed by the Spring Garden Tour in April.But there’s never a lack of interest in good old, get your hands dirty gardening. “There are mental health benefits to working in a garden,” Denise observes (and there are studies that prove it). “Gardening isn’t a new thing. It’s been around for thousands of years.” It doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, so if you’re a newbie who wants to give gardening a try, want to sharpen skills you already have, or feel the urge to return to an activity you thought you’d lost interest in, go ahead! You can visit the Garden of The Sun for inspiration or take a class from one of the experts. Whatever you decide, just remember the University of California Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners have your back.
The Garden of The Sun is located at 1750 N. Winery in Fresno, next to the Fresno Discovery Center. You can learn more about the UCCE and Garden of The Sun, including hours and classes, at ucanr.edu/sites/mgfresno/Garden_of_the_Sun_Demonstration_Garden. If you need help solving a gardening problem of any kind or questions about the Garden of The Sun, contact mgfresno@ucdavis[dot]edu. For more information on the Master Gardeners program, visit mg.ucanr.edu. You can also visit the Garden of The Sun on Facebook for hours of operation, class schedules, and upcoming events.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I believe digging in the dirt is good for the soul.