Meet the Farmers Market Garden Squad

Meet the Garden Squad is a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.

Meet Carol Earle and Margot Thompson

Carol Earle (left) and Margot Thompson are the engines that keep the farmers market Master Gardener outreach project on track.

More than 1300 inquisitive gardeners stop by the Ask a Master Gardener tent every summer at the Cherry Creek and City Park Esplanade farmers markets. Some ask timely questions about pests like Japanese beetles and others just like to chat about their gardens.

Colorado Fresh Markets generously donates the valuable space at each farmers market, and Master Gardeners help the market by gathering customer demographic information.

With every interaction there’s a CSU Extension Denver Master Gardener ready to offer advice, hand out resources or lend a sympathetic gardening ear. Because Ask a Master Gardener starts in May and runs through October, hundreds of volunteer openings need filling. Those volunteers also need a tent, banners, table, reference books, CSU Extension fact sheets, brochures, bookmarks and other materials.

While the Ask a Master Gardener effort runs smoothly now, it wasn’t always that way. When it started in the mid-1990s, scheduling was difficult and staffing was inconsistent. At one point the farmers market organization wasn’t sure it wanted to continue the collaboration.

That was before Carol Earle got involved and helped reorganize the farmers market volunteer project in 2002.

“In those days scheduling was all done manually, on the phone and by hand,” Carol explained. “Master Gardeners could check for a volunteer opening and then call a scheduler to get on a shift. It worked that way for years,” she said.

While scheduling for the farmers market is more efficient now, the need for someone to handle the behind-the-scenes work continues. Carol makes sure there are enough handouts and supplies for the markets, ensures there are enough volunteers to staff the markets, and helps transport equipment when needed.

She also fills in and works the market when there aren’t enough volunteers, like over Labor Day weekend. She spends more hours volunteering for the market than she tracks each summer.

“Carol has been volunteering for the farmers market for about 20 years and is trying to get out of it, but keeps getting sucked back in!” said Merrill Kingsbury, Master Gardener program assistant.

Carol agrees. “We don’t pay to be there, so I want to make sure we keep up our end of the bargain,” she said. “Now we’re a draw and people look for us at the market. I feel invested in making sure it runs right and we keep our obligation. We now have a reputation to uphold.”

She said she’s able to devote her time and energy to the market because she skips taking vacations in the summer.

“A lot of times I felt I should let someone else have a chance at doing it,” she said. “But I hated to leave the office in a lurch. I can’t cut and run now,” she joked.

“The advantage of volunteering at the farmers market is you learn a lot there, it reinforces what you learn in class, and you learn how to talk with people, answer questions and direct them to resources.”

In addition to her farmers market volunteer commitment, Carol has helped create and maintain vegetable and therapy gardens at the Denver Children’s Home.

She began her Master Gardener training in 1999 when one of her neighbors recruited her, but she was unsure she’d be accepted because of limited gardening experience as an adult. However, when she was 5 or 6 she had worked with her sister to weed their grandfather’s strawberry patch with a little hoe he made specially for them.

It wasn’t until she retired from her marketing job with a mining company that she bloomed as a gardener. Her neighbor helped her learn how to grow native shrubs and perennial flowers. This season she’s growing a ratatouille vegetable garden in a shared plot at the Denver Botanic Gardens Community Garden.

“I love the market, I like working with Master Gardeners, and I like getting to know the apprentices,” she said.

Even though she loves volunteering for the farmers market, she’s ready to let others learn to love it, too.

Last season Margot Thompson offered to lend Carol a hand and took over coordinating the Wednesday markets at Cherry Creek. The two work closely together to make sure materials are in place and the schedule is staffed with the right combination of Master Gardeners and apprentices.

“I like exchanging ideas with other Master Gardeners, getting suggestions from the apprentices and answering different questions every week,” Margot said.

Gardening is in her DNA and she’s been at most of her life. She’s able to answer questions based on her Master Gardener training and her own gardening experience, especially when those questions are about Japanese beetles.

“I remember being 4 years old and picking Japanese beetles off of plants in my parents’ garden in Massachusetts,” she said. “I got paid one penny for every beetle I picked.”

Margot used to have a big vegetable garden at her home in southeast Denver, but the trees have taken over and now it’s mostly a shade garden. She still plants and grows in containers wherever she can find some sun. She also finds time to volunteer at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Margot started as a Master Gardener in 1998 after retiring from a career as a physical therapist. Besides the farmers market, some of her early volunteer assignments included helping with the Habitat for Humanity program and starting community gardens at the Marian Plaza senior apartments.

“We were trying to make sure the residents had fresh vegetables to cook with,” she said. Denver Urban Gardens helped create the garden plots and volunteers worked to buy hoses to help with irrigation, among other tasks. It was a big project, she said.

Margot thinks volunteering at the farmers market “is a great way to share information and for people to give us information we can use, too. We can always learn something.”

She said her favorite time to volunteer at the market is early in spring. That’s when she can give balcony gardeners ideas for growing vegetables in containers. She also likes to help the new-to-Denver transplants who stop at the Master Gardener tent to ask, “How do you garden here?”

Image and text by Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

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