Award Winning Projects from Durham County Master Gardener Volunteers

Two projects led by Durham County Extension Master Gardener volunteers were recognized for excellence during the 2023 International Master Gardener Conference, hosted by the Kansas State University Extension Master Gardeners of Johnson County, held in Overland Park, Kansas, June 18 – 22, 2023. The awards were presented during the conference, which was attended by 1,130 Extension Master Gardeners and Extension professionals from 44 states, Canada, and England.

The David Gibby International Search for Excellence Awards, named in honor of the founder of the Extension Master Gardener program, recognize exemplary group projects that show significant learning by the Master Gardeners or the public. The award-winning projects showcase the efforts and talents of Master Gardener volunteers, often providing economic, environmental, educational, and health impacts. These innovative projects frequently serve as models, influencing the development of Extension Master Gardener-led programs worldwide.

The awards are divided into seven categories:

  • Community Service
  • Demonstration Gardens
  • Innovative Projects
  • Research (Applied Scientific Methodology)
  • Special Needs Audiences (Senior, Disabled Audiences or Horticultural Therapy)
  • Workshops or Presentations
  • Youth Programs

Durham Master Gardeners placed in the following categories:

Demonstration Gardens, 3rd place for “Cocoa Cinnamon Container Garden Project.”

Cocoa Cinnamon, a coffee shop located near the Cooperative Extension office, is a small business in a busy urban area. The business’s outdoor seating area is defined by many container plantings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Extension Master Gardeners approached the business owners and asked if they would be interested in a partnership to provide educational opportunities by revitalizing the containers. Volunteers improved drainage in the containers, added a custom planting mix, chose plants suited for the location, and added irrigation to the planters, creating a beautiful and educational space on a bustling corner.

Their goals for the project included:

  • Designing and implementing a container demonstration garden in an exposed urban location, which Master Gardener volunteers could then use as an educational tool for urban residents, a previously underserved audience.
  • Providing Master Gardener volunteers an opportunity to dive deep into university-based research while also bringing creativity to bear in problem-solving a real-world horticultural challenge.
  • Experimenting with soil mixes and using tools such as a soil thermometer and a moisture meter to gather data to test research-based practices in urban conditions specific to downtown Durham.
  • Creating low-maintenance plantings that provide screening from traffic and construction, as well as noise amelioration, for the outdoor sitting area.
  • Engaging the community in the project to improve the quality of people’s lives, a core-component of Extension’s mission.

While many volunteers came together to make the project a success, a core team was responsible for organizing the project. This team included Deborah Pilkington (Leader), Beth Austin, Cathy Halloran, Peter Gilmer, Mary Knierim, and Jackie MacLeod.

Read more:

Innovative Projects, 3rd place for “Creating Connection: Education through Social Media & Blog Outreach During the Pandemic & Beyond.”

Based on lessons learned during the pandemic and a desire to further increase their reach and impact, Extension Master Gardeners in Durham County created a united communications team that expands and coordinates the efforts of their individual social media and blog committees. By uniting these committees they are able to produce timely, high-quality, and scientifically-based content for a readership that includes gardeners of all experience levels. 

Together, their online content reaches a diversity of audiences with different but complementary content. Through social media, they engage broader and often younger audiences with easy-to-digest pictures and stories, while the blog allows them to share more in-depth content via longer articles. Posting links to their blog content on social media resulted in their online outreach reaching new heights in 2022, including: 

  • a record 1,796 followers and 19,353 unique viewers on Facebook, 
  • a record 1,416 followers and 5,904 unique viewers on Instagram,  and
  • unprecedented engagement on their blog, with weekly posts hitting 105,590 views and 81,693 unique viewers. This is a 42% increase in overall views compared to 2021.

With contributions from many volunteers, the 2022 blog leadership (including Melinda Heigel and Ann Barnes) and Social Media team (including Ariyah April, Lalitree Darnielle, and Logan Seay) did an amazing job streamlining communication to reach more people.

Read more:


NC State Extension Annual Report:

Two Tools That Help You Garden Smarter

by Marcia Kirinus, EMGV

Gardeners often rely on seasonal cues or the calendar to determine when to perform specific gardening tasks. For example, they may plant nasturtiums on St. Patrick’s Day or set out tomato plants on Mother’s Day. However, what happens when you move to a new climatic zone and your gardening timing is thrown off? And what if weather patterns change to the extent that plants that once thrived now struggle?

Unpredictable weather patterns or a relocation to a different climate can make it challenging to assess a plant’s adaptability to the local conditions. Fortunately, there are two valuable tools at your disposal: the USDA Cold Hardy Zone designation and the Horticultural Society’s Heat Zone designation.

Image: Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium)
Sebastian Dario CC BY-NC 2.0

Unpredictable weather patterns or a relocation to a different climate can make it challenging to assess a plant’s adaptability to the local conditions. Fortunately, there are two valuable tools at your disposal: the USDA Cold Hardy Zone designation and the Horticultural Society’s Heat Zone designation.

These designations provide vital information about a plant’s ability to tolerate both winter cold and summer heat. Most gardeners are familiar with the USDA hardiness zone system, which rates zones on a scale of 1 to 12. The Horticultural Society’s Heat Zone system parallels this scale, with higher numbers representing regions experiencing more hot days.

In Durham, for instance, the heat zone map places it at a temperate 7, while the hardiness zone map designates it as 7b. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone indicates the lowest winter temperature a plant can withstand before facing potential death. In Durham’s case, being in Hardiness Zone 7b means plants in this zone can survive temperatures as low as 5-10°F. If you travel south, the numbers increase, and if you go north, they decrease.

However, the USDA hardiness map does not provide insight into a plant’s ability to endure the heat of summers. For that, the Horticultural Society’s Heat Zone number comes into play. It indicates a plant’s tolerance to heat and specifies the temperature threshold at which it starts to suffer and becomes unable to efficiently process water for normal functions. In Durham, our Heat Zone is 7, suggesting that plants should not be exposed to a cumulative total of 61 to 90 heat days above 86°F. Given that we experience many days higher than 86°F, it is crucial to choose perennials wisely based on the heat zone index number.

To accurately describe Durham’s local climate, we can use the format 7b/7, representing the cold hardiness zone followed by the heat zone designation. This combination of numbers provides a clear picture of the climatic conditions suitable for your plants. You can typically find these numbers listed on informational tags at reputable plant nurseries.

Consider incorporating native plants into your landscape. Native plants are well adapted to the local environment, offering numerous benefits such as enhanced climatic resilience, support for local wildlife, and reduced maintenance requirements. Here are some native shrubs that can thrive in Durham’s summers and winters, typically associated with USDA Zone 7b and Heat Zone 7:

Clethra alnifolia flower spike
Tom PotterfieldCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This is a short list, and it is advisable to consult your local Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners office for a comprehensive selection of suitable native plants, shrubs, and trees. You can also use the “Find a Plant” tool on the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox to narrow down native plants by your site conditions and needs.

While the heat zone and hardiness zone systems are essential factors to consider when choosing plants for your garden or landscape, other variables like soil type, sunlight exposure, humidity, and drought tolerance should also be considered to ensure successful plant cultivation.