Last week, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced that more than 300 ‘People’s Gardens’ have been planted throughout the country and urged employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue making plans to plant additional gardens.

The announcement came as Merrigan gave the commencement address to the first graduating class of certified USDA Executive Master Gardner Program volunteers.  The program is part of the first ever USDA Department-wide volunteer program for ‘The People’s Garden initiative,’ established on February 12, 2009 by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

peoples-garden-featured.jpg‘The People’s Garden’ initiative challenges USDA’s employees to plant and maintain gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens.  a ‘People’s Garden’ can vary in size and type, but all have a common purpose–to help the community they are within and the environment.

A ‘People’s Garden’ must include the following three components:

1. A benefit to your community

2. Collaboration

3. Incorporation of sustainable practices 

“With each garden planted and every sustainable practice implemented, ‘The People’s Garden’ initiative can demonstrate how easy it is to green our communities, take better care of our natural resources, and produce healthy fruits and vegetables,” said Merrigan.

The USDA Executive Master Gardener Program is a condensed version of the executive master gardener program and was a joint collaboration between ‘The People’s Garden’ and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“As USDA’s first executive master gardeners, our volunteers will serve as ambassadors to advancing the mission of ‘The People’s Garden.’  Collectively, this first group of volunteers will perform 2,760 hours of service to ‘The People’s Garden’ at USDA headquarters or within their surrounding communities,” she said.

The USDA had 69 volunteers representing several USDA agencies participating in the intense, seven week course during March and April.  Volunteers were taught the basics of gardening and generalized studies in horticulture.  Topics covered during the program included botany, soil science, general plant health, integrated pest management, water use and conservation, wildlife management, and finding answers to garden questions.

At the culmination of the course, all participants were required to take 16 hours of training and receive a passing score of 75 percent or higher on the final exam.

In order to participate in the program, volunteers had to commit to 40 hours this calendar year through a combination of training, continuing education, and volunteer service hours.

On Earth Day 2009, ‘The People’s Garden’ initiative was unveiled and opened to the public as a living exhibit of what USDA does on an every day basis.  The initiative incorporates sustainable practices, is a collaborative effort, and benefits the entire community.

The training program included extension specialists from the University of the District of Columbia, University of Maryland, University of Kentucky, Texas A&M, New Mexico State University, and the University of Nevada

Some of the sustainable practices used in ‘The People’s Garden’ are examples of efforts being used to help restore the Chesapeake Bay, including:

1. Reducing the use of chemicals throughout our landscape;

2. Replacing annual plants with native perennials beneficial to pollinators;

3. Removing invasive species;

4. Treating storm water by creating green roofs;
5. Creating cisterns and rain gardens to filter sediment and trap pollutants.

Community gardens benefit communities in numerous ways including creating spaces for leisure or recreation that the public can use, providing a harvest to a local food bank or shelter, being a wildlife-friendly landscape, or acting as a rain garden to absorb storm water run-off and protect the soil from erosion.  

Gardens also provide a collaborative effort between other volunteers, neighbors or organizations within the community.  Local partnerships many times collaborate to carry out the mission of a People’s Garden.

According to the USDA, People’s Gardens should include gardening practices that nurture, maintain, and protect the environment such as:

1. Capturing rainwater in rain barrels,

2. Composting and mulching,

3. Planting native species,

4. Encouraging beneficial insects that feed on destructive plants.

For more information on the ‘People’s Garden’ Initiative, see the USDA’s Website, or you can follow updates on