Gardening is always a fun thyme

Eight years ago, Jane Ostericher’s garden wasn’t thriving, so she asked her green-thumb friend for help with the problem. Within a matter of seconds, she was told frostbite was to blame for her decaying shrub. Impressed with the diagnosis, Jane asked her friend how she knew the answer so quickly. That was the first time she had ever heard about the Master Gardeners.

What started off as a small clinic at the Tacoma Mall in 1973 in response to increased demand for home gardening advice, quickly turned into an international phenomenon that is now found in every state in America. Each year, Master Gardener Programs provide hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh produce to senior centers, food banks, and other communities in need. There are Master Gardeners in every county in Washington State, with over 400 volunteers residing with us locally.

Pierce County helps fund the Master Gardener program, part of Washington State University’s Extension. Extension works with residents, businesses, and organizations to build their capacity to find solutions for local agricultural issues and improve their quality of life. The Master Gardener program trains individuals in the science and art of gardening, and focuses on conserving and enhancing natural resources.

Summer interns at Sehmel Park in Gig Harbor

But you don’t need a biology degree to become a Master Gardener. Sometimes you just need a big heart. Since 2009, Pierce County Master Gardeners have supported the Tacoma Community College horticulture program at the Washington Correctional Center for Women by supporting faculty in educating inmates about sustainable gardening. With the program’s support, the women grew over 8,000 pounds of fresh produce that was served in the prison cafeteria.

Jane Ostericher



“It’s very rewarding to know that we can help provide healthy vegetables and fruits to those in need in our community.” – Jane Ostericher, Master Gardener since 2011

Master Gardeners provide a valuable public service by sharing sustainable gardening information through a variety of programs to people of all different skill levels. Last week, they wrapped up their summer gardening program for children with the Dr. Seuss Extravaganza, where themed costumes were encouraged. To engage youngsters, volunteers relate the fundamentals of gardening to favorite pastimes of children to create classes that are fun and informative. With fun topics that include fairies, gnomes, and tic tac toe gardening, it’s no wonder this summer program is popular with families in the South Sound.

Fairies & Gnomes Children’s Activity, June 2018

Even though many of their activities are kid-friendly, Master Gardeners say people of all ages can find something they enjoy. If you’re passionate about sustainability and helping the environment, attend a rain garden workshop this fall to learn how to design your own, which can effectively remove 90% of nutrients and chemicals in rainwater runoff. If you are looking for low-impact exercise, work in a demonstration garden to provide safe and consistent movement that burns calories and keeps you limber. If you enjoy problem solving, volunteer in the clinic where you can examine live samples, conduct research, and diagnose plant problems that are damaging residents’ gardens.

Jane has found her seven years as a Master Gardener very rewarding, and it has inspired her to give back. “A client visiting the park and garden last week told me that walking the trails and seeing our gardens have been very therapeutic for her son, who is recovering from serious illness and life stressors. I want to look into starting a program at the garden to help Veterans suffering from PTSD.”

Demonstration garden in Puyallup

To learn more about the program, attend an informational session, check out their Facebook page, or visit a demonstration garden near you to see (literally) the fruit of their labor. There are two learning tracks you can choose from, and training is held from January to March each year. You can apply online or in person, but applications are due no later than October 31st. There is a small fee associated with Master Gardener training, but there are funds available to financially assist those in need. If you are passionate about gardening, looking for a new hobby, or want to further your education, I encourage you to become a Master Gardener.


A Home for Maria


Maria* was already sitting up in bed before her alarm went off. Since she moved into her new home three days ago, she has been too excited to get a full night’s sleep. She turned off the alarm clock and sat on the edge of the bed with the morning sun peeking through the blinds, warming her cheeks. She swung her legs around giddily before getting out of bed to take a shower and get ready for the day. She still couldn’t believe all the space she had! Maria has visual challenges, and up until last week, was living in a home with an unsafe, inaccessible layout. She shook her head at the memory of eating dinner with her legs pressed up against the furniture, cramped in her tiny bedroom, unable to move around freely or comfortably. But she didn’t want to think about that anymore. Those days are long gone.

It was December 2016 when Vadis submitted a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application to Pierce County Human Services requesting funds to purchase and renovate a home for low-income individuals with disabilities. Vadis, an employment agency with locations in six counties, specializes in providing opportunities for people with disabilities, such as housing and employment, to fulfill their economic and human potential. They know that to help people succeed, they need to look at the bigger picture, and safe, affordable housing was another way they could help. Since then, Vadis has purchased 10 single family homes and 5 duplexes in Pierce County, all for people with disabilities.

In the fall of 2017, they received news that their grant application was approved! They immediately started house hunting and within a few months, they closed on a home in East Pierce County. This is the 11th home in Pierce County that Vadis has acquired and rehabilitated, but it is special because it was sold below the asking price because the owners fell in love with their mission and wanted to give back to the community.

CDBG fund applications are reviewed and recommended for funding by the Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB), a group of community members, elected officials, and volunteers who represent low and moderate-income residents of Pierce County. The board is responsible for selecting projects that help reduce the impact of poverty and homelessness by increasing access to affordable housing, providing services to the most vulnerable populations in our communities, and creating jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses.

Sherry Martin, a CAB member of two years, recalls Vadis’ grant application. “Everyone’s number one priority was housing and Vadis is a well-respected agency that does a lot for the community. They had a good proposal that served the population and needs of the community we stand for.”

Since April 2018, Vadis worked tirelessly to renovate the home, which was finally finished just one day before Maria moved in. Old carpet was replaced with special flooring to allow for easy maneuvering of a wheelchair, probing cane, or other assistive devices. The bathrooms were updated with wheelchair accessible fixtures, like a roll-in shower, to accommodate residents. A ramp was installed for safer entry to the front door. Weatherization updates were made for increased energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs. In addition to accessibility improvements, cosmetic changes like moisture-detecting fans and fresh paint on the inside and outside were completed to spruce up the house.

Bathroom with special features
Open, bright living room
Durable, concrete wheelchair ramp

Once the home was finished, Vadis partnered with a residential service provider that assists tenants with daily living activities such as cooking and cleaning. Vadis acts as the landlord and is responsible for maintenance, repairs, inspections, and yardwork. They charge rent based on the tenant’s income, and ensure they are left with money to spend on other important areas in their life, like social activities and a savings account. Oftentimes, people with disabilities are on fixed incomes and do not have spending money after necessary bills are paid. Vadis is determined to keep rental prices low so residents can enjoy life without the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. “Some of these residents have jobs and families, just like all of us, but the conditions we were seeing them live in were horrible. Everyone deserves to live in an affordable home where they feel safe, important, and part of the community,” says Mary Bushnell, Vice President of Program Services at Vadis, who was instrumental in completing this project. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The Citizen’s Advisory Board agrees that this home will benefit more people than just the residents.

“A home like this gives residents some independence, something to be proud of, and furthers their personal journey. But it also is positive for the community because it takes a house in a neighborhood, that may otherwise be broken, and makes it bright, happy, and cheerful again.” – Sherry Martin, CAB Member

The community couldn’t agree more! Neighbors came to the open house to see the finished product and were blown away by the improvements. One woman even offered to help decorate the home for free when she learned who its occupants would be.

These collaborations are essential to the mission of the Human Services Department of Pierce County. This project would not have been possible if it weren’t for every person involved. From the Vadis employees like Mary who wrote the grant and secured the funds, to the volunteer board members who evaluated and recommended the proposal, to the head of the HOA who approved the wheelchair ramp, to the owners who sold their home for less money, to the Community Services staff who made sure the construction invoices were accurate and paid on time – everyone played a crucial role in helping Maria and her future roommates live in a safe, affordable home.

As for Maria, she isn’t letting her visual challenges hold her back. Shortly after she moved in, with the help of her residential service provider, she had memorized the entire layout of her new home. The first day she returned from her job, she walked in the front door with the biggest smile on her face! She is happy and looking forward to this new chapter in her life.

If you want to be more involved in your community, the Citizen’s Advisory Board is a great way to learn about and be a part of programs that help low-income and disabled persons in Pierce County. Apply here, or if you want to learn more about Vadis’ mission and how you can help others like Maria, visit their website at







*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.