If Rice and Steele County residents have questions about trees, plants or garden pests, Lorrie Rugg likely has an answer.

“I love gardening, plain and simple,” Rugg said. “It’s truly my passion. I like helping people, steering the ship in both counties. It’s really rewarding to see both programs growing and thriving.”

The Steele County Master Gardener program coordinator since January 2020, Rugg took on the same role in Rice County this month. She replaced the former program coordinator in Rice County, Barbara Montanye, who retired after five years in the position. A Master Gardener volunteer for the past 20 years, Rugg now contributes three to five hours a week to Rice County and eight hours a week to Steele County.

“Lorrie’s experience and passion for gardening really shows in all the work she does, and she approaches her role as a Master Gardener volunteer and Master Gardener program coordinator with great enthusiasm,” said Claire LeCanne, University of Minnesota Extension educator. “Over the past year in her role as program coordinator in Steele County, she’s helped the group secure several grants to help with initiatives in community gardens in Owatonna.”

In Steele County, Rugg said the Master Gardener program’s main focus is the Owatonna community garden. The volunteers rent out plots to area gardeners, offer knowledge and help with planting. Although she’s worked remotely in Steele County for most of her tenure, due to COVID-19, she’s worked with the Master Gardeners to install a rain garden at the fairgrounds.

“We had to file exemptions for safety reasons, but we were allowed to, at least as Master Gardeners, follow protocols,” Rugg said. “We’re not even allowed to meet with people in person yet, but at least we can get together and do some programming amongst ourselves.”

In Rice County, the Master Gardeners have an active committee that installed a teaching garden at the Rice County Fairgrounds. This year, she said improvements to this garden are on the “to-do” list along with a drive-thru tree giveaway in celebration of Arbor Day.

Rice County’s program was recently awarded a CHS Seeds for Stewardship grant, which Master Gardeners will put toward the teaching garden.

“They have about a page and a half of chores and jobs to do [at the teaching garden],” Rugg said. “It’s going to be a wonderful addition to the fairgrounds out there. It will be cool.”

Master Gardeners need to fulfill community service requirements and complete specific volunteer hours every year to keep their status current. Rugg guides interns through the program that helps them become Master Gardeners, which requires classroom time through the University of Minnesota Extension and 50 hours of community service the first year.

“In Rice County they have a number of interns, but I’ve only met them through Zoom meetings,” Rugg said. “So I’m looking forward to the days when we can meet in person.”

The big recruitment for interns starts in the fall, and classroom work begins in January, but Rugg said talking to possible educators and interns is an ongoing process.

When it comes to outreach, Rugg said Master Gardeners like promoting their mission and program by meeting with area residents at county fairs. New projects continuously come up, and if anyone has a problem with a tree or a plant, Rugg is there to take calls at the office. But social distancing guidelines have restricted face to face meetings.

Since the pandemic started, Rugg said the Master Gardener program in Minnesota “has done nothing but grow.” Through Zoom meetings, Rugg said Master Gardeners have reached more people than they ever could before.

“We can thank COVID for one thing, and that’s the uptick in gardening,” she said. “We all had to stay home, so what do you do? That’s what I did myself last spring. I let people come visit my gardens with videos saying, ‘This is what looks good in my yard this week,’ and it was fun to do that. We all had to learn how to do things differently to keep our gardens growing.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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