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Macon County Team of Master Gardeners Honored with 2015 International Award

Posted by Monica David -

Macon County Master Gardeners Richard Zerfowski, Sandy Shriver and a team of 18 other Master Gardeners won the 2015 International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award in the workshop category. The International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Awards are presented only every other year with categories in youth programs, demonstration gardens, workshop or presentation, innovative projects, special needs audiences and research.

Projects nominated for an International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award are judged on demonstrated significant learning and change in attitude and practices and how the project impacts and simplifies lives and must have occurred over an entire year. Projects are also evaluated in areas of simplicity for others to replicate, practicality, originality and creativity, compatibility with the Master Gardener mission and the number of people impacted. In addition, information used for project must be University research-based.

The project submitted for award consideration was Secrets of Growing Tomatoes, a collection of year-long learning and hands-on programs conducted in DeWitt, Macon and Piatt Counties. The primary mission of the project is to grow great looking and great tasting tomatoes. The Secrets of Growing Great Tomatoes project starts every year in snowy January, with seed selection of at least 40 different hybrid and heirloom tomato cultivars. With the help of Decatur Park District staff and greenhouses, Master Gardeners grow enough plants for the Master Gardener Plant Sale in May and the annual Tomato Taste Panel in September.

Master Gardeners also teach free classes throughout the year to share tips and troubleshooting techniques for growing great tomatoes. Recent topics have included how to plant and care for tomato plants, how to improve garden soil, tomato diseases, weather factors and choosing cultivars. Last year, over 350 people attended these presentations. A hands-on make-and-take workshop for tomato cages was held as well and attendees received instructions and tools to make heavy-duty tomato cages for their home gardens.

In late summer,the public is invited to the annual Tomato Taste Panel, where at least 40 cultivars of tomatoes are available to see and taste. Besides comparing taste, participants can also compare size, yield performance and other factors such as intended use to determine which cultivars they want to grow in their own gardens the following year. Extension staff and Master Gardeners also demonstrate unique tomato recipes as part of the Tomato Taste Panel.

On behalf of the entire Secretes of Growing Tomatoes team and University of Illinois Extension Macon County, Richard Zerfowski and Sandy Shriver traveled to Council Bluffs, IA on September 22, 2015 to attend the International Master Gardener Conference where they accepted the 2015 International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award.

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