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Volunteer Spotlight – Nina Mbengue

Colorado Master Gardener℠ (CMG) volunteers are a dedicated group of individuals who are knowledgeable and passionate about sharing gardening, landscape and horticulture education. This month we are highlighting Nina Mbengue.

When did you join the Colorado Master Gardener program and why did you join?

I joined the Colorado Master Gardener program in 2021. I retired September 2020 after nearly 25 years working on child welfare state legislative policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Gardening in my backyard had always been very cathartic and rejuvenating while I was working, and I knew that I wanted to be a master gardener after I retired. I also wanted to become a better gardener; I learned how to garden from my aunts and uncles in rural Virginia, but gardening in Colorado is much more challenging. I’ve always loved the beauty of gardening and farming. I grew up in the brownstones of the worst part of the South Bronx in the 1960s and 70s. I don’t even remember a tree in my neighborhood, although my mother took me regularly to a tiny nearby park when I was very young. Going to Virginia to my aunt’s farm every summer was a wonderful treat. And now, I can’t believe I get to live in suburban Aurora and get to volunteer in some fabulous garden settings. I am so grateful.

What is your favorite activity and why?

My favorite master gardener activity is just getting my fingers into the soil with the sun beating down on my face – digging, tilling, weeding and planting vegetables and flowers. It is very satisfying to see plants develop from seeds or seedlings and to watch them grow. Before becoming a master gardener, I made a LOT of mistakes in the garden (I think I made a list of about 40 things.) – everything from arranging flowers incorrectly (I’m famous for putting the taller plants in front and then having to replant them the next year), to not watering or fertilizing tomatoes adequately. And, of course, harvesting the veggies from the demonstration gardens to donate to local food banks is wonderful. Colorado has been good to me and my family and I am grateful to be able to contribute something to the community.

What is your favorite part of the program and why?

My favorite part of the program has been getting to know so many wonderful master gardeners and Extension staff. Everyone I have met has been so giving and willing to share their knowledge and love of gardening and nature. It’s really pretty incredible. Another favorite, and a complete surprise, was working with and teaching school children about pollinators and pollination this past year. Luckily, I got to shadow another master gardener as she taught several classes of preschoolers about pollinators. What an amazing experience! I think I learned as much as the kids did. Then I did an after-school garden club followed by teaching a series of classes for first graders, with Dawn Fradkin, on pollinators and helped them create a pollinator garden. I signed up for the youth curriculum committee thinking I would slowly learn how to work with children and youth because I would like to work with foster youth, introducing them to gardening as a way to deal with some of the trauma they’ve experienced. I had no idea I’d be leading a class. It was beyond amazing.

In my own garden, I grow vegetables: including tomatoes, collards, eggplant, grapes, all kinds of squash and kale. I also have a large xeric or drought tolerant garden in my front and back yards where I grow catmint, chocolate flower, Agastache, black-eyed Susan, coneflower, roses, red valerian, moonshine yarrow, penstemon, salvia, irises, lilies, daisies, butterfly bushes, Russian sage, orange carpet hummingbird mint, lilac, blue grama grass and more. My garden is kind of wild and all-over-the-place (like me) and I’ve finally come to accept that. It is full of pollinators – bees, butterflies, hummingbirds — as well as rabbits and mice and all kinds of strange and wonderful insects.

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