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Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
HomeJean O'Neil, Master Gardener

Meet Jean O'Neil, Master Gardener

Contributed by Christine Bergquist
August 2013

Jean O'Neil is a past President of WMMGA and a member of the Continuing Education Committee.  She organized and conducted the 2013 Master Gardener training program held at Holyoke Community College. She lives in Williamsburg with her husband Ed, cat Mooch and dog Maxie. (Updated June 2016)


Jean, I know you grew up in Iowa.  Was it around farming?


I grew up on a farm, relatively close to town, but still definitely on a farm. I still own it and work it, which I love.  It's not a big farm, and I was an only child so it was just my mom, dad, and me.  Dad did most of the farm work and Mom raised an enormous garden.  When I was too young to help on the farm, I still followed Dad around to help fix fence and things like that which I loved to do.  I always wanted to be outdoors with him.  Mom raised a huge garden, but I really didn't like helping her  because it was too much work and not as interesting.  I'd rather be with my dad.  So I didn't learn squat about actual gardening!


When did you first get interested in gardening? 


Well, I retired in 2005, and it seemed like a good time.  I can't really tell you why.  I just wanted to do it.  I guess it was all geared toward the fact that we were moving up here, already had our property in mind, and knew we would have good sun for raising things.  I’ve always lived with lots of shade.


I took the MG training while we were still in Mississippi because I went online and looked all over the place for a master gardener organization in Massachusetts, and I couldn't find anything.  I was looking for it through the Extension Service, but a straight hit didn't bring it up either.  So I didn't think there was a master gardener program up here, and I went ahead and took the training in Mississippi.  


My master gardener friends were a really good group of people, and we had a good time within the whole organization.  So I assumed it would be the same up here and did finally find WMMGA.  I was allowed to transfer in.

How was that training compared with ours?
The format was different because it was mostly video out of Mississippi State, but the content was very similar in duration, topics, and coverage. And our service hours are the same or very similar.

What brought you to live in Mississippi?  What did you do there for 32 years?


Work.  I'm an ecologist, and I was hired from graduate school from Southern Illinois University to work on a new program at a research facility for the US Army Corps of Engineers.  I came down to Vicksburg to do a project review, and they later sent me a job offer.  That was in 1973 and the Corps of Engineers was a very "black hat" organization, and I didn't think that was going to be a very good idea.  But my advisor talked to me about working from within and how did I think an organization would change unless I got into it and influenced it.  He asked me if I knew about NEPA that had passed in 1969 and how that was going to affect agencies.  I had no clue.


I soon learned that long-standing practices would be changing on the environmental front, mostly for the better.  Plus at a research facility we were tasked with being able to bring new technology and new practices and new policies into place so that the people that applied them had a better time of it.  Our research was geared toward providing tools for the people on the ground to do their jobs.  It was innovative and new and exciting, and I stayed in until I retired in 2005.  And it never got old.

How did you decide to move to Massachusetts?


My husband grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts and still has family there.  We were looking for a college environment.  We liked the idea of easy access to skiing, and he just really wanted the four seasons again. 

Jean O

 We did a lot of searching and narrowed it down to Colorado, Utah, or New England and then narrowed it down further to this area about twenty miles centered around Amherst.  If I hadn't met up with him, I would have ended up in the Caribbean.  He was motivated to make sure that the temperature would work for me.  So Maine was out--northern Vermont, northern New Hampshire, and not too many people so Connecticut was out. Western Massachusetts was perfect.


Now you are living here in western Massachusetts--another big change--how are you planning your garden for your new home?  


We are planning to build a house in Williamsburg. (Jean and Ed moved into their new home in July 2016)  We have about three acres with a beaver pond and wetlands.  We have a great meadow and lots of southern and eastern exposure.  I can't put anything in yet because of construction plus I'm still fighting invasive species.  But I'm getting ideas. It will be a little of everything--some vegetables and fruits and blueberry bushes!  I had to leave four blueberry bushes in Mississippi and was not happy about that.  I’m thinking a raised set of beds will be in order as we have a lot of drainage issues.  I’m very grateful for all the resources here, like the symposia, to help me do this design and then get going.

What challenges have you had in learning to garden in New England?


Species identification, recognizing the importance of cleaning up in the fall, new plants to work with and understand how they work.  For instance, I have several balloon flowers apparently in three different growth habits though the same species name is on the tag.  

The other thing that is different here is that I’m not used to all these invasive species to fight.  I had poison ivy, but I don't think I had any invasive species.  I have seven or eight species to deal with now.  I'm not happy with that!

Why did you decide to become a Master Gardener?


The way I was raised is still in me.  I was raised in a rural environment where you produce most of your own food and now view that as a real blessing.  I like the volunteer life, am still a practicing environmentalist, so the MG program is a good match. 

What was it like managing the 2013 Master Gardener course?


It was a good experience.  Interesting, actually fun, familiar in that part of my work history was in training.  It was familiar in that I had learned to create a training setting in a comfortable environment, provide food, be available, and do the best that I could on addressing problems.  I enjoyed it and I learned because I was listening to everything, too.  When it was over for at least the next couple of Tuesdays it was kind of weird and empty. I wish I had done better on the quizzes because I know that caused so much angst.  But the class members were great to get to know.  I feel very protective of the interns and have a stake in how well they do on becoming MGs.  


I do know the class makes a long day and sometimes in the afternoon energy was lagging.  I'd like to find a way to make the class more interactive in the afternoon.  A lot of the interns hadn't been in school a long time, so the adjustment was difficult for some.  I went back to school when I was 36 for my PhD, and I remember the difficulty of getting back to sitting for the day, listening to lectures, taking notes, studying, and taking quizzes.

You will soon be up for election for President of WMMGA.  What would you hope to accomplish during your term of office? (Jean ended her successful term of office at the end of 2015)


I want to build on at least two things.  First, I want to give credit to the presidents I have known, Marilyn Wiley and Toi Graham, who during their administrations, developed a budget for the organization and developed the webpage.  Those are two really important things.  So I want to maintain and expand on those efforts.  I want to keep us on a good financial and policy footing so we can continue to grow as an effective organization.


I’d really like the presence and use of the webpage to increase.  I would like us to have a calendar on the webpage that we could all refer to that has the entire year laid out.  I’m hoping that several members will step up to help maintain the page.


WMMGA has well over 200 members.  I'd like to be sure that everyone is given the opportunity to do something.  And that means a more active request for their services. There are undoubtedly members who have skills we could use, but they haven't been asked yet.  


We also have the three geographic areas, and I want to be sure we have fair and consistent treatment among all three.  I’d like all three to grow and prosper.

I know you like to tell stories and jokes.  Do you have one you'd like to share for this article?


Here are some good garden definitions!


Knee - A device for finding rocks in your garden. 

Green Fingers - Something everyone else has plenty of. 

Perennial - This year, possibly; next year, unlikely. 

Seed catalogue - A work of fiction with fantasy photos. 

Spade - Highly efficient back-pain generator.


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