Two Upper Peninsula Extension Master Gardeners honored for 1,000 volunteer hours

Elizabeth Slajus and Ron Rossway reflect on their experiences as Michigan State University Extension Master Gardeners.

Elizabeth Slajus (left) and Ron Rossway (right) pose with MSU Extension educator Rebecca Krans.
Elizabeth Slajus (left) and Ron Rossway (right) receive their MSU Extension Master Gardener 1,000-volunteer hour gold name badges. Photos by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

Michigan State University Extension Master Gardeners share a common passion: they love gardening. But along with their love of plants, they also enjoy volunteering and serving the communities they live in. After all, a key part of MSU Extension and the Master Gardener Program’s mission is to educate others in the community about environmentally and economically sound practices through horticulture-based volunteer activities. Two MSU Extension Advanced Master Gardeners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Elizabeth Slajus of Dickinson County and Ron Rossway of Marquette County, are doing just that in their own communities as well as across the Upper Peninsula. MSU Extension is recognizing them for service amounting to over 1,000 volunteer hours each.

MSU Extension Gold Badge Master Gardener: Elizabeth Slajus

Elizabeth Slajus, or Miss Liz as the children and staff from the Woodland Childcare Center call her, completed her MSU Extension Master Gardener training in late 2014. Shortly after this, she created the Woodland Childcare Center Garden in Kingsford, Michigan, which became her main volunteer project. Since then, she has not looked back. What was once an unused space covered with large junipers and gravel is now an edible landscape complete with a cucumber/gourd tunnel, an herb and flower caterpillar garden, a pollinator patch, many edible raised beds and potato bags and a compost area. Both students and staff at Woodland Childcare Center and Woodland Elementary can view, use and learn from this wonderful green space.

Slajus shares the wonders of nature and fresh food with the children of the Woodland Childcare Center from late winter through fall. Through the years, she has reached over 300 children from ages 2 to 11. From starting seeds, planting and caring for fresh herbs and vegetables, Slajus involves the children at each stage. Her goal is to have the children “learn where their food comes from” by guiding them from planting to harvest. They watch her demonstrate the transformation of garden fresh ingredients into bruschetta and potatoes in butter, as well as other delicious meals.

Even on the day we presented her with the 1,000-volunteer hour gold badge, she just finished working with fifteen 11-year-olds to dig up potatoes for use in a recipe the next day. Afterwards, they picked fresh herbs and other vegetables for a salad and herb-infused water that Slajus and the children prepared and served that day.

A woman stands in front of a classroom holding vegetables.
Miss Liz captures the attention of these 11-year-olds as she demonstrates how to prepare fresh vegetables for a salad. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension. 
“I love to work with children of all ages from 2 to 11. It is great to work with returning children year to year and see that that have really learned all aspects of gardening and can identify plants and have the knowledge to start their own gardens at home. Each visit to the garden is discovery and we figure out how to deal with any garden issues together at that time. Every child gets to put their hands in the soil and enjoy the harvest. The kids’ happiness and excitement keep me coming back year after year.” - Liz Slajus

MSU Extension Gold Badge Master Gardener: Ron Rossway

Ron Rossway of Marquette, Michigan, completed his MSU Extension Master Gardener training in August 2015. In 2016, he and a few other classmates began volunteering at the Marquette Federation of Women’s Club. Rossway designed the layout of the garden beds around the entry walkway, the building and its sign. He also installed the edging. A whole group of volunteers, including Rossway, helped in the ground’s preparation and planting.

To make it educational for visitors, Rossway created weatherproof labels identifying the plants. This non-profit building is used by many other Marquette groups for meetings, so this facelift provides a welcoming greeting to all who visit and pass by. 

“I got involved with the program through a friend and his wife in Denver who were both active EMGs (Extension Master Gardeners). When I moved back to Marquette, I saw an advertisement in the Mining Journal for a scheduled MSU Extension Master Gardening class. I immediately signed up. I had no prior experience in gardening. My only exposure to gardening when growing up was when we visited my grandparents. Both had maintained enormous vegetable gardens with multiple fruit trees, grape arbors and many small fruits including strawberries, currants and gooseberries.”  - Ron Rossway

As well as devoting several volunteer hours to the Women’s Federation Clubhouse beautification, Rossway also assists other Extension Master Gardeners with the park cemetery demonstration gardens. He served five years as president of the Upper Peninsula Master Gardener Association, which focuses on providing a way for Extension Master Gardeners to stay connected and continuing education for gardeners. Rossway is also an Extension Master Gardener Smart Gardening Volunteer at local and Upper Peninsula events, such as the Marquette County Fair, the Upper Peninsula State Fair, and the Escanaba Kiwanis Home and Garden Show/Pancake Feed. He assists many other Extension Master Gardeners with their local projects, too.

Many people think that you must be a highly skilled gardener to take the Extension Master Gardener class, but this is not true. The Extension Master Gardeners educational component provides participants with the science-based gardening information and resources needed to start and/or continue their passion for gardening. Volunteers develop skills and knowledge that helps them find the necessary resources since no one is an expert on everything. The program is open to all—Extension Master Gardeners in the Upper Peninsula vary from ages 22 to 82.

At one point, Rossway changed his focus from growing food to growing flowers and site beautification because he felt people appreciate these efforts for many months each year. He believes growing flowers and landscape design is a different mindset, that of an artist creating a colorful, living and dynamic palette.

"I have gone more to the right-brained 'art' focus that offers balance to my left-brained past education and business activities," said Rossway. "Every year I now start seeds indoors in the early spring. This year I started over 2,500 plants in 34 trays and in five hydroponic gardens. These now are mostly various flowers with a few tomato and pepper plants included. Gardening also gets me outdoors and away from sitting in front of my computers all day. (Yes, I’ve done that.) Gardening offers us fresh air, exercise and a social connection with other gardeners. It provides a sense of creating something new, whether it is healthy to eat or adds beauty and something special to the environment they are grown in. I believe we all have a ‘primal instinct’ for gardening, passed down from our ancestors going back thousands of years. Finally, I keep learning something new and interesting in gardening, which helps my 73-year-old brain stay active.”

Congratulations, Liz and Ron! And thanks to both of you for providing over 2,000 volunteer hours to the communities of the Upper Peninsula. That work amounts to over $59,900 in economic contribution, many miles traveled to get to projects, and many donated supplies.

If you are interested in learning more about the MSU Extension Master Gardener Program, please visit the website. We are currently redesigning the course and will be offering both an MSU Extension Foundations of Gardening Course and a subsequent MSU Extension Master Gardener Training for those who want to apply to become a volunteer. For those interested in receiving messages about future training opportunities in 2023, sign up here.

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