URI Master Gardener Program celebrates 40th anniversary with awards recognizing local gardeners, gardening projects

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Rudi Hempe (left) accepts the award for URI Master Gardener of the Year from Charlie Junod. (Photo courtesy of Sue Dunn)

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 25, 2017 – The University of Rhode Island Master Gardener Program recognized its Master Gardener of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Gardening Project of the Year as part of the program’s celebration of its 40th anniversary.

“We have an incredibly talented group of about 600 Master Gardeners who serve as community educators for Cooperative Extension,” said Vanessa Venturini, the state leader of the URI Master Gardener Program. “The awards are a fun way to celebrate 40 years of service to the community and to acknowledge some of the stars of the program.”

Rudi Hempe of Narragansett was recognized as the Master Gardener of the Year, having accrued more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service to the Master Gardener Program in the last 20 years. The former editor of The Standard Times, Hempe has led efforts to install a vegetable demonstration garden, a pollinator meadow and greenhouses at URI’s East Farm, grow disease-resistant American Chestnut trees, and establish the immensely popular East Farm Spring Festival, among many other projects.

“In the future, we will be grateful for the return of chestnut trees to our canopies, appreciate the restoration of our coastal landscape, and benefit from new knowledge of how to support our pollinators, all due to the dedication and leadership of this year’s recipient,” said Master Gardener Charlie Junod during the award presentation.

The Master Gardener Rookie of the Year was presented to David Vissoe of South Kingstown who completed the Master Gardener course in the spring of 2017. A former educator, he volunteered this summer at the East Farm Demonstration Garden, happily tackling innumerable tasks while also educating visitors and leading tours. He was subsequently named project leader for the new Kettle Pond Native Demonstration Garden. Vissoe also volunteered at the Charlestown Schoolhouse Pollinator Garden and the Newport Harbor Walk, contributing 300 service hours in his first year.

“When a volunteer can create his own career path within a volunteer program, this is pretty outstanding,” said Master Gardener Nan Quinlan, who presented the award. “If you talk to this Master Gardener, you’ll see why, as that sense of commitment and that eagerness to learn, educate and share the joy just radiates from his being.”

The Master Gardener Project of the Year award honors outstanding volunteer group projects that educate Rhode Island communities on how to enhance and care for the environment. The winning project involved the installation of dinghies repurposed into large container gardens at the Newport Harbor Walk, which has been visited by about 100,000 people since it was established in 2015.

Installed in collaboration with Friends of the Waterfront, the project features native plants and monarch butterfly habitat installed at points of public access to the waterfront. In 2017, the project expanded to include a demonstration rain garden in King Park. Project volunteers hosted gardening workshops for the public, offered tours of the harbor walk, and collaborated with Rogers High School to make the project sustainable for years to come.

The project leader was Johanna Vietry of Newport and included URI Master Gardener volunteers Casey Farley of Newport, Cheryl Hahn of North Scituate, Cheryl McCarron of East Greenwich, Carole Steinbrenner of Newport, Charlene Sullivan of Newport, Catherine Swanson of Newport, Dave Vissoe of South Kingstown and Robert Walker of Newport.

Theresa Melvin of Cumberland was also recognized with a lifetime achievement award, and Dick and Carol Salzillo of Warwick received a special award for their dedicated service working on the URI Gardening and Environmental Hotline.

For more information about how to become a URI Master Gardener, contact Venturini at 401-874-7142 or vanessa@uri.edu or visit URI Master Gardener.