Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 12, Issue 2 - December, 2019


Seed Starting Component of the USU Extension Master Gardener Program in Salt Lake County, Utah

Wagner, K. , Horticultural Faculty, Utah State University


Horticulture faculty coordinates a robust and diverse Master Gardener volunteer service body in Salt Lake County, Utah. In an effort to provide ample and practicable service opportunities to all volunteers, both scheduled and ‘do-on-your-own-time’ opportunities are advertised to volunteers. In 2019, an indoor seed starting component was added to the approved project list for Master Gardeners in Salt Lake County. Approximately 55 volunteers started seedlings indoors for the seed starting component in 2019. A Qualtrics survey administered to 337 ‘active status’ volunteers found 54% of respondents (n=79) started seeds indoors to support the garden projects and of those that participated in the indoor seed starting component, 74% had grown garden transplants from seeds prior to 2019. When asked about their greatest motivating factor for participating in the seed starting component, most participants responded to ‘earn volunteer service hours’ (41%), followed by ‘learn a new skill' (32%), ‘benefit recipients’ of donated produce (15%) and ‘enjoy wintertime gardening’ (12%). The majority of respondents stated they ‘definitely’ (78%) or ‘probably’ (17%) plan to start seeds indoors in future years based on their 2019 experience with seed starting.      



Sizeable and impactful volunteer service programs require both integration of project components as well as customization of projects to fit the skills, interests and abilities of volunteers. In other words, large numbers of volunteers often require a large time commitment from coordinators so streamlining project components may be necessary for effective time management. However, it is also important to consider differences (skills, interests, physical ability, time availability) of volunteers. As Culp (2009) states, "many Extension educators have operated from the assumption that volunteers were similar, regardless of demographic, programmatic, generational, or motivational differences". This mentality does not support engagement from all volunteers in Extension programs nor does it typically retain volunteer interest over time.


Program Background


Utah is a state rich in volunteerism, in fact, Utah ranked 1st in the nation by volunteer rate in 2015; 43.2% of residents report they volunteer (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2015). The Master Gardener program in Salt Lake County is a sizeable (337 ‘active status’ volunteers) which accepts approximately 100 new students annually. First-year Master Gardeners are expected to complete 40 hours of volunteer service toward Utah State University (USU) Extension approved projects. Returning Master Gardeners (approximately 200-240) donate at least 15 hours of service annually to maintain their ‘active standing’ with the program. Collectively, Salt Lake County Master Gardener volunteers donated about 5,500 volunteer service hours in 2018 (average of 16 hours/per volunteer). In this regard, the Salt Lake County program is reliant on both new and returning volunteers. Although the majority of volunteers are of retirement age, a sizable segment of volunteers are pre-retirement age and since Salt Lake County teaches both afternoon and evening training programs, many volunteers with busy lifestyles and/or full-time employment can still participate in the Salt Lake program. Through personal dialogue with volunteers, Salt Lake County Master Gardeners are a diverse body made-up of college-aged people, stay-at-home moms and dads, working moms and dads, retirees, quasi-retired people, full and part time care-givers, married couples, singles, friends, co-workers, parent-children teams and so on and so forth. Learning about the diversity in life situations of volunteers has prompted development of volunteer opportunities that 1) offer flexibly to volunteers, but also provide 2) service hours that contribute broader collective impact to approved Extension projects. The seed starting component was developed in 2019 to provide both of these benefits to the Salt Lake County Master Gardener program and its volunteers.


Figure 1. USU Extension Master Gardeners in Salt Lake County exchanging volunteer grown transplants. 

Nationally, one in six seniors over the age of 60 are threatened by hunger (Gunderson and Ziliak, 2014). Approximately 15% of Utah seniors face the threat of hunger and over 50,000 seniors report they are currently struggling with hunger (Salt Lake County Initiative on Aging, 2016). Seniors comprise approximately 10% of Salt Lake County’s total population (110,000 seniors in Salt Lake County; US Census, 2010). Starting in 2016, USU Extension Master Gardeners partnered with multiple community partners to pilot free farmers’ markets at senior centers. Since its implementation, approximately 26,500 pounds of market quality produce has been disseminated to over 4,500 seniors during USU Extension Master Gardener hosted farmers’ markets. The seed starting component was added to this broader program in 2019 to 1) acquire high quality starts, 2) provide a new learning opportunity for volunteers, 3) provide early season ‘volunteer-on-your-own-time’ service hour opportunities, and 4) control selection of varieties with specific characteristics to be grown at USU Extension maintained gardens that support the farmers’ markets (Table 1). Bolded transplant types were grown by volunteers in 2019.


Table 1. Types and Varieties of Garden Produce Grown for the 2019 Senior Center Farmers’ Markets. 
               (Non-highlighted plants were direct seeded into garden soil in 2019.)     



Days to Harvest







Imperial Star


Grown in Permanent Garden


Genovese, Lime, Lemon, Thai


Grown in Permanent Garden

Bean (Pole)

Gita, Old Homestead (OH)

78 (OH)

Grown in Permanent Garden


Detroit Dark Red


Early Spring Crop

Mini Broccoli

Atlantis (A), Happy Rich (Hr), De Cicco (DC), Burgandy (B), Aspabroc (Ap)

60 (A), 27 (Hr), 48 (DC), 37 (B), 50 (Ap)

Lower Days to Harvest Requirement than Broccoli


Cour Di Bue (C). Tiara (T)

65-75 (C), 63 (T)

Early Spring Crop


Edens Gem (EG), Tasty Bites (TB)

90 (EG), 75-80 (TB)



Caracas (C), Oxheart, Kuroda Long

57 (C)

Harvest in Course Soil Types (Less Likely to Snap-off)


Utah Tall (UT), Chinese Pink (CP)

110 (UT), 90 (CP)

Grown in Permanent Garden


Slo Bolt


Slower to Bolt


Aonaga Jibai (AJ), Armenian (A), Chicago Pickling (CP), Gagon (G), Jibai Shimoshirazu, Lemon (L), Mexican Sour Gerkin (MSG), Natsu Fushinari (NF), Suyo Long (SL), Tokiwa ‘Tokyo Green’ (TG)

60 (AJ), 60-90 (A), 55 (CP), 85 (G), 50-60 (L), 70 (MSG), 70 (NF), 60-90 (SL), 55-60 (TG)

Grown in Permanent Garden



40-45 (Leaves)

85-105 Days for Seed


Thai Long Green (TLG), New York Improved (NYI), Mitoyo (M), Galne, Patio Baby

85 (TLG), 75 (NYI), 85-110 (M)

Varying Days to Harvest Requirements for Extended Harvest Period


Madhu Ras. Golden Honeymoon (GH), Golden Jenny

92 (GH)



Miike Takana


Early Season Ethnic Crop


Burmese, Gold Coast (GC), Hill Country Red

75 (GC), 60-70 (HCR)

Ethnic Crop


Little Snowpea White (LSW), Avalanche (A), Green Arrow (GA)

30 (LSW), 59 (A), 68 (GA)

Early Season Crop

Pepino Melon

Garden Berry Pepino

30-80 days after pollination

Grown in Permanent Garden

Pepper (Hot)

Anaheim (A), Buena Mulata (BM), Datil (D), Black Hungarian (BH), Hungarian Hot Wax (HHW), Lemon Spice Jalapeno (LS), Orange Spice Jalapeno (OS), Pumpkin Spice Jalapeno (PS), Poblano (P), Shisito (S), Thai Red Chili (TRC)

80 (A), 75-80 (BM), 100 (D), 75 (BH), 70 (HHW), 65 (LS, OS, PS), 75 (P), 60-80 (S), 85 (RTC)

Some Varieties with Lower Days to Harvest Grown in Main Garden, Some Varieties with Higher Days to Harvest Grown in Permanent Garden

Pepper (Sweet)

Horizon Bell (HB), Ozark Giant (OG), Leutschauer Paprika (LP), Sheepnose Pimento (SP), Sweet Chocolate (SC), Habanada (H), Golden Star (GS), Red Knight (RK), Round of Hungary (RH), Lunchbox (LB)

73 (HB), 70-85 (OG), 85 (LP), 70 (SP), 75 (SC), 100 (H), 62 (GS), 85 (RK), 75 (RH), 75-83 (LB)

Some Varieties with Lower Days to Harvest Grown in Main Garden, Some Varieties with Higher Days to Harvest Grown in Permanent Garden


Viola (V), Crunchy Crimson (CC), French Breakfast (FB)

24 (V), 28 (CC), 26 (FB)

Early Season Crop

Red Roselle



Long Season Ethnic Crop Grown in Permanent Garden

Squash (Summer)

Tatume (T), Golden Zucchini (GZ), Green Bush Zucchini (GBZ)

45 (T). 50-55 (GZ), 60 (GBZ)

Tatume is an Ethnic Squash, Consumed Young it is Similar to a Zucchini or a Winter Squash if Allowed to Mature

Squash (Winter)

Table King Bush (TK), Angel Hair (AH), Table Ace (TA)

80 (TK), 88 (AH), 78 (TA)

Mini Winter Squash Varieties

Sweet Corn



Resistant to Corn Ear Worm

Swiss Chard

Bright Yellow

30 (Baby), 57



Toma Verde




Rebeckah Allen (RA), German Pink (GP), Cour Di Bue (CB), Pink Brandiwine (PB), Sakura (S), Purple Russian (PR), Black Cherry (BC), Brad’s Atomic Grape (BA), Estrina (E)

70 (RA), 85-90 (GP), 70 (CB), 80 (PB), 70 (S), 70 (PR), 75 (BC), 75 (BA), 60 (E)



Beni Kodima (BK), Otome, Sugar Baby (SB)

85 (BK), 75 (SB)

Mini Watermelon Varieties

Asian Winged Bean



Ethnic Crop, Grown in Permanent Garden


African Daisy, Agastache (Navajo Sunset, Rose Mint, Texas Hummingbird Mint), Balm (Golden Lemon), Balsam (Peppermint Sticks), Cosmos (Velouette), Hyssop (Korean Golden Jubilee), Marigold (Sparky Mixed Colors), Monarda (Bergamo, Lemon Bee Balm), Poppy (Hungarian Blue Bread), Sunflower (Teddy Bear, Short Stuff), Zinnia (Various)


Some Types Taken to Markets as Cut Flowers

*Onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic were started from sets, plants or bulbs.





Seed of specific vegetable varieties was chosen based on the following characteristics.

  • Low ‘days to harvest requirement’. The main garden site used to grow produce for the markets was transformed to a hay maze and pumpkin patch for October festivities around the second week of September. Due to a shortened growing season length due to multi-use of the garden site, vegetable varieties with a short ‘days to harvest’ requirement were selected to achieve maximum productivity in a short growing period. The average last frost for the garden site was April 27th (133 day growing period) (Utah Climate Center, 2019).
  • Plant size/growth habit. To facilitate ease of harvest and maximum productivity, certain varieties, such as bush-type squash and pole beans, were selected for small garden sites and vertical trellising. Trellised crops included green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and certain vining crops such as Mexican sour gherkins and winged beans.
  • Produce size. Seniors are sometimes limited in their ability to transport produce. For example, many seniors cannot manage a 15-pound watermelon on their own and USU Extension staff and volunteers did not want to inconvenience senior center kitchen staff by asking them to cut and package produce for the markets. For these reasons, mini varieties of melons and certain squash were selected.
  • Coloration upon maturity. USU Extension faculty and staff have noticed that volunteers often have difficulty assessing maturity of certain crops, such as peppers and tomatoes, without a clear visual indicator. For this reason, varieties were chosen to color upon maturation to help volunteers correctly determine appropriate harvest timing.
  • Ethnic/rare and unusual crops. Various ethnic senior populations frequent certain centers so Salt Lake County Adult and Aging Services was consulted to determine the ethnicities of served seniors and identify garden produce they typically consume in their traditional diets. Efforts were made to grow certain ethnic crops for these groups of seniors, such as white fleshed sweet potatoes and taro root for Polynesian seniors (2018 garden), mustard greens, ethnic squash, ethnic eggplant and okra for Burmese and Bhutanese seniors, hot peppers and tomatillos for Hispanic seniors, and so on. Of course there was broad interest in many of these crops by a broad array of seniors, however USU Extension horticulture staff noticed that 1) volunteers find interest in growing new and different crops – in other words, it keeps the program new, interesting and challenging for volunteers, 2) many Salt Lake County seniors have a diverse palate and are willing to try new foods – especially with some coaching from volunteers, and  3) many volunteers enjoy ‘sampling their way’ through diverse garden selections. In this sense, the gardens also served as demonstration plots for public educational outreach.

Figure 2. Burmese and Bhutanese seniors gave Master Gardeners a 'thumbs-up' for another successful market.


Seeds were selected and ordered in January along with seed starting supplies such as peat pods, insert trays, liners, plastic domes and heat mats. Volunteers were required to provide their own light table set-up; however volunteers were instructed on low-cost light table construction resources. Volunteers were ‘loaned’ all other seed starting supplies. USU Extension invested around $1,800 in 2019 for seed starting materials ($33/per participant). Volunteers were required to check out supplies and seeds from USU Extension staff in effort to track what was taken by whom. Seeds were brought to class the same week volunteers were instructed to start them indoors to discourage early germination and control mature transplant size. For example, if seed packet instructions stated to start seeds 10 weeks before to the last frost date, seeds were disseminated to students around February 19th (10 weeks prior to average last frost date of April 27th). Students were notified they could earn up to 10 volunteer service hours (1 hour per 10 successful seedlings) for their participation. Many students experienced early failures, for example leggy seedlings or dampening off, however students were notified they could have a second chance with later seed starting opportunities of starts such as zinnias (sow 4 to 5 weeks prior to average last frost). Participants were highly encouraged to watch USU YouTube videos on seed starting and read appropriate fact sheets and blog posts prior to starting seeds.


Figure 3. Cut flowers were grown by volunteers and disseminated at senior center farmers' markets.




Of the 337 ‘active status’ volunteers, approximately 55 volunteers (16%) opted to participate in the seed starting component of the Salt Lake County Master Gardener program. Most of the participants were ‘new’ students with a 40-hour volunteer service commitment. A Qualtrics survey administered to active volunteers found 74% of respondents (n=79) who decided to participate in the indoor seed starting component of the program had grown garden transplants from seed prior to 2019. When asked about participants’ greatest motivating factor for participating, responses favored;

  1. Earn volunteer service hours (41%), followed by,
  2. Learn a new skill (32%)
  3. Benefit senior citizens (15%),
  4. Enjoy wintertime gardening (12%)
  5. Be able to physically participate in a USU approved volunteer service activity (0%)

The majority of seed starting participants rated their level of success with seed starting as 'good' (46%), followed by 'average' (27%) and 'excellent' (15%). Volunteers who responded they opted not to participate in the seed starting component reported there was not enough space in their home (33%), that they preferred other USU Extension Master Gardener volunteer programs (20%), the cost of the necessary equipment was too high (13%), they did not feel comfortable with their seed starting ability (15%), or that they were unable to participate due to prior commitments such as travel (15%).

Most respondents felt USU Extension resources (such as YouTube videos, fact sheets and blog posts) prepared them well (37% responded 'excellent' and 29% responded 'good') for indoor seed starting and based on their 2019 experience with indoor seed starting, 78% felt they would ‘definitely’ plan to start seeds indoors in future years while 17% responded they would ‘probably’ plan to start seeds indoors.

The majority (71%) of seed staring participants checked out equipment from USU Extension in 2019 and 69% (‘definitely yes’ [44%], ‘probably yes’ (28%) felt the possibility of borrowing equipment compelled them to participate in the indoor seed starting component in 2019. Resuts found 90% of the seed starting participants said they personally invested money in 2019 for seed starting, however 81% responded they felt the amount of money was reasonable. USU Extension distributed approximately 5,700 seeds to volunteers who reported approximately 2,595 viable starts. Therefore, the seed starting component provided the Master Gardener volunteer body approximately 260 volunteer service hours in 2019 (one service hour for every 10 viable starts). Although it was difficult to measure, it is estimated that volunteers had on average a 45% seedling success rate based on what participants reported they planned to donate. Master Gardener volunteers who opted to participate in the indoor seed starting component contributed an average of 47 transplants per person.        




At its roots, the Master Gardener program is a train the trainer volunteer service program. To some measure, the seed starting component achieved this objective even though not every seedling was viable nor every transplant was high quality. When asked to provide feedback on the program, one volunteer responded;

“In the past, I had started seeds indoors using only a window as a source of light. With the videos and training on how to successfully start plants indoors, we purchased a grow light. With the extra help in knowing what to actually do, our starts looked incredible and we’ve been able to help neighbors who are also interested in gardening”.

This type of qualitative impact supports this and many other Extension programs; this participant was provided research-based information and resources, applied information to improve his/her gardening techniques, and shared what he/she had learned with others. Based on this and other program feedback, USU Extension faculty and horticulture staff in Salt Lake County were satisfied with the level of interest in the indoor seed starting by volunteers. Comments from survey respondents suggested that the program encouraged volunteers to learn a new skill and/or try starting seeds of different types of vegetables. It provided an early season ‘do-on-your-own-time’ volunteer service hour opportunity although it was a lot of time committment for USU Extension horticulture faculty and staff during what is usually a slower time of year programmatically. The quality of the transplants were overall pretty good and, for the most part, it was a good and productive start to the 2019 Master Gardener volunteer service season in Salt Lake County.


Literature Cited


Corporation for National and Community Service (2015). State rankings by volunteer rate. Accessed on September 12th, 2019.

Culp, K. (2009). Recruiting and engaging baby boomer volunteers. Journal of Extension. 47(2).

Gunderson, C. and Ziliak, J.P. (2014). The state of senior hunger in America 2012: An annual report. National Foundation to End Senior Hunger [On-line]. Available at:

Salt Lake County Initiative on Aging: Partnership for a greater Salt Lake (2016). Mission and
vision document obtained via email correspondence with partner Andree Walker-Bravo.

United States Census (2010). Quickfacts Salt Lake County, Utah. Accessed on September 12th, 2019.

Utah Climate Center (2019). United States freeze dates. Accessed on September 12th, 2019.