Extension Helps Alabama Herb Society Promote Clean Watersheds
by Cole Sikes
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. — Jean Szabo leads a group of senior gardeners at the Crump Community Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Known as the Alabama Herb Society, their garden provides vegetables, fruit, flowers and enough memories to last a lifetime. Not too long ago, their community space did not appear as it does today. After working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, their garden is now prosperous and anticipating an exciting addition.
A Helping Hand
Szabo first learned about Alabama Extension after enrolling in the Alabama Master Gardener (AMG) program in 2016. As an avid fan of gardening, the program supplied her with the knowledge needed to effectively grow many different plants. Now, she helps lead the Alabama Herb Society meetings at the community center, where they tend to the center’s garden and implement gardening practices.
The AMG program opened Szabo’s eyes to other Extension programs that the herb society could utilize – one of which was the Alabama Watershed Stewards (AWS) program. This science-based outreach program promotes healthy watersheds in Alabama through educational workshops across the state. Participating organizations and local decision makers are educated by AWS to implement water management strategies that benefit communities, the economy and the environment. After learning about this program, the herb society invited Laura Cooley, Alabama Extension’s director of AWS, to conduct a workshop at the community center about rain gardens and other water resources.
“Alabama Watershed Stewards hosts several types of trainings,” Cooley said. “Each one promotes healthy watersheds, fosters community conversations and provides people with the tools they need to prevent and resolve local watershed issues.”
The Crump Community Center is affected by heavy rains that consistently move debris and pollutants across the property. After the workshop, Szabo and Cooley explored opportunities to improve the existing bones of their community staple.
To improve their garden, the herb society members had interest in constructing a rain garden. These shallow, vegetated structures act as buffers that slow down stormwater pollutants and infiltrate soils instead of communal water bodies.
Creating a rain garden takes time and money as well as certain equipment and machinery. This task would prove daunting for the herb society to undertake on their own. Luckily, Cooley and Alabama Extension provided resources that will soon transform their beloved garden. To relieve the financial and technical burden of installing environmental measures, Szabo said they learned a lot about grant funding from Cooley. They worked together to identify how to secure grants and which organizations offer them.
“The opportunity to receive a grant through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) came up in conversation,” Szabo said. “We decided to go for it, and we are fortunate to be awarded a Clean Water Act 319 grant. We have several projects that we intend to develop with this funding.”
When it is constructed, Szabo said they hope to use their new rain garden as a teaching tool. This will bring awareness of stormwater pollution, rain gardens and their impacts. Students from Auburn University’s College of Agriculture will also use the center’s new project as part of their educational platform. Biosystems engineering students intend to provide hands-on experience with designing rain gardens.
A Trusted Partner
According to Szabo, the garden would not be in its current state today if it wasn’t for Alabama Extension’s help. Thanks to the Alabama Master Gardeners and Alabama Watershed Stewards programs, the Alabama Herb Society’s garden continues to benefit from science-based education from Extension.
“Extension was really the start for us as an organization,” Szabo said. “We rely on it. The garden was really overgrown when we took it over. It all goes back to Extension helping us start and continuing to help improve this resource.”
The seemingly endless amounts of information that Alabama Extension offers is what draws the herb society back to their trusted partner. Szabo said there are many people that could also benefit from contacting Extension offices.
“A lot of people do not know about the Alabama Cooperative Extension System,” Szabo said. “We really need to get the word out, and we are hoping to help spread awareness of what Extension can offer through our garden.”
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Promoting clean watersheds is just one of the many ways Alabama Extension delivers solutions for life’s everyday challenges. Extension educators are strong community partners, bringing practical ways to support homes, farms, people and communities.