The Bedford County Master Gardeners group placed third in the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence contest. 

Their project, “Therapeutic Gardening,” won third place in the Special Needs Audiences category — one of seven project categories. Winners were announced in September at the 2013 International Master Gardener Conference in Alaska.

Virginia Master Gardeners are volunteer educators with Virginia Cooperative Extension who work within their communities to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management education and training.

“It was very exciting to have the work we do recognized by this group,” said Phyllis Turner, a Master Gardener involved in the therapeutic gardening project.

Search for Excellence is the recognition program for Master Gardener volunteer work throughout the United States and Canada. According to SFE guidelines, “All volunteer projects done by Master Gardeners are significant to their communities, but not all are SFE projects. The SFE is designed to recognize outstanding group projects, not an individual who does outstanding work.”

For five years, the Bedford County Master Gardeners’ therapeutic gardening project has provided programs at local senior living facilities. The year-round programs — now conducted in four facilities — include educational workshops and hands-on activities related to gardening.

The mission of the project is to “provide education that will result in fitness, confidence, motivation, and well-being and to improve social and community life for residents living in senior living facilities,” according to the application submitted for the contest.

“The passion of the Extension Master Gardener volunteers leading these programs has moved SFE from good to exceptional,” said Scott Baker, Extension agent and unit coordinator in Bedford County who oversees the therapeutic gardening project.

The Bedford County Master Gardeners have seen many positive outcomes from the seniors they work with, including sensory stimulation and increased self-esteem and motivation. The number of participants involved in the project has increased each year.

“For the residents, it has been an emotionally and physically stimulating experience,” Turner said. “It has revived memories for many of them, and I believe they’ve felt an accomplishment.”

Projects were judged on criteria that included simplicity, practicality, originality or creativity, number of people impacted, and whether significant learning occurred.

“The project was very well-planned and -organized, with good hands-on projects for the activities,” said one of the international SFE judges.

For the Bedford County Master Gardeners, this recognition is an honor not only for those directly involved in the project, but for the entire community.

“They told us that there was only two-tenths of a point difference between first, second, and third places,” Turner said. “So our third-place recognition is indeed recognition of excellence. We have such great community support for all of our projects, so we are glad to share this recognition with them.”