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Thursday, July 23, 2020

URI Cooperative Extension switches to online gardening seminars, reaches new, larger audiences

Expanded programming continues through fall and beyond
Todd McLeish

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, staff members at the University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension were gearing up for a spring gardening festival, deploying Master Gardeners to public events to answer gardening questions, and scheduling presentations around the state about numerous gardening topics. Spring and summer are their busiest seasons by far.

When the virus forced the state into lockdown and residents were told to stay home, the organization shifted its tactics and tried to figure out how to continue its offerings online. And it has been more successful than they could have imagined.

“The pandemic – and the fact that everyone was staying home – triggered tremendous interest in growing food, many of whom had never done so before,” said Kate Venturini, outreach program administrator for Cooperative Extension. “We wanted to make sure people still had access to our science-based resources, so we turned to online programming.”

From May through July, nearly two dozen presentations were offered online via the WebEx platform on such topics as landscape design, planning a vegetable garden, container gardening, composting, and easy lawncare. 

More than 3,000 people attended the programs live – far more than would ordinarily have attended similar programs in person – and many more have watched them after the presentations were archived on YouTube.

“As we started building our gardening-related webinar schedule, we realized that we should integrate other topics Cooperative Extension programs address, not just gardening,” Venturini said. “We’re now planning programs about solar energy, energy markets, cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables, youth engagement in science, tick safety and more.”

So far, the programs have been a rousing success. Ninety-seven % of the 500 people who completed an evaluation of one of the seminars indicated that they had learned something new, and 96% said they planned to take action or do something differently as a result of what they had learned.

“A light bulb went off for us. Why weren’t we doing this all along?” Venturini asked. “So we’re planning to continue offering these programs online going forward, even after the pandemic is over. It’s so much easier to bring people together this way and to bring in experts from outside our immediate area. We’ve got science behind us, and we want to make it accessible to all.”

Upcoming online seminars are as follows:

  • July 24: Totally Tomatoes
  • July 31: Food and Animal Science for Youth: Live 4-H Activity Demonstrations
  • August 7: Tree Fruits in Rhode Island
  • August 14: Valuing Siting Options for Commercial-Scale Solar Energy in Rhode Island
  • August 21: Food Preservation FAQ’s
  • August 28: Family Friendly Fruit and Veggie Recipes
To register for any of these programs, visit All are free and open to the public.

Additional programs will be scheduled throughout the fall. Check the website regularly for topics and information.