Sandra Mason is the UI extension educator in Champaign County who specializes in horticulture and environment. She makes herself available to provide information and answer questions regarding any kind of houseplants, trees, shrubs, herbs, perennials or annuals. She also coordinates the Master Gardener program in Champaign County. Mason has been with the UI since 1986.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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A big part of your job is answering questions about gardens and plants. Do people just call?
Yes, actually they do. We advertise that we're available if people have questions. That's probably one of the big things -- just letting people know we're here.
Tell me about the Master Gardener program. What is it?
It's 55 hours of training that is held once a week from January through April. Once their training is finished, they do 70 hours of internship. And a lot of that time is spent in the office answering questions from the public. We also have some community gardens that the Master Gardeners plant and maintain. Our big project is the Idea Garden on South Lincoln Avenue. That project is a major endeavor for the Champaign County Master Gardeners. They plan it, they plant it, they design it, they maintain it, they raise funds for it. They do everything. And it's a wonderful resource for the community and people just love it. We try to keep all the plants labeled so people can take notes and put the plants in their own gardens. We also have a community garden at the Champaign County Nursing Home for the Alzheimer's unit and we also have a speaker's bureau that provides Master Gardeners for meetings and programs.
What's your background?
Both my degrees are from the UI. My bachelor's is in ornamental horticulture and my master's is in ag education, with a heavy emphasis on horticulture because I always knew I wanted to do education with horticulture. But in my previous lives I did all kinds of things. I was the greenhouse coordinator for the UI greenhouses and its horticulture department, back when we had a horticulture department. And I also was a landscape designer for Greenview Companies, and was a plant propagator for Wandells. I got a lot of practical experience in horticulture and that's helped immensely in what I do now.
Where did you grow up? Were you raised on a farm?
I grew up at Farmer City. My dad was a pharmacist and had the local drug store but we lived on a small farm. It was sort of a hobby farm, I guess they call them now, but it was a great way to grow up. We had animals and a barn and I got interested in gardening there.
You're frequently on television and radio. What kinds of those things do you do?
In this area we have really good support when it comes to TV and radio. On WILL-TV's 'Illinois Gardener,' I appear every other month or so, sometimes serving as substitute host. On WILL-AM's 'Focus 580' we do a show like 'Illinois Gardener' where people call in and ask questions. And I have a column every Saturday in the News-Gazette, that we also run on our Home Extension Web page. I get all kinds of questions from all over the world.
What about family life? Are you married?
Yes, my husband is Mike Richards. He has Renaissance Art Studio and he does stained glass and antique furniture restoration.
Do you have children?
No, we have three dogs. They were all orphans. We never planned on having three dogs but they ended up finding us. And they're great company.
Where do you and your husband live?
We live outside Monticello on about 2 acres. About 11 years ago we moved a house onto an old property where there was just a barn and a small shed. We love being out in the country and it gives us plenty of space to garden.
Here's the big question. What's your garden like?
My garden? It's magnificent … in my mind. This is my busy season at work so I spend a lot of time at work and I'd love to spend more time in my own garden. But I do have lots of flower beds. I also have apple trees and peach trees and cherry trees and we also have gooseberries and raspberries and currants and a vegetable garden. So we pretty much have a little of everything.
How big is your vegetable garden?
I do raised-bed gardening so there are 4 x 8-foot plots in an area about 30 x 50 feet. I don't always get everything weeded. I will admit that.
But you do have a compost pile?
Yes, I have a compost pile. And my husband is building me this really nice garden shed and we're going to have a greenhouse attached to it. One of my dreams has been to have a small greenhouse of my own because I like to start my own plants.
What kinds of things do you do for fun?
Probably garden. But my other great love is hiking. We do some camping and I like to bike. And certainly my other love is some of the natural areas around here. Allerton Park is one of my absolute loves. If I'm not in my own garden I'm probably hiking around Allerton Park. It's magnificent.
Do you like working for the UI?
I love the university. There are all kinds of people I can call if I've got a question about any insects or diseases. Plus I always like to learn new things. The UI encourages and provides those kinds of learning opportunities and I like to take advantage of that.