February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Native Americans' Interest in Horticulture

Focus groups held on two Native American reservations in Minnesota determined community members interest, value and desire for Extension horticultural programs. Using local Native American Master Gardeners to set up and assist with the meetings was imperative to success. Programs identified as of interest have now or will be offered include: 1) combined classes on gardening and food preservation; 2) historical Native American uses of plants ; and 3) an extensive list of many horticultural topics including home landscaping, small and tree fruits, and perennial flowers.

Mary Hockenberry Meyer
Assistant Professor
Department of Horticultural Science
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota
Internet address: mmeyer@extension.umn.edu


Cooperative Extension has long realized the need to reach minority and diverse audiences. Attempts to develop successful programs with Native Americans require time and special effort. With 50% diabetes (Type II or non-insulin dependent) rates on Minnesota Native American reservations, gardening and nutrition classes would seem a natural opportunity for Extension programs. However, Minnesota Native Americans average only 21% of households participating in gardening (Sutherland, 1994), below the national average of 37% (US News and World Reports, 1996).

Alves (1993) suggests that Native Americans are unique in their tribal cultural heritage and thus educational programming should differ from tribe to tribe and from community to community. She lists several strategies for successful Extension programs. Buck (1997) states that members of diverse groups do not share the same values and cultures of Extension. She suggests that Extension staff need to look at these differences and understand them to become comfortable in reaching audiences differing from themselves.

In an effort to understand the values and culture of specific communities and to determine what Extension programs in horticulture might be successful, focus groups were held on White Earth and Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota. As Alves notes, using an extender in this project, local Native American Master Gardeners, to set up the focus or discussion group was key. In fact, the invitations, meeting arrangements, and coordination were all done by local Master Gardeners. Although the University staff member leading the discussion was an "outsider," the level of trust of the local Master Gardener was high and the purpose of the meeting was clearly explained as to "understand your interest and thoughts on gardening".

Methods and Materials

White Earth Focus Group: Six female Native Americans ranging in age from early 20s to mid 60s met for dinner on October 4, 1995 at a restaurant on White Earth reservation in Ogema, MN. A local Native American Master Gardener invited participants and made meeting and dinner arrangements. After a complimentary dinner, participants answered the questions listed in Table 1 prepared according to Krueger (1994). The group was small enough for each person to answer each question with as much or as little detail as desired.

Fond du Lac Focus Group: Eight Native Americans, four males and four females met for dinner on November 16, 1996 in Cloquet, MN and answered the same questions. Again a local Native American Master Gardener arranged the meeting. All participants previously attended a Gitigaan (Ojibwa for garden) series of classes held by Extension and the local tribal community college.

There was no apparent difference in responses due to the sexual composition of the two groups. Although individuals varied in amount of response, all participants spoke freely.

Table 1 Focus Group Questions

  1. What does the word garden mean to you?
  2. Describe an attractive home as far as plants are concerned.
  3. How important are plants in making a home attractive?
  4. Rate yourself as to how active you have been in gardening,1 = no activity, 5=very active.
  5. How active do you hope to be in the coming year in gardening?
  6. What are the benefits of gardening?
  7. How does gardening help you or those around you?
  8. What are the obstacles to gardening?
  9. What is needed for you to become more active in gardening?
  10. Would you rather have a community garden or one of your own?
  11. How do you feel about children and gardening, is it useful or necessary?
  12. How could the University of Minnesota be more helpful to you?
  13. Who is an expert that you go to for gardening advice?
  14. Which topics in gardening would you like to have a class in ?

Results of Focus Group Questions and Summary of Responses:

  1. What does the word garden mean to you?

    Fresh vegetables, good food, high quality produce, hard work, gardening through harvest, from seeds to canning/freezing/preservation; $$ saved. We need to figure out how to garden year round! Flowers also!

  2. Describe an attractive home as far as plants are concerned:

    Shade trees, shrubs, flowers; "I planted 12 blueberries along the side of my house, would like to have other fruits now, I want fruits that come back every year." Plantings that are energy efficient, living snow fences, look good around a home. Fruit trees and shrubs that attract birds; color and interest through the seasons. House plants are important and attractive in a home.

  3. How important are plants in making a home attractive?

    All agreed very important. Homes with no plants can be an eyesore and stand out.

  4. Rate yourself as to how active you have been at gardening:1=no activity; 5 = very active

    White Earth group mean was 1.9 "I couldn't really be a 5 (very active) because I've never canned that much." Canning and food preservation made a difference in the perceived level of activity to participants; if you canned you were very active, non-canners were not rated as high. Memories of mothers or in-laws who "canned everything; nothing went to waste" were mentioned. A lack of knowledge in food preservation and safety were apparent: canning and food preservation classes seem to be needed. Preservation and growing were very intertwined, to separate these issues in teaching is probably a mistake.

    The Fond du Lac group felt they were 5's or most active, some even rated themselves 7 or 8. The discussion on food preservation did not come up.

  5. How active do you hope to be in the coming year in gardening, 1 = no activity; 5 = very active:

    White Earth mean was 3.5. One person planned to grow at least 20 lbs. of onions next year "I use them in everything". This prompted a discussion of how to store onions and braid them. Again preservation interest is closely associated with growing. Fond du Lac participants felt they would continue at the same level (5) of activity. "I want to plant more lasting (perennial) crops: berries, raspberries, etc."

  6. Benefits of gardening:

    Fresh healthy food, saves money, no preservatives, tastes better, you can make so many things you cannot buy in the store. It's relaxing, you can see results, it's good exercise. It's fun and enjoyable to watch plants grow; being self-sufficient.

  7. How does gardening help you or those around you?

    Stress reduction; nice to get outside; weeding relieves anxiety; its good quality time with kids; food safety, you know how fresh it is and what has been used on it when you grow it yourself; it's therapeutic, great to get out and have the fresh air, pass on your knowledge to the next person and the next owner of your home. "We bought our house for the garden and it is a real benefit." One participant cited better health since he has diabetes; eating lots of vegetables has lowered his blood sugar, plus working outside has exercise benefits. Gardening is an "important part of the family; it's just something we do". A desire to know more Native American uses of plants was raised in Fond du Lac, all agreed this would be welcomed.

  8. What are the obstacles to gardening?

    Lack of time, busy summertime, taking kids to the lake, parenting responsibilities, rabbits and pets eating plants, the bugs, weeds!!!

  9. What is needed for you to be more active in gardening?

    Information; knowledge; how to grow fruit trees, especially dwarf trees, raspberries, pears, apples. "Some people, senior citizens really need help in gardening, they cannot do the preparation themselves, we (community, neighbors) should help in putting their plants in." "Equipment, I could use a tractor, then I could do more work." More time!!

  10. Would you rather have a community garden or one of your own?

    "Our own, so we are near to the produce and can protect and care for it." Vandals can be a problem in community gardens. There are times when kids can do a community garden. It gives them pride to do it as a group and show the community what they can do. "Senior citizens especially should have a place and assistance for gardening. In a community gardens you can learn so much from seeing everyone's plot." At Fond du Lac, a discussion occurred on learning and gardening as a community. "Gardening was a way of life for us, but gardening has been lost for a generation or so, we need to get it back."

  11. Children and gardening, is it useful or necessary?

    "Kids love it, they love to plant, and learn the names. It's very useful and good to get outside, some kids may not appreciate gardening." "Yes, it's very important to involve children." One person directed her grandchildren to select two vegetable seed packets,one flower pack (plants), and one strawberry plant, they all enjoyed watching the plants grow, and the kids were thrilled. "There is just so much that can be learned in a classroom, must get outside and teach respect for the earth and outdoors." Each child should have an experience outside, little plots, "perhaps we could have a child work with each of us and watch and learn from our plots."

    At Fond du Lac one person was "resentful of not learning more from my ancestors. I need a recap of all they knew. The woods now is like a store; everything is out there. We need to plant our things, like sweet grass. We have lost touch with our culture."

  12. How could the University of Minnesota be more helpful for you?

    Teach us or have classes on: when to fertilize, how much and safety issues: "I have my well right near the garden, when I fertilize I know it goes right down into the well water. I am drinking whatever I put on my garden, so I want to do it right;" Composting; how, when, steps, etc. "Give us more Master Gardeners". How to grow raspberries, all kinds of fruits, landscaping; canning.

  13. Who is an expert that you go to for gardening advice?

    Extension educators (agents), Master Gardeners, neighbors and friends, Cooperative Extension.

  14. Which of the following would you like to have a class in?

    Flowers, fruits, indoor plants, vegetables, home landscaping, trees, other ? All of the above. everything; every topic is excellent. "We need more depth and detail. We want time to ask lots of questions and listen to the answers."

Discussion and Program Development

Overall these two groups have much in common and yet differences appeared in Questions 4, 7,10, and 11. For question 4, the White Earth group rated themselves as less active as gardeners since some did not can or freeze their produce, their definition of gardening included preservation.

In questions 7,10 and 11, the Fond du Lac group talked about their ancestors and passing on teaching to their children. These differences support Alves idea that each community of Native Americans has distinct needs and interests (1993).

On White Earth, classes have now been held that combine plant culture with food preservation. Participants see the two topics as intertwined and not separate distinct subjects Extension has divided them.

At Fond du Lac, local or regional specialists from the community, Indian Studies programs, and the local tribal community college have made presentations on the use of plants by Native Americans.

Since many horticultural topics were of interest, a wide variety of subjects from home landscaping to fruits and perennial flowers are being developed as potential programs. In depth classes or multiple sessions may be necessary for complex topics.

Because local Master Gardeners are held in great esteem, these resource people are key in implementing successful programs. The group requesting "more Master Gardeners" has been involved in additional Master Gardener training in their local county.

In this project, focus groups enabled Extension to listen, learn and adapt programs to fit the needs and interests of Native Americans in these two communities.


Alves, J. L. (1993). Reaching Native Americans, Strategies for adapting to cultural differences. Journal of Extension, 31(1). Available on line at www.joe.org

Buck, S. (1997). Valuing differences. Journal of Extension. 35(1). Available on line at www.joe.org

Krueger, R. (1994). Focus Groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Sutherland, J. (1994). Native American outreach working group summary report. St. Paul, MN. University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Where to Find the Gardeners. US News and World Reports (1996, May 20).