After 32 years at AT&T, Nancy Sylvestri-Elzig retired and started to tackle her “bucket list.” Sylvestri-Elzig, now 56, had kept a list of the top 20 things she wanted to do when she retired.
High on the list was becoming a Master Gardener.
With the encouragement of her husband, Bill Elzig, whom she met in fifth grade at Porter Elementary School in Alameda, Sylvestri-Elzig was certified by the Alameda County UC Master Gardener program in 2010.
Chock-full of energy and enthusiasm, Sylvestri-Elzig also has her fingers in many different pots. She has learned to be a master composter through Stopwaste.org and earned a master pruning certificate through Merritt College. She also volunteers with the Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coaliton, is an apprentice beekeeper, maintains a commercial garden for a caterer at the old Navy base and helps teach gardening to special education students at Encinal High School.
Are you sure you’re retired? Yes! These are all volunteer jobs. It’s great fun! And I’m so very fortunate because my husband has been so very supportive of my pursuit of my passions, which are around gardening and volunteer work. I wouldn’t be able to do it without his support.
When did you start gardening? I’ve been gardening since I was 8 years old. I was raised by my grandparents, who had a walnut farm up in Vacaville. It was only about 20 acres. In Alameda, we always had a vegetable garden. It never mattered how little space we had. Grandpa was raised in Alameda and everyone had a garden. That’s what you did back then. You had a Victory Garden.
Then when my son was born, I decided to do the same thing with him. Even though the garden is postage stamp size, when he was 3, we started working in the garden. When he was about 5, he put all his produce in his little red wagon and took it down the street to sell it to the neighbors.
How long did it take you to get certified as a master gardener? The classroom requirements were about 12 weeks. Then you have to complete 60 hours of volunteer work, community work and work as a Plant Doctor.
Who or what is a Plant Doctor? Plant Doctors are master gardeners who answer questions about plants. Sometimes we work at the . People come and ask us questions about what’s wrong with their plants.
Typically what happens is people overwater their plants. That seems to be the biggest cause of plant death. The soil, because it’s living, suffocates.
When can we find you at the Alameda Farmers Market? Two of us will be there on Tuesdays every week starting in May. When we didn’t have a presence at the farmers market, I knew that was something we needed. So I got together with a couple of the other master gardeners and we pushed it through. We would love to go Saturdays as well, but there’s limited space on that day.
So where can people get help for their sick plants before May? They can actually call the master gardener hotline. And many of the eight or nine master gardeners who live in Alameda can be found at community events sponsored by groups such as the Alameda Backyard Growers.
You do know most of the gardens in the schools have had the help of master gardeners. For example, the butterfly garden at Bay Farm, that was the work of an Alameda County Master Gardener. I hope most people know that they can ask any one of us for help or call Sue [Lesica], the program coordinator.
It’s free right? Yes, it’s absolutely free. But we would certainly accept donations because there are expenses.
So why do you do it? It’s great to grow up in a community like this where you know everyone. When I became a master gardener, I knew one of the things I wanted to do was serve our community. Once you are educated by the university and benefit from all the wonderful research, the job is really to serve the community. And that’s exactly what we do. It’s an absolute passion for me.