Extension Volunteer Provides Well-Seasoned Gardening Advice

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Avron Upchurch is a couple of hours into his shift at the N.C. Cooperative Extension booth at the Sanford Farmers’ Market in Lee County. It’s another energy-sapping day in a hot and muggy summer, and it’s time to take a break from dispensing expert gardening advice and demonstrating how to create a plant from a stem cutting in a homemade mini-greenhouse.

He takes a seat in a camp chair at the back of the booth, and takes in a little food and water.

“I’ve got to slow down,” he says. “I’ve learned I have to take a break sometimes. My wife says, ‘Avron, you’re not 30 anymore. You can’t continue to go at the same pace.’”

True enough. In fact, it’s been more than 30 years since Avron was in his 30s. Many more.

“I’m 93 years old,” he says. “I’ll be 94 next month.”

Avron is an NC State Extension Master Gardener volunteer. He’s been one since 1996, the program’s inaugural year in Lee County

NC State Extension Master Gardener Program volunteer service Avron Upchurch Lee County

Avron Upchurch dispenses gardening advice from the N.C. Cooperative Extension booth at the Sanford farmers market.

He has definitely reached an age when not just slowing down but staying at home and enjoying a well-earned rest from his labors would be understandable. But he won’t even entertain such a thought. He loves what he is doing too much.

“I just love serving people and seeing the result of helping,” he said. “I got the idea from scripture. I’m a Christian man. I can’t get a better feeling than helping somebody else. If you can improve their lives, I want to be a part of that. That’s my theory.”

As Extension’s horticulture agent in Lee County, Amanda Wilkins supervises the  Master Gardener program. When she was hired in 2022, she quickly realized the value of her most experienced volunteer.

“He is an ambassador,” Wilkins said. “Avron really embodies the Extension Master Gardener program and the mission and intent of what N.C. Cooperative Extension brings to all communities across North Carolina. His motivation is serving people. That’s why we exist. We’re not out for glory. We’re not out to boast or brag about being the most knowledgeable. We’re just here to improve the lives of North Carolinians and to make the world a better place for them and help them reach their own goals, whether it’s growing food, eating healthy, or just trying to make a living for themselves.”

He is incredibly well respected and cherished by other Master Gardener volunteers.

“He’s a national treasure,” said Peggy Hudson, a Master Gardener volunteer since 2005. “There aren’t enough adjectives. Avron is just a wonderful person. He helps everyone. He is a pillar of the community. He’s all over town, helping people. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. He’s forgotten more about gardening than most of us will ever know.”

He still remembers an awful lot. At the farmers market, a woman asks why her tomatoes aren’t producing. Avron asks a series of questions — what variety are they, where are they planted, how much sun do they get, how often are they watered — and comes to the conclusion they simply haven’t ripened yet.

NC State Extension Master Gardener Program volunteer service Avron Upchurch Lee County

Avron Upchurch, a Master Gardener volunteer in Lee County since 1996, loves passing on his knowledge of plants to children.

He also spends a lot of time demonstrating his mini-greenhouses, mostly to families with children. He fills a small plastic pot with dirt and a stem cutting, waters the plant, inserts an arch made of a clothes hanger, and encloses it within a plastic bread bag.

“I tell them this is a mini world environment, just like we’re living in,” he said. “The sun is drawing the vapor up out of this moist soil, then the water hits this cool plastic, condensates into droplets and runs down to water the plant and the soil. The purpose is to set up an environment that will ensure rooting if you have the right cutting.”

Related: Tips for starting a container garden

Avron’s love for serving, teaching and plants are evident during his shift at the farmers market. Sarah Lewis stops at the Extension booth, views a demonstration and takes home a mini-greenhouse.

“He taught me how to water it, to keep the bag off so it doesn’t burn the leaves and to pay attention to the water in the bottom so it’ll be like a hot house,” she said. “He said to keep an eye on the root structure and then once it starts forming I can replant it. He was very nice. He’s very smart and excited to teach, so that’s important.”

She is surprised when she learns that the energetic teacher is in his 90s.

“Oh wow,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it. That’s awesome.”

Allison Ancona is here with her 8-year-old son. She takes out her phone and shows Avron photos of a raised bed filled with flowers, including a gardenia she received at the Extension booth last year. The cutting instilled a love of gardening in the boy, and he now tends the bed.

“My son loves gardening, and he does a good job at it. He’s way better than me,” she said.

Avron serves on the advisory committee for N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Lee County Center. He was warm and welcoming when Wilkins was hired and quickly made it known he would support the new agent and was willing to help in any capacity.

“It was very clear that he was very special and very involved in Extension,” she said. “When I held my first Master Gardener meeting, he made a point to come and talk to me. He is a storyteller and just a wealth of knowledge. He has a high level of interest and support and enthusiasm and has tons of ideas. He’s always got something in the works and is one of the most vocal and engaged Master Gardener volunteers.”

NC State Extension Master Gardener Program volunteer service Avron Upchurch Lee County

Amanda Wilkins (second from left), horticulture agent at N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Lee County Center, with Master Gardener volunteers Jerry Spivey, Avron Upchurch, Peggy Hudson and Pat Banville.

Avron’s roots run deep in Lee County. He grew up on a tobacco farm, became an agriculture teacher at the local high school, and started an agriculture technology program at Central Carolina Community College. He moved into administration and retired as executive vice president and chief academic officer.

“Avron is a piece of living history who knows the culture of Lee County and can help give context to that history,” Wilkins said. “He knows how much Extension has changed, and how much the community has changed. That’s really important. As an Extension agent, my job is to serve the community, and to be able to serve and understand the community you have to know the history. Realizing what the past has been helps inform the future. You can take the best things about the past and improve the things that need to be improved upon.”

Related: How to become a Master Gardener volunteer

Avron is just grateful for opportunities to pass along his agriculture and horticulture knowledge as a Master Gardener volunteer.

“I love teaching, and I love plants,” he said. “They are wonderful things. Without them we don’t have life. I think they kind of look at me as the old man of the crowd. But if I know something through my experiences in agriculture, and I can reference that and understand some of the questions they ask and scientifically answer them, I just get excited about that.”

His fellow volunteers have been known to engage in some good-natured humor about his senior status. 

“There’s a joke that when God said let there be light, Avron was the one who threw the switch,” said Pat Banville, a Master Gardener volunteer since 2011. “There are lots of legends and mysteries about Avron.”

Other than the occasional break while working at the farmers market, there is little to suggest the “old man of the crowd” is slowing down. In the week after serving at the farmers market, in addition to volunteer shifts at Extension’s Lee County office he was planning to make a couple of home visits to confirm a suspected case of powdery mildew on a dogwood and a problem with centipede grass.

NC State Extension Master Gardener Program volunteer service Avron Upchurch Lee County

Avron Upchurch demonstrates how to use a tin can as a home-made planter. The holes in the bottom allow the plant to draw water from a saucer.

Those are official duties. Unofficially, it seems that he is always on call. 

“I get questions when I go to church, I get questions when I go to the Lions Club, I get questions at the grocery store, wherever I am if they know I have that Master Gardener tag. I always have to be on alert,” he said. “But that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The commitment to service, to sharing his knowledge to help his neighbors, to standing in a hot booth at a farmers market for hours on a Saturday morning to pass along his love of plants — even if he has to take an occasional break — make him an ideal ambassador. 

“He really is the vision of what Master Gardener volunteers should be in the community,” Wilkins said. “He does all the things that the Extension Master Gardener program represents — service, knowledge sharing, and being a servant leader in the community.”