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It is Vincent Lazaneo’s job to answer any question about a fruit, vegetable, herb, flower, or ornamental shrub that a San Diego gardener might ask. How many plants is that? “It’s a little mind-boggling,” he says. And the fact that Lazaneo has lost his sight and that he blew off his hands in an accident more than 35 years ago might seem to complicate it. Yet this is a man with a knack for organization.

When he started working as the urban horticulture advisor for the local Cooperative Extension office in 1977, he says, “It became clear to me fairly quickly that my single resource” (that is, Lazaneo himself, working alone) “wasn’t going to be adequate.” He tried writing articles about topics like pest management and sending them to radio stations and newspapers. He also answered phone calls from the public, an activity that proved unpredictable. “If you’re talking to somebody and they need a straightforward bit of information, it doesn’t take very long. But if it involves an explanation of how to grow a plant, how to plant it, what kind of things to do…calls can back up. Some people have this whole laundry list for their landscape.”

In 1980 Lazaneo heard about a pilot program starting in Riverside and Sacramento. The idea was to provide extensive training to a cadre of volunteers. They would earn the title “Master Gardener,” and in return for the expertise they gained, they would devote at least 50 hours during the following year to helping the public learn more about gardening. In short order, Lazaneo became convinced that such assistance could help him spread information.

So in 1983 Lazaneo recruited his first class of San Diego County Master Gardeners. Today, 3 of the original 32 people continue to hold the Master Gardener title, along with another 159 who’ve received the training since. (After the first year, those who stay in the program obtain more education and volunteer a minimum of 25 hours annually.) The retention rate has turned out to be so phenomenal, in fact, that Lazaneo has only been able to train new participants every two years or so. For the last class, given in the spring of 2001, about 150 men and women applied to receive the five months of training. A selection committee of experienced Master Gardeners reviewed the written applications, whittled them down, then interviewed each remaining aspirant before selecting 44. Lazaneo says some of those chosen are members of plant societies, experts in, say, roses or camellias. Almost all have local gardening experience. But most important, Lazaneo says, is having the time and willingness to share whatever they know.

“I think I can safely say that the Master Gardener organization in San Diego is the best in the state. It’s incredible!” exclaimed gardening authority Pat Welsh. Author of the comprehensive Southern California Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide, the Del Mar resident is a zestful character who seldom makes feeble pronouncements. Welsh offered an explanation for why San Diego County may produce a higher caliber of gardener than is found elsewhere in the state. “We have a wonderful growing climate here, with zone 23 next to zone 24 along the ocean. In Los Angeles, they’ve got zone 22 next to zone 24. So the Los Angeles climate is not as mild as ours. That’s why they talk about the Los Angeles Basin — it freezes down in there! But we’re not in that situation. We’ve got a milder, warmer climate, and it’s good for many tropicals and subtropicals. And as a result of having such a good growing climate…we’re more plant-oriented.”

Nowhere else in California, Welsh asserted, do the Master Gardeners (who now exist in 36 counties) organize a gardening seminar like the one presented every spring in San Diego. The daylong event features talks by experts on dozens of horticultural topics, and attendance has grown every year since the first seminar in 1991 drew 350. By 2001, more than 700 participants were packing into the University City High School campus; organizers had to turn away an additional 150. For that reason, they shifted this spring’s seminar to a new venue, the Marina Village conference center on Mission Bay, and some 800 people attended. The seminar organizers also have inaugurated a series of smaller fall seminars. They’ll take place September 21, 26, and 28 at University Towne Centre.

“I think that all goes back to Vince,” Welsh declared. “It’s beautifully organized, that whole program. I once heard it said that Vince without eyesight is better than most people with eyesight. He’s an amazing man.”

When Lazaneo makes his way to the podium at the start of each year’s seminar, he doesn’t appear to be sightless. Nowadays, Lazaneo wears dark glasses all the time. At 54, he carries little excess flesh on his tall frame. His dark hair is graying, but his laugh is boyish. Asked about his vision, he explains that he was born with an infection called toxoplasmosis. “It’s basically a little protozoan parasite that damages the retina. I acquired it during my mom’s pregnancy, and there was very little known about the disease at the time.”

Lazaneo grew up in San Jose. As a very young child, he was thought to have “a lazy eye or something. So I wore an eye patch for a while. That sort of thing.” Not until he was starting school did an eye specialist in San Francisco identify the correct explanation for the boy’s poor sight. “They were able to treat the disease with steroids — cortisone — to make it stop an inflammation episode. But the medication could not eradicate the organism completely,” Lazaneo explains. “It would form a resistant cyst, and after two or three years, I’d have another episode where the disease would become active and damage the retina. So I had episodes basically all through my childhood.”

When he was 11 or 12, his vision was still sufficient for him to cast a critical eye on his family’s back yard. Only a lawn and some tough shrubs grew there, but Lazaneo knew that more could be coaxed from the earth. Both sets of his grandparents had produced food. “On my mom’s side, they actually homesteaded a farm in North Dakota.” On “an occasional summer, we were able to visit them. They had raspberries and gooseberries and all kinds of lettuce and peppers and everything that would grow there.” He smiles at the memory of strawberries.

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