Outstanding in her field

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

As the coordinator of the Maui Master Gardener Program, Nazario-Leary (front center) trains the Master Gardener volunteers who go on to share their knowledge, expertise and love of gardening with the community.

What happens to a broccoli plant if you sing to it? Cynthia Nazario-Leary knows.

When she was in kindergarten, Nazario-Leary says a children’s story about a magical broccoli prompted her to serenade one of the stocky plants in her family’s vegetable garden. And the result? “It was a very productive broccoli,” she laughed.

Nazario-Leary spent her formative years tending to the flowers, herbs and veggies (including the regaled broccoli plant) growing in her backyard.

By the time she graduated from high school, her passion for horticulture had fully blossomed.

So, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in landscape contracting from Pennsylvania State University, followed by a master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she studied the propagation methods of breadfruit. She went on to earn a doctorate in natural resources and environmental management at UH-Manoa and researched the development of an understory native plant agroforestry system in Manoa Valley. Nazario-Leary moved to Maui in 2009, and not long after, became the director of the New Farmers Network at University of Hawaii Maui College, where she also taught courses in horticultural principles and tree pruning.


Today, Nazario-Leary wears many hats as the urban horticulture extension agent for the UH-Manoa Cooperative Extension Service located at the UH-Maui campus. There, among many other things, she oversees the newly constructed Bee House, an indoor observational hive at the UH-Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Research and Education Demonstration Center. The Bee House will soon host elementary, intermediate and high school students, who will learn about bees, pollination and beekeeping. Nazario-Leary is also test-driving sunflower varieties in a trial garden and will host a field workshop this spring for those interested in growing the showy blooms; she’s planning to establish an ornamental trial garden sometime in the near future.

And then there’s her master gardening hat.

In 2015, Nazario-Leary took the helm of the Maui Master Gardener program, an educational outreach program administered by the UH Cooperative Extension Service. The program’s mission is to “provide the public with unbiased, research-based information and sustainable management practices in tropical horticulture suitable for home gardens, local landscapes, urban environments and the community.”

Every year, over the course of 20 weeks (classes run from January to May), aspiring master gardeners learn everything there is to know about gardening, from A to Z. Inside a classroom and out in the garden, trainees absorb the nuances of topics ranging from soil fertility to composting to organic gardening techniques to insects to plant diseases — and everything in between.

The trade-off? Well, it’s more like a payoff. Once they complete the program, master gardeners get to share their expertise with others through volunteer educational services (and master gardeners must log volunteer hours to keep their certification active), which include staffing booths at the Maui Fair, facilitating gardening workshops, hosting plant clinics, developing and maintaining educational gardens and answering plant-related questions.

Kekoa Enomoto (from left), Cynthia Nazario-Leary and Flora Wong celebrate the blessing of the Bee House, an indoor observational hive at the UH-Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Research and Education Demonstration Center located at the UH-Maui College campus.

The Master Gardener Help Desk — an actual desk in the Cooperative Extension Service building at UH-Maui College — is manned by a well-trained master gardener. On any given day, volunteers field multiple queries and answer every inquiry using evidence-based information. Questions run the gamut from fairly general (“How do I make cut flowers last?” “What kinds of vegetables like full sun?”) to specific (“How should I water my Phalaenopsis orchid?” “How do I get rid of whiteflies?”) to the not-so garden variety (“What is this odd-looking growth on my hibiscus?” “Why is my plant dying?”). Nazario-Leary says these volunteers are invaluable — and in many cases, untapped — resources. “They are passionate about giving back to the community,” she said.

The same can be said of Nazario-Leary, who routinely dispenses gardening advice — even when she’s off the clock. “Oh, yes, people are always asking me questions,” she said.

She doesn’t mind it at all. In fact, Nazario-Leary says she relishes the chance to share her love of horticulture with others. But most of all, she enjoys watching Maui Master Gardener trainees flourish. “It’s one of the highlights of my job. I’m so proud of the program and the volunteers,” she said. “And I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

There’s still time to register for the 2019 Maui Master Gardener training course, which begins in January. For more information, contact Nazario-Leary at cnazario@hawaii.edu. Do you have a plant-related question or quandary? Call the Master Gardener Help Desk at 244-3242, ext. 228, or email mauimg@ctahr.hawaii.edu.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.


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