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Container Garden Partnership Grows Educational Outreach Opportunities

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Large metal containers planted with a variety of flowers and shrubs.

As a result of the partnership formed between Cocoa Cinnamon, Little Waves Coffee Roaster, and N.C. Cooperative Extension, Master Gardener volunteers in Durham County now have a demonstration site for educational outreach to space-limited urban gardeners. Photo by Mary Knierim.

Kitty-corner from the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Durham County Center is Cocoa Cinnamon, a coffee shop located in an area of the city known as Old North Durham. This is one of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods and is home to a number of small businesses, restaurants, and entertainment venues. It is also an area that is exploding with new development of condominiums, apartments, and businesses, bringing more residents, visitors, and foot traffic to the area.

During the pandemic, container plantings that define Cocoa Cinnamon’s outdoor seating area became bereft of care, as the shop’s owners were necessarily focused on keeping employees working and the business open. In May of 2021, as the first Covid-19 vaccines became available, Extension Master Gardener volunteers approached Cocoa Cinnamon’s owners and asked if they might take on revitalizing these containers.

Moth feeding on purple flowers.

Pollinators that have visited the plantings include the snowberry clearwing moth, seen here feeding on nectar from tall verbena, Verbena bonariensis. Image by Mary Knierim.

“We saw in the project a wonderful opportunity to create a container demonstration garden in an exposed and relentlessly hot, sunny, dry, and windy urban location. Then, through our own hands-on learning, we would be able to offer educational outreach to new urban residents whose own gardening might be limited to containers on balconies,” says project team member Deborah Pilkington.

Their goals for the project included:

  • Designing and implementing a container demonstration garden in an
    exposed urban location, which Master Gardener volunteers could then use as an educational tool for urban residents, a previously underserved audience.
  • Providing Master Gardener volunteers an opportunity to dive deep into university-based research while also bringing creativity to bear in problem-solving a real-world horticultural challenge.
  • Experimenting with soil mixes and using tools such as a soil thermometer and a moisture meter to gather data to test research-based practices in urban conditions specific to downtown Durham.
  • Creating low-maintenance plantings that provide screening from traffic and construction, as well as noise amelioration, for the outdoor sitting area.
  • Engaging the community in the project to improve the quality of people’s lives, a core-component of Extension’s mission.
Volunteers remove plants from metal planting containers outside Cocoa Cinnamon.

Master Gardener volunteers removed existing plants and media in the fall of 2021. Photo by David Solow.

After assessing the site conditions to determine which plants would stand up to this challenging site, Master Gardener volunteers got to work renovating the containers over a series of workdays. They added drainage holes to the containers, filled them with a custom growing mix, and installed the large foundations plants  – evergreens, ornamental grasses, and a dwarf fig  – in the fall of 2021. A drip irrigation system was installed in the spring, along with flowering perennials and annuals to attract pollinators. See more plant and installation images from this project.

To share what they have learned from this experience, Master Gardener volunteers are offering classes on container gardening planting and design this spring, in March and April, as part of their Bull City Gardener series.

Future plans for the demonstration garden include installing plant signs with common and botanical names and a QR code linking to the Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, demonstrating root-pruning trees in containers, espaliering camellias, and dividing and replanting bamboo.

A man install irrigation tubes to a container of bamboo.

Drip irrigation was installed to keep bamboo and other plantings efficiently watered. Image by Deborah Pilkington.

When asked how the container plantings have made a difference, Cocoa Cinnamon co-owner Leon Barrera Grodski, “This project has brought the wonders of nature to our concrete corner and with it nature’s ineffable healing power to us as business owners, to our team, and to the people from around our city who look to us as more than just a business, but as a connecting nexus in our community.”

Many thanks to Deborah Pilkington, Extension Master Gardener volunteer in Durham County, for providing the content for this article.

Congratulations Award Winners!

In recognition of their efforts to support sustainable gardening education, Master Gardener volunteers in Durham County were awarded third place in the demonstration project category of the 2023 David Gibby International Master Gardener Search for Excellence!

The David Gibby International Master Gardener Search for Excellence is the recognition program for outstanding Master Gardener volunteer work across the United States, Canada, England, and South Korea. Held every other year, the awards program invites Master Gardener volunteers to submit educational, group projects that result in significant learning in seven different categories. The program selects 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place recipients in each category.

Award recipients will be recognized during the 2023 International Master Gardener Conference, that will be held June 18 – 22 in Overland Park, Kansas.

Infographic of statistics from

The Extension Master Gardener program is a statewide network of volunteers and Extension educators working in N.C. Cooperative Extension county centers and on NC State campus. Through education and outreach, we connect people with the benefits of gardening and empower North Carolinians to cultivate healthy plants, landscapes, ecosystems, and communities. 

Explore stories from our 2022 Annual Report, which celebrates our work to help North Carolinians learn and grow.

Join, support, or connect with Extension Master Gardener volunteers in your community.