Green thumbs

Photos courtesy URI

Alan Newton, recipient of the 2020 Master Gardener Rookie of the Year Award.


KINGSTON – Seeing the fruits (or vegetables) of one’s labor is often gardening’s greatest reward. Still, the state’s top gardeners were recently recognized in the categories of education, newcomer and best overall.

The University of Rhode Island’s Master Gardener Program, which boasts 700 volunteers from around the state, last month honored three of their own after a nomination process and committee deliberations within the organization. Held annually for the past 15 years, the awards shine a light on those participants going above and beyond in bringing environmentally sound and fact-based gardening practices to a larger audience.

Nan Quinlan of Exeter was presented the 2020 Rosanne Sherry Distinguished Educator Award for her gardening educational efforts at the East Farm Vegetable Demonstration for the past 15 years. There, Quinlan teaches participants through a demonstration garden. She has also brought her teaching to the digital realm, offering online courses and programs. Finally, the 15-year Master Gardener makes use of her expertise by helping neighbors in need each year, growing extra food to help support those who need it most.  

“Nan pushes the bounds with inclusive community engagement, volunteer development and growing beautiful, healthy food to support the local community each year,” said Vanessa Venturini, state coordinator of the Master Gardener Program. “She is a true educator in every sense of the word.”   

The award is named after Roseanne Sherry, the former Master Gardener coordinator who died last year.

For his efforts in fundraising for and realizing the replacement of the greenhouse at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, where URI Master Gardeners have tended a garden for many years, John Twomey of East Providence was presented the 2020 Outstanding Master Gardener Award. In addition to seeking and achieving state approvals for the project and spearheading fundraising efforts to help pay for it, Twomey also coordinated teams of volunteers to realize the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse, which the Master Gardeners recognize as the organization’s largest and most ambitious project in its history. Twomey, a URI Master Gardener for five years, also conducts soil tests for East Bay residents wishing to know more about the soil in their yards on a volunteer basis.

Venturini testified to the added qualities and opportunities the rebuilt greenhouse brings to the residence home.  

 “John’s accomplishments on behalf of the veterans of our state have not gone unnoticed,” said Venturini. “His exuberant passion, strong leadership, team building abilities, and will-to-succeed have allowed us to create a beautiful space for learning and wellness at the Veteran’s Home.”

The collection of URI botanic enthusiasts also seeks to honor its top newcomer annually, presenting the 2020 Rookie of the Year Award to Alan Newton of East Greenwich for his immediate formation of a technology support team that helped bring the Master Gardener program and mission online during the pandemic.  Coordinating webinars, educating fellow Master Gardeners in new, video conferencing technology and other tools that allow for remote education and producing instructional videos, Newton, who completed the Master Gardener training course only last spring, hit the ground running, according to colleagues.

 “The Master Gardener program owes the success of its entire pilot run of the Learn at Home webinar series to Alan,” Venturini said. “With an utter sense of competence, professionalism and attention to detail, he played an essential administrative role and mentored many presenters through the use of technology. He continues to provide capacity building with our technology team, establishing new procedures for engaging the public and our volunteers in this brave new world of remote learning.”

Newton, in addition to playing a lead role in bringing the program online during the health crisis, also did his part in inspiring the next generation in the wonders of growing, becoming a school garden mentor at Stone Hill Elementary School in Cranston. Finally, Newton answered gardening-related questions from the public through the program’s hotline and served on the Master Gardener Leadership Development Team.

To learn from Master Gardeners and other Cooperative Extension educators through the free Learn at Home webinar series, visit

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