What Is A Master Gardener, And How To Become One

Categories: Education

On Becoming a Master Gardener

Master Gardeners are a diverse lot. They come in many ages and from all walks of life. But the one thing they all have in common is the desire to share gardening knowledge and experience with other gardeners.

The Master Gardener idea was born back in the early 1970s. Several cooperative extension agents in the state of Washington were being overwhelmed by questions from home gardeners. The agents realized they could multiply their resources many times by training motivated amateur gardeners who would, in turn, respond to the ever-increasing number of home gardeners seeking help.

To call the program a success is an understatement. Between the summer of 1972 and the spring of 1973, some 500 Master Gardeners were trained in the Seattle area. In 1995 in Washington, 2,900 Master Gardeners volunteered 101,335 hours to help 314,000 home gardeners. Moreover, the concept spread quickly. Today, Master Gardener programs train people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. By some estimates, more than 50,000 Master Gardeners have been ″certified.″ Many volunteers also help parks, urban, school and community gardens across the US.

Master Gardener organizations exist for four reasons: to promote gardening and agricultural land use, to inform the public about current horticultural practices, to enhance environmental conservation, and to broaden communities' gardening expertise.

How I Became a Master Gardener

Like many who enroll in a Master Gardener program, I'd long wanted to add to my hands-on and handed-down gardening knowledge. The training definitely taught me a more disciplined approach to tracking down gardening information and a greater sense of responsibility about avoiding guessing, no matter how educated. I also learned how much I didn't know (and still don't know), and how much more there always is to learn.

Not all programs are alike. Each program reflects its location. The only common elements are that to become certified, participants must complete the course, pass a final exam, and undertake a certain number of hours of community service. The service can be done in various ways, including staffing the hotline at the county extension office, helping community gardening projects, or (as in my case) volunteering at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

In some areas, programs are limited. The Michigan extension agency in my area offers two courses a year, alternating day and evening classes. I chose the night course, at a cost of $190.

The course consisted of 40 hours of core instruction spread over 10 weeks of classes. We were tested on each week's lecture with open-book, take-home tests. Then we had to pass the final exam with a score of 70 percent or better. Successful completion meant I would get to wear the coveted green apron of a Michigan Master Gardener.

Our classes consisted of an initial 2-hour orientation followed by lectures in plant science, soil science, integrated pest management (IPM), lawns, woody ornamentals, flowers, vegetables, houseplants, fruit-tree and small-fruit culture, and insects. Each class had a different instructor, either an extension agent or a visiting expert. Instructors all emphasized the role we would eventually play as Master Gardeners: a source of current information in our communities.

Our classes were tailored to Michigan growing conditions. For example, the IPM class focused closely on the gypsy moth because Michigan has a significant gypsy-moth infestation. A program in Tennessee, on the other hand, stresses controlling Japanese beetles. And in southern Texas, the scourge is the sweet potato whitefly, a pest that's unknown where I live.

A Book That Could Choke a Mule

The biggest surprise to our class was the accompanying "notebook." It was about 4 inches thick and packed with double-sided printed sheets. This volume of materials appears to be typical- "Looks big enough to choke a mule," says another Master Gardener.

We never found much time to goof off, as we often had more material to cover than class time allowed. Most of our instructors weren't cruel enough to keep us after 10 p.m.-just as well, because by that hour, our brains had turned to mush, and we were running on caffeine alone.

Usually, I read the material, about 80 pages, well before each class. I also took notes during class, hoping to retain the material better that way. The instructors often included helpful slides and other visual aids. In the class devoted to vegetables, our guest speaker, a grower, brought in basil plants for a demonstration, and then sent us each home with one.

Because our weekly tests were open book, I usually scored 100 percent. This testing method has advantages and disadvantages for learning. Looking up answers, of course, is much of what Master Gardeners do, so this method makes sense, but it doesn't motivate you to review material you aren't tested on.......

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