What Is A Master Gardener, And How To Become One

Categories: Education

Lessons Learned

In the plant science section, I found myself learning about phloem and xylem, words I hadn't heard since eighth-grade science class. We also learned the difference between soil texture and structure, and that weeding certain plants by hand may actually propagate them by stimulating germination of seeds or causing plants to produce runners.

We studied fungal pathogens, such as apple scab, and learned the IPM dictum: The ideal garden is one with an acceptable level of pests, not a garden without any insects or disease. (I used to think the ideal garden was pest-free! Gardens are, by definition, at odds with nature.)

We learned that insects in the larval stage are voracious eaters, and that 99.995 percent of insect eggs don't survive (or only 5 of 10 thousand do survive) to adulthood. We learned that bug zappers not only make noise and annoy people, but they also kill any insect attracted to light, including many beneficial ones.

All About Lawns

The lawn class covered the selection of appropriate species of turf grass for certain areas (particularly the four main kinds suitable for Michigan lawns) and the steps to creating a healthy lawn: site preparation, including ensuring good drainage; soil sampling; killing weeds; removing debris; grading and cultivating soil; and applying nutrients.

Trees and Shrubs

In the woody ornamentals class, we learned about apical dominance (how the terminal bud of a shoot inhibits the growth of side buds), the significance of good drainage, and proper pH levels. The instructor also cautioned us that neither pruning nor fertilizing should be done unthinkingly.


We learned to consider the finished look we want to achieve before pruning, that it is usually better to prune to thin rather than to cut back, and that pruning should begin when trees and shrubs are young. And when trying to revitalize and reshape an old or diseased tree or shrub, "Prune it until you can throw a live cat through it," one, er, lively instructor told us.


We learned about double-digging, creating maintenance paths, and adding either peat or compost but never topsoil. "Topsoil is always an unknown and might just be someone else's problems." Before planting a garden, we should ask: "What are my garden goals?" The answers will drive the selection, colors, and varieties of all the plants.

Homegrown Flavor

In our vegetable class, we learned that (guess what?) homegrown vegetables have better flavor. Store-bought veggies can't ever be really fresh, because grading, washing, sorting, shipping, and inspecting take at least 48 hours. Most commercial growers produce only what's practical for a mass market: uniform products that keep well, ship well, and yield consistently. So, although 'Brandywine' and 'Rutgers' tomatoes, for example, have always tested best in taste, most commercial growers won't touch them.

Fruity Facts

In our fruit-tree and small-fruit culture class, we l that some researchers are interested in the Midwest's wild strawberries because of their disease resistance, and that raspberry canes bear and die, but the plants themselves are perennial.

After the Program

Since finishing up, I've been doing many things differently. I'm growing 'Brandywine' tomatoes for the first time to see if they really taste best. I've stopped watering my tomatoes from above. I've invested in three well-made new tools: a watering wand, a Japanese pruning saw, and a pair of good pruning shears. I've thinned out an evergreen and enjoy the increased sunlight in my dining room. And I can talk climate zones and pH levels with ease.

I don't tell everyone that I've taken the Master Gardening course. It raises expectations. "I figured you'd know that," people say when I don't have an answer on a plant or soil problem. I've learned to admit I don't-and can't-know it all. "Let's look that up," I say, smoothing my green apron.

Margery Guest is a writer who gardens (masterfully) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This is an excerpt from the National Gardening Association at Garden.org.  There you will find boundless information on growing just about everything in various climates and types of terrain.  


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