The label “Master Gardener” distinguishes the backyard hobbyist from a gardener who supplements plant knowledge and experience with structured horticultural training. University-extension Master Gardeners commit to sharing their knowledge of the best research-based ways to successfully grow plants in their communities.
Master Gardener Basics
A Master Gardener is a volunteer who has passed horticultural course work developed by university administrators and professors in his or her state or province. Master Gardener programs offer horticultural and agricultural subjects ranging from plant identification and propagation to entomology and soil.
Often informally called MGs, Master Gardeners combine their years of personal home gardening experience with the science learned from horticulturists and agricultural instructors. These instructors have extensive expertise and may work as biologists, certified arborists or landscapers in the laboratory or in the field.
While some use the label of master gardener (lower case) to elevate a standing for other reasons, a university-extension Master Gardener (noted by the upper case) has earned credentials and maintains a certification with their university extension by fulfilling a quota of volunteer and continuing-education-program hours each year.
State Extension Master Gardeners Volunteer in Their Communities
The first time you walk into a room of Master Gardeners you realize the vast array of gardening that goes on just in your own community. Whether your county or province has a large or small university-extension Master Gardener organization, the variety of volunteers is, all by itself, educational.
MGs come to the program for a variety of reasons, and with a wide range of gardening experiences – ranging from trees to vegetables, and from having walls of ribbons for growing winning African violets to one-time farmers who now advise residents on setting up compost sites or growing food in a city.
Many retired teachers who are looking for a way to keep teaching become MGs, seeing a chance to share their life-long passion for growing plants. Other MGs may include the rugged one-time landscaper who still has a garage full of equipment that needs a new purpose; perhaps to build raised beds for a community garden.
Ultimately MGs have one goal in common: to help local residents be more successful growing plants. MGs quickly realize that no matter how much gardening one has under the belt when first applying to the classes, there is always more they can learn about plants.
Across North America, the Master Gardener organization follows one abiding principle: to educate their community on the best ways to grow plants. This tenet ensures that whether you are talking to an MG in the northern sections of Saskatchewan, Canada, or asking for garden advice in the desert region of Pima County, home to Tucson, Arizona, in the United States; you will receive a Master Gardener’s best advice for gardening in the community in which you live.
Master Gardener Organizations: History and Structure
The Master Gardener system began in 1972, when the residents of the Washington State Cooperative Extension began the first program.
Land Grant institutions in each state and province in North America sanction the Master Gardener program and each Master Gardener program functions as an extension of the college or university system in that locale.
The university-extension Master Gardener programs are part of an international group in North America. For example, Canada has five associations across its provinces: in Edmonton, Alberta and Stony Plain, Alberta; the Atlantic, Canada region; Vancouver, British Columbia; Manitoba, Ontario Province and in Saskatchewan.
MG Programs Vary by Location
Whether in the United States or Canada, Master Gardener extension programs range in age, size and the services they offer their communities. Local needs in addition to state and local funding determines the type and extent of services.
- The Wisconsin program sponsored by the University of Wisconsin – Extension got its start in the late 1970s, whereas the Manitoba program came together in 2011.
- The Milwaukee County Master Gardeners cover the city of Milwaukee and its surrounding towns and villages. This urban university-extension organization has been decades in the making and is well beyond talks and demonstration gardens; the MGs man booths at the State Fair and home and garden shows, plant flowers at the Summerfest grounds, and hosted plants sales every May for more than 10 years. The organization also has a “plant doctor”style phone and walk-in service for plant advice as well as disease and insect identification. All this community support requires many MGs who are able to devote time, energy and sometimes, even strong backs. It is common to see their classes and programs attended by 50 – 100 people at a time.
- In contrast, a young Master Gardeners program like the one in Manitoba through the University of Saskatchewan has remained small. Until the organization offered course work in local sites beyond Winnipeg, the large land mass of Manitoba has made it difficult for many local gardeners to get to classes. The MGs’ responsibilities cover a diverse plant environment, from the shores of Hudson Bay to its southern border with Minnesota and North Dakota, but only when their membership numbers increase will the modest services to their gardening community expand.
Master Gardener Training
No matter the state, province or community, all MG volunteers take university extension training, complete course work, and pass tests – they must also fulfill a quota of volunteer hours in order to qualify as a certified volunteer. Depending on the program’s size, some MG programs run on a yearly cycle and have MG levels in place for each year’s completion.
Prospective Master Gardeners must register for classes, pay a fee and participate in the program by signing up for volunteer gardening projects approved by the local extension system.
Continuing education programs help volunteers stay current with new horticulture science and garden trends; some require attendance and some classes are voluntary.
Garden Volunteers Benefit all Communities
Master Gardeners do a lot of talking, assisting and advising. Community leaders and other volunteers may ask MGs to come into a community project as a resource of information and to answer questions, but other residents do the manual labor.
MGs may help local gardeners prepare for the upcoming growing season by giving talks during the slow season. The MGs that specialize in children’s gardens may speak with the youngest, but perhaps the most inquisitive of all listeners, about plant seeds and the insect world.
The rewards for the work of the MGs stem from success stories and, for the very lucky, photos. MGs smile at the new gardener who was never able to grow tomatoes or the guy that thought growing an orchid was far beyond his lot in life, but succeeded. The Master Gardener is richly rewarded by the gardener in a wheelchair, who brings photos to her talk, proudly showing everyone his tomato plants flourishing in big tubs, sitting on a picnic table.
Master Gardeners find the additional education and training benefits not only their own gardening efforts, but also helps other members of the community find joy and success working with their own plants.