What’s a Master Gardener and why you might want to be one

Master Gardeners volunteer to make a difference in their communities through garden education.

On the day I started with Michigan State University Extension as a horticulture educator 20 years ago, a man showed up at my office to welcome me and offer his support with any educational projects. Leo was the first Master Gardener I met, and he truly represented the dedication that I would continue to see over the years from Master Gardener volunteers. They come to the program to broaden their horticultural knowledge and never stop learning as they put their knowledge to work educating the public. My friend that offered his support on my first day in Extension went on to teach dozens of classes for the public on gardening.

Students in the program come from diverse backgrounds. Gardening is their common bond along with the desire to inspire others to learn about growing plants. Much more than an adult education class on gardening, the program strives to develop a core of volunteers dedicated to sharing their knowledge with the public. Extension educators provide most of the teaching, covering topics that include soils, botany, vegetables, fruits, lawns, water quality, woody plants, flowers, integrated pest management and diagnosing plant problems. Students receive more than 44 hours of training in the classroom and after completing the course the learning continues through volunteer work. Master Gardeners answering home gardening questions often tell me they cannot help but learn more about gardening and landscape care as they research answers to questions.

A Master Gardener contacted me a few years ago with her plans to share her love of gardening with cancer survivors. She gathered information on container gardening and developed a handout to share at a cancer survivor’s conference. She knew first-hand that growing plants even in a small container provides a positive experience.

This past summer I was inspired by Master Gardeners from the Jackson, Mich., area that gave a tour of their garden project at the Lyle Torrant Center. This facility serves to educate youth with developmental disabilities. The garden was developed to provide an outdoor area where students could learn about nature and to socialize. Even the garden planting was an amazing social activity bringing together students, teachers, Master Gardeners and the Jackson High School football team to make the garden a reality.

Two years ago, the Director of the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center contacted MSU Extension to ask for help with a garden inside the center. Master Gardeners presented with this request stepped up to the task with weekly work sessions that focused on planting and tending the garden and, later in the summer, on preparing the produce. In the first year, 30 youth helped with the garden growing many varieties of vegetables and flowers in raised beds in an inner courtyard. With the needs for equipment and a desire to expand the program, these dedicated Master Gardener volunteers applied for and received three grants. The funds allowed for expanding to a second courtyard and tripling the garden space to 376 square feet, including eight new raised beds built by the Master Gardener volunteers. The expansion of the garden allowed them to work with more than 52 youth in 2012.

Seven Master Gardener volunteers went beyond providing an experience in growing vegetables, finding funds to add equipment to the center’s kitchen that allowed staff to prepare the food from the veggies grown by the youth. Working with the center’s teaching staff, they helped to supplement school coursework on growing healthy and nutritious food.

Whether teaching at a library, school or providing hands-on gardening experience for children, Master Gardeners have a long history of demonstrating and teaching the public on healthy, smart gardening practices. In 2010, 4,880 Master Gardeners volunteering across the state provided over 235,000 hours dedicated to sharing their love of gardening.

To learn more about the program, upcoming classes and how to apply for the program, visit the MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program website.

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