How does one start studying to become a Master Gardener? My degree is not in horticulture. Does that matter? - B.B. -
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"Master Gardener" is not an educational degree but a title awarded by a State's land grant university -- in our case, that's Michigan State University Extension.
The Extension is run by Michigan State University (MSU) in conjunction with county governments. One of its aims is to provide agricultural and horticultural information to the community. In each Extension office an MSU agent or agents answers questions, interprets soil tests, provides informational bulletins and conducts educational events. During the sustained, unprecedented boom in gardening over the past 25 years, Extension agents started to fall behind in meeting the demand for information.
Master Gardening was born when Extension agents decided to train people in the community and send those people forth to answer questions.
Trainees attend a one-semester class taught by Extension agents and other experts to learn about the hottest horticultural topics -- soil, lawn, flowers, trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, interior plants, and even household pests. After completing the class and passing weekly quizzes and a final exam, the trainee becomes a Master Gardener candidate. To become a Master Gardener, s/he must complete 40 hours of informational service to the horticultural community. To retain the title, s/he continues to learn and to do volunteer service in the community -- a minimum of three hours of education and ten hours of volunteer work per year. Master Gardeners are "Advanced" after accumulating at least 25 additional hours of training and 50 hours of service to the gardening community.
No degree or level of experience is required to join the program -- just the will to learn and serve. When you sit in class or lend a hand as a volunteer you rub shoulders with both experts in particular garden specialties and well-informed novices. All ages and backgrounds are welcome -- skills acquired in non-gardening professions are often as important to Master Gardener projects as horticultural savvy.
The services Master Gardeners provide to earn and keep their titles are as varied as the people involved. One person may log 40 hours answering questions at a local Farm Market or on the MSU Extension hotline. Another may earn some hours helping neighbors select trees, a few more helping to design and run a teaching garden at an elementary school, and the rest assisting in endeavors such as an Easter Seals horticultural therapy program.
The goal is to spread sound horticultural information. Those who wear Master Gardener badges don't know it all but they have a great grasp of the basics, a strong commitment to community service and the confidence to say "I don't know, but I bet I know where I can find out!"
This program began in Washington State in 1972 and took off like a well-grown pumpkin vine to cover 46 States and Canada. In Michigan, Wayne County led the way in 1978, training 25 people. This year, 51 Michigan counties certified 2,121 new Michigan Master Gardeners. Many people stay in the program for many years -- in it for a decade, I'm still a novice compared to the likes of Genesee County worthies recognized this fall for as much as 3,500 hours of service!
Call the MSU Extension to register for Master Gardening class -- the number is listed under county government in telephone directories.
There have been big changes in the program just this year and more ongoing. Class locations are changing and classes are on "hold" right now in what would have been the 2012 winter-spring session while teaching materials are revamped.
To clear the air, a certain person who calls himself "America's Master Gardener" did not earn that name through any State's university Extension. He bestowed the title on himself and profits by its use -- the antithesis of Master Gardening.
I am impressed with your knowledge and practical application of it. You mentioned that Master Gardeners do community service projects.
Our pre-school has a large lot we would like to make use of. We wanted to include a butterfly garden, nature trail, planting garden, bird houses and a nature area with a small hill for the children to use. We need someone to design this and to think of things we haven't. Are you interested in helping us or can you recommend someone? - K.F. -
I'm interested in that kind of project but unable right now to take on any additional Master Gardener work.
Each county's Master Gardener coordinator takes ideas such as yours and presents them to existing and potential Master Gardeners to see if someone can be assigned. Although yours is a large project requiring very special skills there may be Master Gardeners in your community who are qualified and available.
Call your county Extension! For the number, look under county government listings in the directory for "MSU Extension" and ask for the Master Gardener coordinator.
Keep in mind that Master Gardeners are not free labor but knowledgeable advisers. Once involved as an advisor where a school or community work force is assembled, many Master Gardeners do contribute muscle as well as brain -- but that's above and beyond the call.
Call early, too. Many Master Gardener offices are deluged with requests from March through the end of the growing season. Even with thousands of Master Gardeners in the State, most are often assigned for the season by mid-March.