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The Master Gardener Program: Cultivating Volunteerism

By Cindy Murphy

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Janice arrived at the nursery on a Saturday in late August. As we crammed a couple of hydrangeas, half dozen pots of transcantia and a couple pieces of kitschy yard art into her truck, she was kind enough to pause for a minute and pose for a picture. After the plants and kitsch were loaded, we chatted for a bit in the parking lot.


Janice and I had never met, but we are part of the same organization; we’re both Master Gardeners. She was volunteering her time to pick up plant donations for the yearly Van Buren County Master Gardener plant sale at the Wine and Harvest Festival. The sale is the Van Buren chapter’s fundraiser, and its success determines the budget for the next year’s projects and programs.

The programs and projects are many, and all are aimed at serving the community. Since the Master Gardener Volunteer program started in 1972 in Washington state, Master Gardeners have been busy serving the community through projects such as diagnosing disease and pest problems on gardening hotlines, developing and installing landscape plans for Habitat for Humanity houses, and manning information booths at county fairs in about 46 states and parts of Canada.

A friend of mine, who lives in New York state, saw one of these Master Gardener information booths at her county fair and was interested in the program. She’s an avid gardener but was afraid she didn’t know enough about the technical aspects of soils, plant diseases, and such to become a Master Gardener. “No, no, no,” I told her. All you have to have is a love of gardening, a desire to teach what you know and your county extension service will help with the rest.

Here in Michigan, the Master Gardener program is run by Michigan State University Extension (MSUE). Trainees take a two to three month course which provides classes in plant science covering everything from botanical Latin, to integrated pest management. Training begins with a reference manual – a big and heavy manual – and lugging it to each class builds the muscles required for some heavy-duty gardening. And that was when I took the course nearly nine years ago, by now the manual might have grown so large, that Wheel-barrowing 101 is needed as a class prerequisite. (Check with your local extension agency for dates and times.)

In addition to the classes, there are weekly quizzes and a final examination. After a trainee passes the exam, 40 hours of volunteer work related to horticulture and environmentalism are required to become a Master Gardener. The hours required may vary slightly state to state, but in Michigan, a Master Gardener must complete five hours of continuing education, and 15 hours of community service each year thereafter to remain an active member of the program. For those wishing to go a step further, they may become Advanced Master Gardeners by completing an additional 25 hours of education in horticulture and environmental subjects, and volunteer another 50 hours in the community.

The knowledge and skills cultivated through this program enable Master Gardeners to take their skills and share information with the community in a variety of ways. The projects a Master Gardener undertakes is only limited by their imagination.

I’ve had some very rewarding experiences throughout the years teaching even the youngest children that they are stewards of the earth by launching a recycling drive at a preschool and teaching tree identification at a state park to middle-schoolers, happy to be out of the classroom for the day. I’ve chaperoned field trips to nature centers and led children on nature scavenger hunts through the woods and fields at the nursery. This spring I taught a Brownie troop about the basics of soil science, and the look on their faces was priceless when I told them the compost they had their hands in was made of worm poop. My biggest on-going project is the Children’s Garden at the nursery. With the help and generosity of my bosses, fellow co-workers, family and all of those who have donated time, materials and hard work, the vision I had in my head has become a garden in its fourth year that is enjoyed by both the children and adults who visit.

Children's Garden

I love gardening; there is something so satisfying about planting a garden, nourishing it … watching it grow and flourish. Equally rewarding is sharing what I’ve learned with others, and the Master Gardner program is a way to do that and give back to the community at the same time. Mary C. McLellan, the Michigan State University Master Gardener program coordinator wrote in that heavy muscle-building reference manual, “If the program were a plant, we would say it’s a well-established, native north American perennial that is thriving and that is continually being planted in new fertile ground.”

If you enjoy gardening and have a desire to learn and pass that knowledge on to others and you’d like to be part of this thriving program, contact your local county extension agency. I bet they’d love to cultivate a new crop of Master Gardener volunteers.