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More on master gardeners

  • Subject: [cg] More on master gardeners
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Mon, 1 Dec 2003 08:27:32 -0800 (PST)

Hi, all,

I agree with all that's been posted thus far - working
with Master Gardeners is a mixed bag. That said, the
trick is, echoing Adam, finding ways to turn MG
programs into assets for CGs.

One key element is your extension agent. In our
community, we've had 3 since I moved here a decade
ago. One was a splendid resource, two (including the
current one) - whatever their other qualifications and
expertise - have no interest in community gardening at
all. The point is, if you have a good extension agent,
support them!!! Become a Master Gardener yourself, or
send a garden group through the training (Betsy
Johnson in Boston has a great training guide that can

And keep an eye on extension politics. Coop Extension
is becoming an endangered species these days,
particularly in urban areas. In our county, they've
just been moved under Park and Recreation, which may
represent an opportunity to recruit for a new kind of
agent (4H or extension) with training appropriate to
community and school gardens. One reason most current
agents aren't interested in community gardens,
especially food crops, is that they haven't been
trained appropriately (ag and hort are vast fields, as
it were). Anyway, a good agent is worth their weight
in in gold (or prime compost?), and quite a few are in
leadership positions in ACGA (Tom, Bobby...).

Another idea, look for the president of the MG group
and other key people. Our county MG president is a
peach. She did better than help out with the new
community garden this year - she deftly delegated
responsibility to other MGs! A page right out of
ACGA's book.

It helps, I think, to know a bit about the history of
MGs. The program started in Seattle, and is less than
30 years old (no, it hasn't been around forever). The
agent who started it was overwhelmed answering phone
requests for info - 'something is eating my roses,
what should I spray?' kinds of things. He had the
bright idea of putting experienced home gardeners
through a 'mini-ag school', then letting them answer
the phones and do other jobs, to free up his time. The
gardeners would get training they'd really enjoy and
the status of being a 'Master', and the public would
get better service. 

This brilliant idea has really worked well in some
ways. Of course, right from the beginning, the
experienced gardeners tended to be older and/or
retired (with the time to attend trainings and
meetings), suburban home gardeners, mostly white and
middle class, and maybe 3/4 women.

An MG group becomes a club. People make friends, there
are cliques, there can be snobbery and silliness about
organic approaches being 'flaky' and 'not research
based' or about how so-and-so mispronounces Buddelia,
but no more so than any other group. By and large,
these are gardeners - good hearted folks who like to
grow things.

So, harvest the good 'uns.

Another option, which has worked quite well for me
(and Betsy, and ? Sally in Philly?) is to create a
separate non-cooperative extension 'Master' program.

Here in Charlotte, for instance, under the county
recycling program and a state environmental grant, we
set up a 'Master Composter/PLANT' training (PLANT is
our native plant landscaping, toxic reduction, soil
and water quality program for residents). We looked at
lots of other programs (Alameda Co. CA has a great
one). Instead of answering phones and the like,
MC/PLANT trainees 'pay back' their training by
designing a project to apply what they learn in their
community. We (for better or worse) don't have monthly
meetings, dues and all that stuff. Our volunteer
projects have been great, though - and equally
important, we've made some terrific allies (we recruit
shamelessly, and try to give a real knockout

For the record, we started as partners with coop
extension on this project, but our then (wonderful)
extension agent left, and  when our current
(indifferent on a good day, hostile more often) agent
showed up, she wanted nothing to do with it. Maybe
that's for the best - we avoided having to 'push'
chemicals because they were the only 'research-based'

Point is, think about starting your own 'Master'
program. Work as closely as you can with coop
extension - my gripes are with individual agents, not
with the program overall. 

What makes sense to me would be an urban
('Heal'?) agent, specializing in school and community
gardens, community habitat restoration, 'pocket parks'
and street/community beautification, and small-scale
urban agriculture (market gardens for herbs, veggies
and flowers mostly, I guess...). You still need an
agent to advise on turf grass and pruning, but there
seems to me to be a place for a new kind of coop
extension agent - and, perhaps, the birth of a new
kind of 'master community gardener' program.

Just a thought, better get back to work,

Don Boekelheide

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