On Becoming a Master Gardener

By Margery Guest

Master Gardeners are a diverse lot. They come in many ages and from all walks of life. But the one thing they all have in common is the desire to share gardening knowledge and experience with other gardeners.

The Master Gardener idea was born back in the early 1970s. Several cooperative extension agents in the state of Washington were being overwhelmed by questions from home gardeners. The agents realized they could multiply their resources many times by training motivated amateur gardeners who would, in turn, respond to the ever-increasing number of home gardeners seeking help.

To call the program a success is an understatement. Between the summer of 1972 and the spring of 1973, some 500 Master Gardeners were trained in the Seattle area. In 1995 in Washington, 2,900 Master Gardeners volunteered 101,335 hours to help 314,000 home gardeners. Moreover, the concept spread quickly. Today, Master Gardener programs train people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. By some estimates, more than 50,000 Master Gardeners have been ″certified.″ Many volunteers also help parks, urban, school and community gardens across the US.

Master Gardener organizations exist for four reasons: to promote gardening and agricultural land use, to inform the public about current horticultural practices, to enhance environmental conservation, and to broaden communities' gardening expertise.

How I Became a Master Gardener

Like many who enroll in a Master Gardener program, I'd long wanted to add to my hands-on and handed-down gardening knowledge. The training definitely taught me a more disciplined approach to tracking down gardening information and a greater sense of responsibility about avoiding guessing, no matter how educated. I also learned how much I didn't know (and still don't know), and how much more there always is to learn.

Not all programs are alike. Each program reflects its location. The only common elements are that to become certified, participants must complete the course, pass a final exam, and undertake a certain number of hours of community service. The service can be done in various ways, including staffing the hotline at the county extension office, helping community gardening projects, or (as in my case) volunteering at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

In some areas, programs are limited. The Michigan extension agency in my area offers two courses a year, alternating day and evening classes. I chose the night course, at a cost of $190.

The course consisted of 40 hours of core instruction spread over 10 weeks of classes. We were tested on each week's lecture with open-book, take-home tests. Then we had to pass the final exam with a score of 70 percent or better. Successful completion meant I would get to wear the coveted green apron of a Michigan Master Gardener.

Our classes consisted of an initial 2-hour orientation followed by lectures in plant science, soil science, integrated pest management (IPM), lawns, woody ornamentals, flowers, vegetables, houseplants, fruit-tree and small-fruit culture, and insects. Each class had a different instructor, either an extension agent or a visiting expert. Instructors all emphasized the role we would eventually play as Master Gardeners: a source of current information in our communities.

Our classes were tailored to Michigan growing conditions. For example, the IPM class focused closely on the gypsy moth because Michigan has a significant gypsy-moth infestation. A program in Tennessee, on the other hand, stresses controlling Japanese beetles. And in southern Texas, the scourge is the sweet potato whitefly, a pest that's unknown where I live.

A Book That Could Choke a Mule

The biggest surprise to our class was the accompanying "notebook." It was about 4 inches thick and packed with double-sided printed sheets. This volume of materials appears to be typical- "Looks big enough to choke a mule," says another Master Gardener.

We never found much time to goof off, as we often had more material to cover than class time allowed. Most of our instructors weren't cruel enough to keep us after 10 p.m.-just as well, because by that hour, our brains had turned to mush, and we were running on caffeine alone.

Usually, I read the material, about 80 pages, well before each class. I also took notes during class, hoping to retain the material better that way. The instructors often included helpful slides and other visual aids. In the class devoted to vegetables, our guest speaker, a grower, brought in basil plants for a demonstration, and then sent us each home with one.

Because our weekly tests were open book, I usually scored 100 percent. This testing method has advantages and disadvantages for learning. Looking up answers, of course, is much of what Master Gardeners do, so this method makes sense, but it doesn't motivate you to review material you aren't tested on.

Lessons Learned

In the plant science section, I found myself learning about phloem and xylem, words I hadn't heard since eighth-grade science class. We also learned the difference between soil texture and structure, and that weeding certain plants by hand may actually propagate them by stimulating germination of seeds or causing plants to produce runners.

We studied fungal pathogens, such as apple scab, and learned the IPM dictum: The ideal garden is one with an acceptable level of pests, not a garden without any insects or disease. (I used to think the ideal garden was pest-free! Gardens are, by definition, at odds with nature.)

We learned that insects in the larval stage are voracious eaters, and that 99.995 percent of insect eggs don't survive (or only 5 of 10 thousand do survive) to adulthood. We learned that bug zappers not only make noise and annoy people, but they also kill any insect attracted to light, including many beneficial ones.

All About Lawns

The lawn class covered the selection of appropriate species of turf grass for certain areas (particularly the four main kinds suitable for Michigan lawns) and the steps to creating a healthy lawn: site preparation, including ensuring good drainage; soil sampling; killing weeds; removing debris; grading and cultivating soil; and applying nutrients.

Trees and Shrubs

In the woody ornamentals class, we learned about apical dominance (how the terminal bud of a shoot inhibits the growth of side buds), the significance of good drainage, and proper pH levels. The instructor also cautioned us that neither pruning nor fertilizing should be done unthinkingly.


We learned to consider the finished look we want to achieve before pruning, that it is usually better to prune to thin rather than to cut back, and that pruning should begin when trees and shrubs are young. And when trying to revitalize and reshape an old or diseased tree or shrub, "Prune it until you can throw a live cat through it," one, er, lively instructor told us.


We learned about double-digging, creating maintenance paths, and adding either peat or compost but never topsoil. "Topsoil is always an unknown and might just be someone else's problems." Before planting a garden, we should ask: "What are my garden goals?" The answers will drive the selection, colors, and varieties of all the plants.

Homegrown Flavor

In our vegetable class, we learned that (guess what?) homegrown vegetables have better flavor. Store-bought veggies can't ever be really fresh, because grading, washing, sorting, shipping, and inspecting take at least 48 hours. Most commercial growers produce only what's practical for a mass market: uniform products that keep well, ship well, and yield consistently. So, although 'Brandywine' and 'Rutgers' tomatoes, for example, have always tested best in taste, most commercial growers won't touch them.

Fruity Facts

In our fruit-tree and small-fruit culture class, we l that some researchers are interested in the Midwest's wild strawberries because of their disease resistance, and that raspberry canes bear and die, but the plants themselves are perennial.

After the Program

Since finishing up, I've been doing many things differently. I'm growing 'Brandywine' tomatoes for the first time to see if they really taste best. I've stopped watering my tomatoes from above. I've invested in three well-made new tools: a watering wand, a Japanese pruning saw, and a pair of good pruning shears. I've thinned out an evergreen and enjoy the increased sunlight in my dining room. And I can talk climate zones and pH levels with ease.

I don't tell everyone that I've taken the Master Gardening course. It raises expectations. "I figured you'd know that," people say when I don't have an answer on a plant or soil problem. I've learned to admit I don't-and can't-know it all. "Let's look that up," I say, smoothing my green apron.

Margery Guest is a writer who gardens (masterfully) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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