Becoming a Master Gardener

Christi Sweaney
18 Min Read

The first summer after my husband and I bought our first home, I was very eager to plant as many lovely things as I could get into the ground. I wasn’t very good and making new beds, but I was excellent at digging a hole and planting something. I really never thought about creating beds, raised or otherwise, or putting down mulch. I was really after the flowers and lots of them. I was sure there was a better way to do what I was doing, but I didn’t have any guidance other than my own enthusiasm. I had tons of books, but books take time to read and I wanted to plant flowers, lots of them, remember?

As many newly married couples do, we soon found out the two of us were to become three, and all my enthusiasm went from planting flowers to planning for a baby. About six months after Hannah was born, I read about the Master Gardener program. It is sponsored by the University of Missouri Extension office here in Springfield. The name itself was enough to make me want to know more. I mean, who doesn’t want to have the title of “Master”? The literature described it, “The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is designed for gardeners interested in learning and sharing horticulture knowledge with their friends and neighbors.” I was most interested in the learning portion of it so I read on and found the requirements were 30 hours of classroom time and 30 hours of volunteer time for the first year, 20 hours every year after. Having a newborn made those requirements seem like insurmountable feats, so I resigned myself to haphazard planting until more of my time belonged to me again.

That happened this year when my second daughter went to kindergarten. I placed myself back on the Master Gardener mailing list and around the first of January, I got my letter saying enrollment for the 2007 class was beginning. I was so excited one would have thought I had just been accepted into Harvard. There was an orientation class, the purpose of which was to give each prospective student the requirements of the program, the cost, the time of day classes would be held, and I was giggling to myself as I passed the gentleman my $150 check. Partially because it was a minuscule fraction of what I had paid for the past semester of math class at Missouri State and partially because I was finally doing something that I had been waiting to do for nine years.

The $150 covered the classes as well as an enormous book full of publications on everything one needs to know about flowers, vegetables, trees, fruit, lawns, landscaping and what appears to be a never-ending list of other topics on gardening. And what isn’t already in the book, can be ordered through the extension. I was also enlightened to the fact that the Master Gardener program isn’t just something done in Missouri, it appears to be nationwide. In a quick search of the internet, I found organizations in Oregon, Maine, and Texas, so I’ll just bet you can find one somewhere near you.

For Greene County, Missouri, the class times alternate every year from afternoon to evening. This year the classes were held in the afternoons, which was perfect for me as I could attend while the girls were in school and I wouldn’t have to get a sitter for the nights my husband was traveling. The class was from 12:30 to 3:30 and was held at one of the city libraries—thankfully, one with a favorite coffee shop attached so I was always with my cup of ambition. The attendees ranged in ages and professions and reasons for attending. Some were from places like Lowe’s garden center, some were from the city landscaping department, a couple of gentlemen were previous owners of greenhouses or tree farms. Others were people like me just wanting to learn more about a hobby that we enjoyed. Many were retired ladies who, much to our enjoyment, also were quite able bakers and every day there was some tasty treat to be tasted.

The classroom was like many others you’ve seen complete with tables and chairs and a screen for PowerPoint presentations.

The students were much different than the students with whom I had been spending the past few semesters. The students at MSU talked about the parties they had been to the night before and how they couldn’t believe they got home without throwing up more than once. Many times I witnessed their disgust at the announcement of homework or an upcoming test. I felt out of place dressed in my normal attire, i.e. something other than my pajamas. The ratio of students who didn’t want to be there far outweighed those who did.

The students of the Master Gardener class were just a bunch of boring grownups who came to class dressed in things like slacks or jeans or even, shudder, skirts. I didn’t see one person wearing something that looked like pajamas. We were like other students in the way we all sat in the same chairs every day we came for each of the eleven classes we attended. I’m sure the two days we met at a different library we looked like lost children. I spoke with other students who were disappointed by the lack of testing of the knowledge we were gaining and I found myself almost missing the nightly torture of doing homework that would be graded. We all wanted to be there and we wanted to learn. About dirt. What a bunch of geeks.

The director of the Master Gardener program was a horticulturist named Gaylord Moore, who, it turned out, is a native from Houston, Missouri, a mere smidge of a trot away from my hometown of Willow Springs. He mentioned in class one day about making a trip to Willow Springs to visit with a farmer about his land. Why I admit to things like knowing of someone named Pig Paul, I don’t know, but I did. I suppose it did give Gaylord something by which to remember me. This was Gaylord’s last class and he will be retiring in the fall. He attended every class and was like our mentor. He was a true country boy and he made me think of my grandfather.

The different classes included Basic Botany (this one came the closest to being a standard college class), Landscape & Design, Vegetable Gardening, Annuals & Perennials (my favorite), Trees in the Landscape and others that discussed insects, like aphids, and other plant problems. Each class had its own assigned professional who spoke. Two I enjoyed a lot were the tag team of ladies who taught the Trees in the Landscape class. Both were funny and entertaining, which makes presentations like this—the three hours, two days a week kind—much easier to sit through. I was actually surprised by the ability of all the speakers to keep the group’s attention. I’m sure there are many of you who would look at the schedule and tremble with delight at the Understanding Insects class, but I went into this gig wanting to know more about planting flowers, and lots of them, and since I was here, maybe a few vegetables. I really didn’t think I cared about bugs or botany, but it turns out, they are pretty important parts of gardening and I was able to learn a lot because the speakers weren’t reading everything off their PowerPoint presentations or talking like a Conehead from Saturday Night Live. They were funny, knowledgeable and they didn’t act like a Ph. D. teaching a general education class. They wanted to be there as much as I did.

The Ozarks suffered a horrible ice storm in January 2007, so repair and replace were big topics of discussion throughout the course. I learned how to trim a tree, or at least I learned how to instruct my husband on how to trim a tree. I learned that no matter how much I didn’t want to cut down the sugar maple in the back yard that really looked sort of okay with only a few branches left, it was actually not a keeper because it would eventually succumb to its injuries and would never look pretty again. I learned that the grubs I’ve been throwing over the neighbor’s fence might have been good butterfly larvae. I learned that the reason my maple in the front yard has looked so puny for the past couple of years might just be because it has bugs eating, or boring, on the inside of the bark. You see, you can’t know that unless you know what to look for because they’re on the inside. Get it? I wasn’t that interested in fruit trees, but after the Fruit Crops class, I did start to think that maybe I would plant a blackberry bush. I learned that what I plant doesn’t have to go into the ground in the perfect place. If I don’t like it, I can move it or give it away and plant something new. I learned that if it dies, plant something else. Mourn it and move on.

The class ended with a tour of the two gardens that the Master Gardeners of Greene County maintain. The ice storm played a number on one of them and many of the trees were lost. The trees were well established, which resulted in a need to rethink a lot of plantings since the sites quickly changed from shady to full sun. There are a lot of people who work those gardens and it shows. They were beautiful, even early in the season, before they were at all showy. The volunteer portion of the program is where those people come from. I have signed up for two of the beds at one of the gardens. The “Bed Head” is not a groupie, but is the person in charge of the bed and they let me know when they will be at the bed and/or what needs to be done. I look forward to meeting them and learning from them.

We celebrated the end of our classroom time with a banquet. It was most definitely the worst part of the whole experience. The first portion, the real reason we were there, consisted of Gaylord presenting us with our certificates officially stating we were Master Gardeners and our Master Gardener Pin. That’s the one I had my eye on from the beginning. Remember why? It says MASTER on it. Many of the folks who would stop by to visit our classes had on one of those green pins that said their name: Polly Petunia, MASTER Gardener. The main reason I went to the banquet was to get my pin. The rest of it was dumb humor in the form of a rather poorly done skit done by the social committee. I could have left with my pin and been happy. I should have.

Another way to volunteer is to work the hotline and it is one from which I hope to learn a lot more. No, not a crisis hotline, or at least not like one you might be envisioning, but a gardening hotline. I called it just a few days ago myself to ask a question about the bushes in the yard at my daughters’ school that got nipped by the recent hard freeze. I spoke with someone who sounded like he was probably new enough to be from my class, although I didn’t ask. He consulted with someone else about my question and I got the answer I needed. It is an opportunity for the new Master Gardener to teach as well as learn.

I recently got to wear my shiny MASTER Gardener pin to a charette given by the local Habitat for Humanity. I had to look it up and a charette is “a final, intensive effort to finish a project, especially an architectural design project, before a deadline”. You can make it sound as French as you like, but the dictionary says it is pronounced shuh-ret. The definition makes sense because drawings of landscape designs were being presented by students from the local community college to the families who were about to receive their new Habitat homes. The Master Gardeners were asked to be there to answer questions and to advise. The students fielded most of the questions, but I had an opportunity to act like I knew what I was talking about.

I can accumulate volunteer hours by just being a gardener. I can volunteer to plant trees at the elementary school, which I did last weekend. I can trim those bushes that got frosted. I can work at the fair, but I don’t see myself signing up for that one. The Discovery Center in Springfield, an urban science museum, has a roof garden that the Master Gardener program maintains and I would love to take my girls there and garden with them. I can show a Girl Scout troop some gardening tips. I can work with the Social Committee, someone needs to. There are many things I can do to tally up my hours.

Becoming a Master Gardener has been very rewarding and I am sure that I will be learning much more in the months and years to come. Of course, my main goal was to be able to go into my own yard and design and create my own space of nirvana that I would be able to appreciate and be proud of by myself and with my family and friends.

That, and the shiny green pin.Becoming a Master Gardener

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