Ever wondered what it means to be a "Master Gardener"? There's a growing cadre of informed individuals who have completed a spring's worth of courses in horticultural and environmental topics taught by UConn horticultural educators, passed a written exam and volunteered their time to help home gardeners figure out what's wrong with their plants.
While some quibble over the name and its connotation that one could possibly know everything about gardening, the point of the program is public outreach, which includes sharing science-based information and advice. It's an international program, run by government extension services in the U.S. and Canada; the U.S. program has its roots in the Morrill land-grant acts of the 1800s that established public colleges for agriculture and mechanical arts and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that created the extension service.
"The idea is to take the university learning out to the general public, in this case, home gardeners," says Susan Munger, master gardener coordinator with New London County Cooperative Extension Service. "It's not a job-training program, we provide research-based information on gardening, with an emphasis on sustainability. It's for home gardeners who want to keep their flowers alive, have better vegetables, a greener lawn."
Friday, Oct. 25, is the application deadline for the 2014 master gardener program, which kicks off weekly classes in early January. The program is offered in five locations across the state each year; New London and Middlesex counties take turns hosting the program for eastern Connecticut, and 2014 is New London's turn. Classes will be held at the New London County Extension Office on Norwich-New London Turnpike, next to Three Rivers Community College.
"It's a nine-month commitment," says Munger. "We're looking for people who are interested in gardening, people who are willing to give back."
Participants get a grounding in topics from botany, plant pathology and plant identification to insects, plant diseases and integrated pest management, turf grass management, invasive plants and diagnostic techniques for the home gardener. Information comes from research-based sources, UConn and other land-grant universities or government programs and focuses on the latest findings, including integrated pest management and the newest culprits on the state's invasive species lists.
"We want to encourage people to understand what the problem is, to diagnose a disease or pest before they start applying things to the plant," she says. "If an azalea is simply planted in the wrong place, putting a pesticide on it isn't going to make it bloom pink."
True masters of gardening tend to ask a lot of questions; or at least they are observant. Soil pH (relative alkalinity) and quality, the amount of sunshine or shade, plant age and variety and, of course, watering are all important factors.
In New London County, the weekly classes are on Tuesdays, starting Jan. 7, 2014. Then there's the public outreach component, which includes a minimum of 30 hours at the Norwich center, where the master gardeners help to diagnose plant problems and give advice to home gardeners, either in person or over the phone, plus 30 hours on an approved educational outreach or community education project.
Munger says applicants don't need to already have their community service project figured out when they apply, and she notes that many opportunities surface during coursework - anything from organizing and assisting with community gardens and installing educational plant beds on parks and public property to working with senior centers or youth groups. One master gardener built raised flower beds at Camp Harkness. There's no shortage of chances to give library talks and presentations.
The annual program ends with a graduation ceremony next September, and there's an alumni group, the Connecticut Master Gardeners Association. The largest horticultural association in the state, it works closely with UConn's Home and Garden Center and the county extension offices to keep master gardeners updated. It also welcomes members who have gone through the program in other states.
"We really want our master gardeners to stay current, so there's an active certification process for past graduates," Munger says.
Much like continuing credits programs for various fields, certification involves attending a "hot topics" class once a year, plus 20 hours either in the extension office, often helping the newest crop of master gardeners or on an approved public outreach project. In 2000, UConn put together an advanced master gardener program, which involves additional classes and outreach hours.
The master gardener program has been popular with retirees, but Munger also has seen participants fitting weekly classes into their work schedules. The program costs $415, which includes a binder full of course materials. The application form and more information are at www.ladybug.uconn.edu/mastergardener.
Susan Munger is Suzanne's guest this week on "CT Outdoors," airing Saturday from 1 to 1:30 p.m. and Sunday from 7 to 7:30 a.m. on WLIS 1420 AM/Old Saybrook and WMRD 1150 AM/Middletown and streaming online from the On Demand archives at www.wliswmrd.net.