Master Gardener Program looks ahead as it celebrates milestone

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The Master Gardener Program consists of horticulture training and community outreach.

The seeds of the Master Gardener Program were sown during the early 1970s in the Pacific Northwest when agricultural extension faculty at Washington State University began receiving an increasing number of plant-related inquiries from homeowners. The educators had primarily been delivering programming on crop production and commercial horticulture, but as local communities flourished, it led to a surge of interest in urban gardening. The idea of creating a cadre of trained volunteers who could work in communities to meet the overwhelming demand for information and assistance with backyard gardening led to the first class of Master Gardeners.

UConn Extension’s Master Gardener Program sprouted from these roots in 1978. The program instructs participants in science-based horticulture practices and garden management, after which students apply their knowledge by engaging in community education, including lectures, educational displays, demonstrations and plant clinics, and various outreach projects throughout Connecticut. UConn Master Gardeners are celebrating forty years of transforming academic research into practical gardening skills and techniques that everyone can use.

In observance of their anniversary, UConn Master Gardeners are hosting a series of fundraising events across the state. The program is also introducing a new format for its certification course next year that offers greater flexibility for those interested in becoming horticulture specialists.

“We are marking the occasion in a few ways, but we’re really using the moment to look ahead to the next forty years,” says Sarah Bailey, state coordinator and Hartford County coordinator for the Master Gardener Program. “We love what we do and want to continue helping people of all ages learn and discover the joys of gardening and the natural world.”

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Master Gardeners learn plant identification and diagnostic techniques for diseases, integrated pest management practices and pesticide safety.

While volunteers form the backbone of the Master Gardener Program, UConn Extension, grants, class registration fees, the Connecticut Master Gardener Association and private donors provide financial support. These resources employ Master Gardener coordinators in the state’s eight county UConn Extension Centers and the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford. In these offices, Master Gardener coordinators supervise interns and volunteers who answer questions from residents about horticulture practices, plant identification and diagnosis of disease or pest problems. Coordinators are also responsible for designating signature outreach projects and organizing educational programming in each county.

For the program’s fortieth anniversary, Bailey says Master Gardener coordinators are holding special fundraisers in their areas. In New London County, volunteers hosted a garden party over the summer at Widdershins Labyrinth in Lyme. The Fairfield County Master Gardeners are having a craft fair and open house outside their Bethel office on Saturday, October 6. The outdoor event is free and open to the public.

“Our event in Bethel is an anniversary celebration combined with free public information exhibitions, open demonstrations and an arts and crafts fair,” says Fairfield County Master Gardener Coordinator Sandra Wilson. “Many of the vendors selling at the fair are Master Gardeners. In addition to their gardening skills, they knit, hand dye and spin wool, make handmade wooden bowls and create flower arrangements, to name just a few of their wonderful talents. We’ll also have tours to discuss gardening best practices, invasive plant and insect identification and pollinator information, in addition to demonstrations on backyard composting and to present our new rain barrel and irrigation system.”

Wilson continues, “We’ve grown and thrived over the pasty forty years and continue to be an important resource and asset to the public. This event is about showcasing our work and continued contributions to the community.”

Each coordinator worked with their teams to create anniversary events that they felt would connect best with gardening enthusiasts in their regions.

Teams also created program-wide fundraising partnerships, collaborating with Colorblends, a third generation American flower bulb wholesaler located in Bridgeport. For a limited time, the proceeds from the sales of nearly all of their products went directly to support the UConn Master Gardener Program.

UConn Master Gardeners are also selling commemorative hats featuring the Master Gardener logo. These baseball caps can be purchased online and picked up in the county offices.

“One of our future goals is to formalize these types of fundraising to help support our program. These events also provide additional visibility to Master Gardeners as a whole and a chance for more people to learn about the impacts these volunteers are making in their local area,” says Bailey.

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Master Gardeners help maintain vegetable gardens throughout Connecticut that provide local communities with fresh produce.

Master Gardener’s outreach efforts are unique to each county and help meet local needs, often providing food to soup kitchens, food banks and residents living in food deserts. UConn Master Gardeners predominately work in community and school gardens and on farms and wildlife management areas, teaching crop selection and management practices to children and adults. In Pomfret, Windham County Master Gardeners care for People’s Harvest, a 15,000 square foot community garden that produces vegetables for area soup kitchens. People’s Harvest is popular with youth groups in the region, who learn about sustainable agricultural methods and food security from the volunteers. At Camp Harkness in Waterford, Master Gardener interns and volunteers practice horticulture therapy with adults with disabilities. Master Gardeners frequently attend farmers’ markets, fairs and other local events, eager to share their knowledge with the public.

The impact of their work has increased over time. In 2017, 574 Master Gardeners completed a total of 33,609 hours of service to communities and residents, compared to 23,500 hours in 2013. The restructured certification class debuting in January aims to create an even more robust and diverse group of Master Gardeners.

The Master Gardener certification process requires the completion of a sixteen-week course and a sixty-hour training and community outreach internship. There are usually between 175 and 200 new Master Gardeners certified each year.

“Most people taking the course were recently retired or had been in positions long enough to be able to take the time off to commit to a weekday class for sixteen weeks. We realized we were missing out on incorporating other folks that worked full-time and wanted to participate, especially younger people,” says Bailey.

In January 2019, a new hybrid class format and an evening course aim to increase accessibility and offer flexibility for those interested in becoming Master Gardeners. Previously, certification courses required a daylong commitment but the new configuration blends online learning with traditional classroom instruction. Students complete three to four hours of online work in preparation for a half-day classroom session. Classes run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The evening session will be offered in 2019 only in Farmington from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Bailey says if the new class time is popular then she will rotate the evening offering through the other county offices.

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Master Gardeners commit time as volunteers to provide horticultural-related information to the community.

Once the course is successfully completed, students begin their internships. Students spend thirty hours completing supervised training with extension personnel conducting research and interacting with the public. The remaining time is spent participating in community outreach projects.

Along with the certification process, the program offers Garden Master Classes, which allow further educational training. These classes are also open to the public, providing instruction on gardening and a variety of related topics.

“The Master Gardener Program was founded to meet public need and encouraged individuals to participate. We’re continuing those traditions by growing as our audience changes,” says Bailey.

For more information about the UConn Extension Master Gardener Program, please visit mastergardener.uconn.edu.

By Jason M. Sheldon