If a cheerful volunteer wearing a master gardener nametag greets you at a flower show or botanical garden this year, don’t be intimidated; master gardeners are folks just like you.

They’ve simply dug a little deeper into their gardening passion than most gardeners and entered the Master Gardener Program. Is this something you think you might like to do? To find out, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to learn more about plant care and gardening?
  • Do I want to share my knowledge with people in my community?
  • Do I have the time to attend a practical but intensive training program that lasts 16 weeks?
  • Am I willing to volunteer 50 to 60 hours for gardening work every year?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then you’ve already addressed two critical considerations in becoming a master gardener: the commitment of time and the spirit of service the program requires. The next step is to apply to the program.

The Master Gardener Program falls under the federal government’s Cooperative Extension Service. It is available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia through each state’s land grant university. A state coordinator, who usually works at the university, manages the statewide program.

Although each state establishes its own program according to the state’s climate, demographics and specific gardening, agricultural and other needs, the heart and soul of the program is at the county level. This is where those who aspire to enter the program submit an application, take courses to earn the designation and perform the much-needed volunteer service. To find a program near you, check online.

If you are accepted into the program, you will receive classroom training from Cooperative Extension Service agents in a curriculum developed from university and research-related information. The initial training usually consists of 40 to 80 hours of classroom courses with five to 15 hours of annual training required after the first year. During that first year, participants are required to give volunteer hours equal to the hours of their training and to provide 20 to 30 hours of volunteer service annually after that. To remain active, educational and volunteer requirements usually must be met each year.

After completing training, a volunteers’ first assignment is typically to serve in the office answering phone calls about gardening from members of the community. (Expect a lot of questions about lawn care!)

Then the Cooperative Extension staff, usually the county coordinator, will match your skills and interests with the needs of the extension office and the gardening public in your community. You might be asked to teach small groups in classes and workshops at libraries, botanical gardens, fairs or other events. Or you might be assigned to start or maintain gardens at nature centers, historical sites or community gardens.

“Hats off to the volunteers,” said Tom Bewick, who oversees the national Master Gardener Program at the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.“They perform millions of hours of service a year across the country, taking questions from homeowners and serving countless hours of on-site service at a variety of locations. They are a huge benefit to the extension system. We simply don’t have enough agents to perform all of the work that these volunteers do.”

working in the garden with kids at a volunteer day

Photo: USDA/Flickr

One of the ways the Cooperative Extension Service is working to ensure it will continue to have volunteers is through the Junior Master Gardener Program. Launched in 1999, JMG has a national office at Texas A&M University and is active in all 50 states through 38 land grant university/Cooperative Extension state partners.

The program is implemented in public and private schools, though 4-H clubs, Scouts, botanical gardens, children’s museums, libraries and after-school programs in partnership with master gardener volunteers. The program’s goal is to grow healthy minds and bodies through garden-based nutrition-education programs. Curricula is aligned to state teaching standards for math, science, social studies and language arts.

Children from pre-K to high school participate in the program, with the largest group in third through eighth grade. Junior master gardeners typically build vegetable gardens on school grounds or in the community and often provide produce from the gardens to families that do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Service learning is incorporated into the program as a requirement for the children to receive a junior master gardener certification. Parents interested in learning more about the program or starting one at their children’s schools can find more information at the Junior Master Gardener website.

“The Junior Master Gardener Program is a wonderful way to grow good kids while also cultivating the next generation of gardeners,” said Lisa Whittlesey, an Extension program specialist and international Junior Master Gardener Program coordinator.

“Young people can serve as powerful positive instruments of change in building healthier and more environmentally sensitive communities," she said. "Teaching children and allowing them to teach others through the garden not only builds confidence in the youth, but allows the Extension Service to reach into schools and communities through the children’s efforts.”

The success of the Junior Master Gardener Program can be seen in improved science achievement scores, increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in participants’ homes, reduction in childhood obesity, improved leadership in life skills, and an increased level of community service and volunteerism.

Kids learn about gardening

Photo: Derry Public Library/Flickr

Attracting children to gardens and teaching them the benefits of growing and consuming healthful food at an early age is important for another reason, Bewick said.

“It’s a way to attract them to farming," he said. "Every time I look at the average age of farmers, I see that it’s going up. It’s now 61.”

Measuring the impact of the Extension Service’s Master Gardener Program for adults is a little more difficult, Bewick said. Local program coordinators evaluate the effectiveness of individual programs, but the USDA doesn’t compile local data into a national report, he added.

There is another way, though, to gauge the effectiveness of the Master Gardener Program. If a volunteer inspired you to think about joining the program, or you found a workshop led by a volunteer interesting, or admired their handiwork in restoring or maintaining a garden, you know the Master Gardener Program is having a positive impact in your community.

Related stories on MNN:

How to become a master gardener
If you love plants and want to share that knowledge with the community, this might be the perfect volunteer role for you.