Becoming a Better, More Knowledgeable Gardener
Gardening is always a learning process. Mostly gardeners learn by doing and by trial and error. I also like to learn from others – by interacting with other gardeners, by reading gardening books, and by attending garden lectures. This year, I have embarked on a more systematic project of becoming a better gardener by deepening the roots of my gardening knowledge, especially learning more about the scientific basis of gardening. I’ve been wanting to take the Master Gardener certification course for many years; and now that I’m retired, I can finally make the time commitment to do this.
There are Master Gardener programs in every state of the United States. In Maine, the program is run by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The course to become a Master Gardener is a serious college-level horticulture course, consisting of fourteen weeks of 3-hour classroom sessions, an additional 3-hour field class, and lots of homework in between to prepare for these classes.
My primary motivation for taking the Master Gardener course was to get the horticulture knowledge that it provides (I don’t think I’m alone in this), but the full name of the program is Master Gardener Volunteers, with the goal of training volunteers to work with and help gardeners in their communities. In order to become certified as a Master Gardener, trainees must complete 40 hours of approved volunteer work within one year of passing the course. Keeping the certification requires a minimum of 20 hours of volunteer work each year after the initial year.
Since one of my goals for retirement is to contribute to my community through volunteer work that draws on my interests and skills, this is perfect for me. The Cooperative Extension educators who run our program are providing some opportunities for trainees to get a jump start on their 40 hours of required volunteer work by doing some supervised volunteer work before we have completed the course. Next week, I will attend a meeting to get matched with a Master Gardener and begin contributing my volunteer time to staff the extension service’s Horticulture Answer Line. This volunteer opportunity is a great match for me. My role will be to field questions from the public (often about problems they are encountering in their gardens) and to find answers to those questions, drawing on the resources of the extension service’s library and with help from my Master Gardener mentor. In this way, my volunteer service will draw on my teaching and research skills and will also further deepen my knowledge.
In recent years, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program has responded to high levels of food insecurity in Maine by focusing the Master Gardener training course on growing vegetables and fruit in Maine. The core classes on soil science, botany, and composting apply just as much to ornamental gardening as to growing food, but there is no explicit focus on ornamentals. For this reason, I’ve decided to complement my Master Gardener training with a course of study that does focus on ornamental gardening, the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden’s Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture. This will be a multi-year commitment on my part, but the courses in the program are short and intensive (1-3 days in a row) and are primarily field courses. Next week, I will travel out to Boothbay, Maine (a little less than two hours from my house) for a registration and orientation session for new students in the program. I am also signed up for three courses this spring and summer: a two-day course on soil science, a three-day course on botany, and a one-day course with Doug Tallamy on “Gardening for Wildlife.”
I am excited by these opportunities to become a more knowledgeable, and therefore a better, gardener.