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Becoming a Better, More Knowledgeable Gardener

April 5, 2016

garden science booksGardening 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.

imageThere 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.

imageIn 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.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2016 6:41 am

    Good for you!!! It’s so great to hear you will become a Master Gardener!!! I bet is going to be a very exciting time.

    • April 10, 2016 9:07 pm

      Lula, I’m really enjoying the Master Gardener class and am excited to learn more about the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens certificate program later this week.

  2. April 6, 2016 8:17 am

    You’re undertaking a major commitment — very impressive, Jean! I particularly like the fact that you’ve found a program that suits your talents and your goals so well. I am confident it will fulfill all your hopes.

    • April 10, 2016 9:08 pm

      Pat, It has taken me a year or so to find my footing in retirement, but I’m finding the freedom to take on this type of commitment the biggest gift of being retired.

  3. April 6, 2016 11:13 am

    Congratulations, Jean. And best of luck with your endeavours. Your courses sound so exciting and I love the volunteer aspect of it. Because I was studying part time, it took me 7 years to get through my horticultural studies. I surprised myself by finding the science part of it (botany, biology) the most interesting. And I loved studying native plants. Meeting Doug Tallamy must be the icing on the cake. You’re very inspiring, Jean. Keep us up to date on this big new adventure!

    • April 10, 2016 9:10 pm

      Crys, It does feel like a big adventure. I love having the time and freedom to take on this kind of learning just for the fun of it.

  4. April 6, 2016 3:59 pm

    the field work sounds interesting.
    Hope you will be able to squeeze out the time for blog posts, as you go.

    • April 10, 2016 9:14 pm

      Diana, I’ve never taken a field course before, so I’m looking forward to this different kind of learning experience.
      I’m sure I will find time to blog about these experiences; what has kept me away from blogging recently was not botany, but Beethoven 😉 Now that my concert is over, I’m trying to get caught up.

  5. April 6, 2016 5:07 pm

    That all sounds so fun and worthwhile. Doug Tallamy has helped me find staff for the invasive plant removal program that I run on Cliff Island. He’s great—please give him my best.

    • April 10, 2016 9:21 pm

      Carolyn, For years, I’ve been telling my students that they should take advantage of learning for the fun of it in college because they would never again in their lives have an opportunity to devote time to learning something just because it sounded interesting. Turns out I was wrong; that opportunity comes back around again in retirement! It is definitely fun to be learning so many new things.

  6. April 6, 2016 6:24 pm

    The program sounds like a perfect fit for you, Jean, and I have no doubt you’re going to enjoy it. The lengthy commute requirement put me off on the LA county program but I’m seriously considering volunteering with my local botanic garden, just 5 miles away.

    • April 10, 2016 9:23 pm

      Kris, If the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens courses were once a week or more, I’d be put off by the commute (more than 3 hours round trip). But it doesn’t seem so onerous for these intensive short courses.

  7. don ouellette permalink
    April 7, 2016 11:40 am

    Good for you Jean, i am very impressed. Laura and i have been to the Botanical garden in Boothbay.

    • April 10, 2016 9:24 pm

      Don, I’m really excited about this. I’ve already learned a lot from the Master Gardener course (we are halfway through), and I expect to learn even more from the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden classes I’ll be taking this summer and fall.

  8. April 9, 2016 3:17 pm

    I look forward to starting our Master Gardening program here in a year or 2….it has been revamped and is much more user friendly and accessible than the previous program. Looking forward to hearing how the courses go Jean.

    • April 10, 2016 9:26 pm

      Donna, I am thoroughly enjoying the Master Gardener class. The food gardening focus is interesting because I know so little about it, and when we covered botany two weeks ago, I felt way ahead of the game.

  9. debsgarden permalink
    April 12, 2016 5:30 pm

    Hooray for you! I have signed up twice for a similar Master Gardeners course, and both times the classes were canceled because not enough people signed up. They are definitely going to offer it again, so hopefully I will still get a chance to do this.

    • April 12, 2016 8:27 pm

      Deb, The situation is different here where the Master Gardener program is very popular and there are usually fewer places in the class than there are applicants. I do hope you get a chance to take it in the coming years; it is a wonderful learning experience.

  10. April 22, 2016 3:46 pm

    Hi Jean, the Master Gardener program sounds like it was made for you. I hope you thoroughly enjoy the course and I look forward to you graduating at the end of it. If the final exam involved keeping a Clematis alive, I wouldn’t even think of signing up.

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