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Becoming a Master Gardener Volunteer

May 26, 2016

bee on rhododendronI have been a busy bee this spring. Last week, I attended the last class of my Master Gardener course and turned in my take-home final exam. Having successfully completed the course, however, does not make me a Master Gardener.

Most people think of the Master Gardener program as about horticultural knowledge, but that is only half of the equation. The program is really the Master Gardener Volunteer program. Now that I have a solid base of horticultural knowledge, I am a Master Gardener Volunteer trainee. The next step is to learn how to use that knowledge in volunteer service to the community. I will become a certified Master Gardener only after I have completed 40 hours of supervised volunteer work on approved projects.

Some people complete all of their supervised volunteer training hours on a single project. My plan is to distribute them over several different projects that will help me use and develop different skills. I have already begun to train as a volunteer on the local “horticultural answer line” – which is really a misnomer because almost no one telephones the university extension service with questions these days. People either walk into the office with specimens they have questions about, or they send an email question (usually with photos attached). The most common requests are for identification of and advice about how to deal with weeds, insects, or plant diseases. As a member of the answer line team, I’m responsible for using the extension service’s resources to make an identification and then point the client toward resources for dealing with the problem. I love working on this. Since I spent most of my adult life as an academic, doing research is second-nature for me, and I also appreciate all the new knowledge I am gaining from trying to solve these puzzles.

My second volunteer project is further outside my comfort zone. The Master Gardener Volunteer coordinator wants me to get some hands-on experience in a community project; for that, I am going to provide guidance to a herb-growing project at a local women’s center. My back issues mean that I can’t do the actual digging, hauling of dirt or harvesting of herbs; my role will be to direct the work of the women clients of the center and a student intern. I am nervous about this because it is a different kind of gardening than I have experience with and because I will not have a direct, on-site supervisor. I expect to learn a lot from this project, but I also expect it will be a humbling experience.

My third volunteering choice allows me to work on a group project from my own home. Yesterday, I attended a training session for Signs of the Seasons, a phenology project in Maine linked to the National Phenology Network. This program uses “citizen scientists” to collect systematic data on a range of “indicator species” in order to monitor the effects of climate change. Of the 11 plants that have been chosen as indicator species in Maine, 7 (red maple, common lilac, forsythia, common dandelion, common milkweed, wild strawberry, and white pine) grow on my property. I probably won’t collect data on all of these, because some are growing in conditions that make them less valuable for monitoring climate change (e.g., too close to the house or in a cultivated area of garden). I will chose two trees (red maple and white pine) and wild strawberry as plants to monitor. I will also collect data on three animals from the list: American robin, ruby-throated hummingbird, and monarch butterfly. Participating in this national phenology project is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I’m eager to get started on it.

indicator species

The final volunteer project I’m hoping to include for my volunteer training hours is an individual project of my own creation that has not yet been officially approved. This project focuses on educating gardeners about keeping garden records. I got interested in doing this when a friend asked me to consider developing a presentation on record-keeping for the McLaughlin Garden’s winter lecture series. From there, the idea expanded into a research project to gather information about record-keeping and to developing a variety of formats (possibly including a presentation, an adult-education course, and an extension-service publication) for delivering the educational content. As this project gets off the ground, watch for an announcement on the blog asking readers to participate in a survey about their own record-keeping methods.

With so many interesting volunteer projects to engage me, I don’t expect to have any trouble getting in my forty hours to become certified as a Master Gardener Volunteer.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    May 27, 2016 5:18 am

    Congratulations on completing the Master Gardener course. I recently completed the course and the 50 volunteer hours in Arizona. We bought a home there several years ago. Although much of the information is basic to any area in the country, taking the course has given me great insight and knowledge to growing things in the desert. All the people I have met are great! Have fun!

    • May 30, 2016 9:08 pm

      I also learned an enormous amount from the Master Gardener course. Completing the first 40 volunteer hours is a little tricky because they like the new trainees to work with experienced Master Gardeners, but there are relatively few Master Gardeners in my county (fewer than 50, compared with more than 500 in a wealthier neighboring county). The MGV coordinator is very helpful and supportive, however, in matching trainees with projects that will work for them.

  2. May 27, 2016 7:36 am

    All those projects sound fun and will be incredible learning experiences. Congratulations on finishing the first part of your Master Gardener training.

    • May 30, 2016 9:09 pm

      Carolyn, I’m excited by my new gardening learning experiences — with more to come as I take my first courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens beginning in June.

  3. May 27, 2016 8:49 am

    Congratulations, Jean! You will continue to grow in so many exciting ways through all of these interesting volunteer projects. I am fascinated to learn more tips for keeping garden records. Beyond photographing my garden often, I have always wanted to keep detailed records. Sadly, my garden journals and garden calendars are often blank. I’m in search of practical, effective inspiration for recording the daily changes in my beloved Midwest perennial and herb gardens. ♡

    • May 30, 2016 9:15 pm

      Thanks, Dawn. I feel as though I’m growing at least as fast as my plants 🙂 . My own garden record-keeping involves three categories of information: (1) a weekly inventory of what’s in bloom, (2) a list of what plants are growing in my garden and what flower beds they are growing in, and (3) notes about what is working and what isn’t and chores/changes for next year (organized by flower bed). Although I walk around my garden every day to see what’s happening, I think I’d be quickly overwhelmed if I tried to record daily changes. Once a week works well for me. I just pick a day of the week to do it on at the beginning of the season (this year, it’s Sunday), and then treat it as a pleasurable ritual.

      • May 30, 2016 10:20 pm

        Thanks so much for sharing these very helpful record-keeping tips, Jean! I’m definitely ready to get started on a 2016 Garden Journal. With our cool springtime, I’m getting a later start planting. So, this week seems like a great time to begin record-keeping! A new month… and new growth in my Garden Journal! Thanks again, Jean! ♡

  4. May 27, 2016 9:30 am

    Congratulations! And thanks for being such an inspiration. Looking forward to hearing more about your projects–particularly about educating gardeners on record keeping. I could sure use some tips! 🙂

    • May 30, 2016 9:19 pm

      Crys, A lot of people respond that way to the topic of record-keeping, and yet there is surprisingly little systematic information out there. Most people figure out a system by trial and error. (I know it didn’t occur to me to start keeping systematic records until I had been gardening for about 10 years!) I’m looking forward to making a contribution to filling that information gap.

  5. May 27, 2016 6:38 pm

    Great oaks from little acorns grow. I do admire your new work.

  6. May 27, 2016 8:36 pm

    That’s an interesting and diverse list of volunteer projects, Jean, but I’m not at all surprised to find that you’re making great use of both the knowledge you’ve acquired and the opportunities the program has afforded you for outreach.

    • May 30, 2016 9:27 pm

      Kris, I’m enjoying working on a range of projects and learning different things from each of them.

  7. May 28, 2016 9:35 pm

    All of those projects sound really interesting Jean. Although I suppose it will be many years before the phenology project data will mean anything for climate change analysis, it should be fun to see the year-to-year changes in your area that may be caused by factors other than climate change. For example, we have a million wild strawberries here this year–don’t know why!

    • May 30, 2016 9:29 pm

      Brenda, I think the Maine part of the phenology project has five years of data already. They do issue periodic reports about what the data are showing, but I think they said they expect to be able to draw some conclusions about climate once they have 10 years of data.
      I don’t know if you’ve ever picked and eaten the tiny wild strawberries, but I consider their intense flavor well worth the effort.

  8. May 29, 2016 5:34 am

    Hello Jean, the “horticultural answer line” sounds like Technical Support, but for plants. I wish you all the best and hope you have great fun in the three volunteering projects you will be doing.

    • May 30, 2016 9:34 pm

      Sunil, That is a perfect description of the answer line — except that you don’t have to solve someone’s garden crisis while they are on the phone 😉 .

  9. May 29, 2016 10:32 am

    Jean, Congratulations on completing the classroom portion of the MG program. As you mentioned the program was created to train volunteers for the agricultural extension service in each state. You are wise to break up the volunteer projects needed to finish earning your certification. I did the same, including self-directed projects building both a serenity garden at a women’s domestic abuse shelter and a school yard garden for the third grade science program. I also gave presentations, which I developed, at local churches and worked at a public garden. I believe you will find that the 40 hours accumulates quickly with all the projects you describe and will be much more rewarding in terms of what you learn. As self-motivated as you are, I have no doubt you will also do fine with the herb-growing project. Do keep us posted on your activities. Best to you. Kathy

    • May 30, 2016 9:37 pm

      Kathy, Thanks for the pep talk about the herb-growing project. I have my first meeting tomorrow with the director of the women’s center and with a student intern who is working on the herb project for the summer. I’ve spent some time online finding resources about growing herbs and have made a list of questions I need to learn the answers to during my first visit to the project. You’re right about how quickly hours accrue; I’ve already completed 10 of my required 40 hours!

  10. May 30, 2016 2:01 am

    I admire you tremendously for your determination to plunge in and give back, while continuing to learn yourself. I need to find some of your energy.

    • May 30, 2016 9:41 pm

      Cathy, I was leery of over-committing myself, but I’m finding that having outside commitments that help me to grow even as I’m doing something for others increases my energy levels.

  11. June 2, 2016 7:36 am

    What exciting times you have before you in your gardening life! I too have considered the Master Gardener Program offered through the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis or the Master Naturalist Program offered through the St. Louis Community College. Congrats on completing the program. When I first began gardening in 1997 I kept journals about my gardens. As life became more hectic I let that practice slide. This morning I pulled out my old journals and am amazed at the change in my gardens and my knowledge about gardening since that time. Thanks for sharing.

    • June 7, 2016 9:01 pm

      Debbie, Both those programs sound like exciting opportunities. I, too, have enjoyed going back to read journals from my early gardening days. The certainly remind me how much of learning to be a gardener is trial and error.

  12. June 5, 2016 8:33 am

    The course you’ve finished was interesting and informative, I’m sure, but the volunteer follow up sounds even better. What diverse projects you’ve selected! The record-keeping project is sure to be approved — it would be immensely helpful to other gardeners. I will definitely participate in the surge, whenever it happens.

    • June 7, 2016 9:02 pm

      Pat, I hope to get the record-keeping project moving in the next few weeks. Right now, I’m waiting on others to do some of the requisite paperwork.

  13. June 7, 2016 9:46 pm

    Good for you, your new endeavors sound like they should be both fun and a real contribution to others.

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