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THREE YEARS AGO I WAS AT A COMPLETE loss when it came to the grounds surrounding my home. What was I going to do with a huge yard overrun with weeds and invasive species? There wasn’t a single flowerbed, but there were two large crabapples with spotty leaves and burned-looking bark. Our fence line was populated with a tight row of buckthorn and invasive honeysuckle, and there was garlic mustard everywhere.

I learned this sad fact from an arborist we had hired to trim broken branches from the silver maple on our property. Determined to forge ahead and make something of the yard, I had him take out the diseased trees and the large buckthorn and honeysuckle bushes. After he finished, nothing remained but a few very old and overgrown lilacs, two peony plants, and a few bushes around the perimeter
of our lawn.

I was determined to turn my yard into something beautiful, but it was clear I needed help. Trial and error did little but show me how much I had to learn. As I began to investigate ways to acquire gardening expertise, people would mention advice from “master gardeners,” a title that conjured images of retired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and gloves tending gardens with lots and lots of rose bushes. I also thought of master gardener training as a kind of finishing school for skilled gardeners rather than a program that welcomed beginners.

I was wrong on both counts, as I learned from Mike Maddox MS’00, a CALS horticulture alumnus who directs the statewide Master Gardener Volunteer Program—a service of UW-Extension—from an office in the Department of Horticulture in Moore Hall. Master gardeners are, in fact, Master Gardener Volunteers—or MGVs for short—with the emphasis on “volunteer,” Maddox notes.

It’s a role that has become more salient over the years. “The volunteer requirement became a way for MGVs to assist and offset the barrage of gardening questions coming to Extension offices,” Maddox says. “We emphasize the volunteer aspect of ‘Master Gardener’ to distinguish it from a commercial endorsement, to differentiate it from a garden club—and to de-emphasize the expectation of the need to be an ‘expert’ on all subjects.”

The Northern Lights Master Gardener Volunteers play a key role in gardening and related programs at the Harmony Arboretum in Marinette County. The mural and “chipmunk’s tunnel” exhibit behind it teach learners of all ages about what a chipmunk might see in his underground home. Photo by Linda Warren/UW-Extension

So much for what MGVs are not. But what are they? “MGVs are a group of very passionate people who want to learn something about plants and then make a difference in their communities,” says Maddox. “The strength of our program is with our strong county presence throughout the state. The local, personal touch is what connects with our participants and communities.”

Here are some examples of MGV activities around the state last year, often conducted in partnership with UW-Extension and other organizations:

• MGVs in Rock County helped create community gardens in Beloit as a part of a neighborhood revitalization project. They also worked with inmates in tending a community garden next to the Rock County Jail in Janesville.
• Waupaca County MGVs partnered with a local school district to create a three-acre community garden to grow vegetables for food pantries and for use as an outdoor classroom.
• MGVs in Racine and Kenosha counties participated in Green Works, a program developed by UW-Extension, MGVs and community partners to teach green industry vocational skills to adults with developmental disabilities.
• La Crosse County MGVs directed a monthly after-school garden club that maintains a certified Monarch Way Station/Butterfly Garden at Evergreen Elementary School in Holmen.
• MGVs in Fond du Lac County implemented a Junior MGV program to teach low income children how to plant, care for, harvest and cook fresh produce.
• Adams Co. MGVs awarded $3,000 in scholarships to students majoring in horticulture-related fields.
• MGVs in Washington County grew vegetables at the Germantown Community Garden and donated more than 300 pounds of fresh produce to the Germantown Senior Center.

MGV projects are great and small, and taken as a whole they pack a wallop. Each MGV has to complete at least 24 volunteer hours a year to remain certified—and altogether Wisconsin MGVs contributed 194,046 volunteer hours in 2013. The value of that service for one year alone is worth more than $4.3 million (based on an estimated dollar value of volunteer time of $22.14 per hour, as calculated by the nonprofit Independent Sector).

Small wonder that researchers at the cutting edge of horticulture see MGVs as valuable ambassadors for their discipline. “The MGV program is one of the best examples we have of engaging Wisconsin citizens and communities in the art and science of horticulture,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, chair of the Department of Horticulture. “As a land grant institution, CALS has a particular focus on supporting and enhancing the agricultural enterprises of the state and a major role in public education. The MGV program fosters an incredibly positive learning environment in horticulture throughout Wisconsin, resulting not only in beautiful landscapes and improved local food production, but also in economic development and improved sustainability of our
communities.”

The statewide Wisconsin Master Gardener Association (WIMGA) was formed in 1992. Currently there are 53 active local organizations across the state. Since 1999, more than 15,000 people have completed MGV training in Wisconsin.

“The program is nothing less than the Wisconsin Idea in action,” notes Goldman. “In terms of our mission to serve the citizens of the state, the MGV program goes a long way in showing the value of a unique collaboration between UW-Extension, CALS and, specifically, the Department of Horticulture.”

MY OWN JOURNEY FROM all thumbs to green thumb—or at least chartreuse thumb—began in 2012 when I signed up to become an MGV. There is an evening option for classes in Dane County, which I welcomed as a full-time working professional. The 16 three-hour training sessions would run from February to September—a big commitment, but I was ready for it.

MGV’s teach how to make garden towers from recycled glass in Marinette County. Photo by Linda Warren/UW-Extension

When I walked into my first training session at the Lyman F. Anderson Agricultural and Conservation Center on Fen Oak Drive in Madison, I was surprised to see the crowded classroom. There was a range of age groups represented—and as expected, mostly women, but some men as well. I took a seat at the front row table, hoping that proximity to our instructor would keep me awake and engaged after a full workday. UW-Extension Dane County horticulture educator Lisa Johnson BS’88 MS’99 was more than up to the task. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She was organized, professional and retained her sense of humor after a long workday of her own.

Her orientation talk was inspiring. “Training is designed to help MGVs to become educators first and foremost,” she told us. “MGVs take the research from CALS and bring it out in the community. As representatives of the UW, they provide unbiased, scientifically replicated and peer-reviewed information. MGVs learn where and how to find the needed information to provide answers to the public, backed by UW research.”

In the classroom, we studied a broad range of topics in detail. From plant anatomy, taxonomy and propagation to weed identification, invasive plants and perennial and annual flowers, the curriculum covers material most useful to home and community gardeners. Topics like tree and shrub planting and pruning, growing berries and fruit trees, lawn care and houseplants may not necessarily apply to our own gardens, but they are subjects that generate questions from the public. Inquiries about plant diseases and pesticide safety are also very common, and it’s important to be familiar enough to understand available resources, where to look—and who to ask if you need to do research.

MGVs and staff at the Community Outreach Garden in Janesville work with participants in a rehabilitation program at Rock County Jail, located next door. Photo by Gerhard Fischer

I found the material on soil science the most challenging, and it soon became apparent it was likely the most critical. Inexperienced gardeners quickly discover plants are particular about things like the soil’s composition, structure, pH, and biological characteristics. The ability to read soil test reports, alter pH, and amend soils with organic matter are important fundamentals. I came away from class knowing how and where to get soil tested and how to find resources on amending and fertilizing soil. One of my own gardening challenges involves a lot of rock-hard clay soil. Not all plants can thrive in it, and I learned to cultivate native plants tolerant of the conditions in my yard.

One of the classes I enjoyed most was our introduction to insects, which focused on garden pests and how to control them. The class was taught by popular CALS/UW-Extension entomologist Phil Pellitteri BS’75 MS’77 from the UW Insect Diagnostics Lab. Pellitteri brought in many wonderfully repulsive slides of insects to pique our curiosity. “Insects are the most successful animals in the world and make up two out of three living things,” Pellitteri told us. “Less than 1 percent of all insects are considered pests, yet millions of dollars are spent each year to control them.” He also pointed out that about 66 percent of all insect pests are exotic or introduced species. Learning to identify insects, their stages of development, life cycles, and feeding habits determine the strategies that will likely be most effective for either drawing a particular insect to a garden or keeping it away.

Not all sessions involved three hours of lecture. We had many opportunities for hands-on learning in the Teaching Garden at the UW-Extension Fen Oak property, which Johnson helped establish some 10 years ago as an outdoor classroom for MGVs and children’s groups alike. We trooped out there to observe the growth habits of many different types of plants we’d discussed in class, look for insects and evidence of disease, and practice pruning and the best ways to control various weeds. We observed the effects of heat and drought on the plants that year and learned what to look for in the following years as the effects of the drought continued—and are still obvious today in the appearance of damaged evergreens.

The Teaching Garden is open to all. “We encourage people to come out and take a look,” says Johnson. She describes a new MGV project being implemented there: creating and placing QR code labels on plastic resin spindles to identify plants. The spindles are weather- and squirrel-proof, and all corresponding information on the plants is vetted. The codes will eventually match up to photos on a web page. Completion of the project will result in a valuable educational resource for MGVs, school groups and the community.

The MGV training program adapts over time to meet current needs. Organic vegetable gardening, composting and how to teach children about gardening are examples of popular topics that have become an important part of the curriculum.

MOST MGVS ARE NOT professional horticulturists. Ongoing training on a variety of topics is essential, and 10 hours of continuing education are required each year to maintain certification. Horticulture educators like Johnson offer trainings specifically designed to help MGVs in their roles as presenters, speakers and educators. MGVs who have completed an additional Plant Health Advisor (PHA) training qualify to staff the “Horticulture Hotline.” According to Johnson, the Dane County hotline alone handles 1,800 to 2,000 phone calls and e-mails each year.

Maddox continues to develop online training opportunities for MGVs across the state. One example last year was a program on vegetable gardening aptly named “A Row to Hoe.” Registrants participated in a live virtual classroom format. Those who couldn’t make the 11 a.m. time slot for the live class were able to watch the presentations at their own pace on the MGV website. More online opportunities are available and in the works, Maddox notes.

In addition to ongoing training, we also depend on our ability to research questions or pass them on to experts. MGV Rosanne Horne, working with Johnson, started the Dane County “Ask a Master Gardener” program, which brings an MGV-staffed information table to five farmers markets in Dane County and to other events such as the Association of Women in Agriculture’s Breakfast on the Farm, UW Family Gardening Day and open houses at community gardens. Horne, a retired legal researcher, is passionate about exploring every available resource to provide information to home gardeners. And—in keeping with recommended protocol for MGVs—she doesn’t hesitate to ask a “higher up” if needed, contacting such experts as Pellitteri or CALS/UW-Extension plant pathologist Brian Hudelson MS’89 PhD’90, director of the Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic.

Master Gardener Volunteer Kelly Frey opens her lovely shade garden – and offers information and advice – to visitors at a home garden tour in Janesville. Photo by Gerhard Fischer

While MGVs depend on the professionals at CALS and UW-Extension, Horne notes that the experts also count on us. “We’re the eyes and ears and the feet on the ground everywhere,” says Horne. “Whether reporting sightings of damaging insects or the appearance of invasive plant species, MGVs are literally in the field and in touch with the public.”

We also value the support we find in each other. The love of gardening and learning about horticulture provides an unending stream of topics for spirited conversation. MGV Lori Nelsen BS’03, for example, learned about the program by taking MGV-assisted garden walks at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station and went on to attend other MGV-affiliated events there. “It looked like a different opportunity to learn so much more,” she says. “I thought I could meet more people and get out into the community and volunteer.”

When I attended a recent annual meeting of the Madison Area Master Gardeners Association (MAMGA), I sat at a table with an old friend and several other MGVs I’d never met. We were eager to hear our speaker, Diane Ott Whealy, a co-founder of Seed Savers. The topic sparked a lively discussion of successes, failures and helpful resources. MAMGA also offers a number of social activities related to gardening for MGVs, from home garden tours to celebrations for MGV graduating classes. We enjoy the community we find there—with classmates, fellow MGVs, experts at UW-Extension and CALS and participants in volunteer projects.

I’m now in my second year as a certified MGV and I am still trying out a number of educational and volunteer opportunities to find where my interests and skills best align. During training I loved volunteering at Sherman Middle School in Madison. I helped students plant their gardens and reveled in their enthusiasm as we watched how quickly they took shape. I also enjoyed answering attendee questions at the MGV table for UW Family Gardening Day, and, on one particularly lovely evening last September, I harvested tomatoes at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station for delivery to the food pantry at the Lussier Community Education Center. It was quiet and beautiful, and the task was like a form of meditation. As the sun began to set, what looked like hundreds of Hyles lineata, known as the whitelined sphinx moth, appeared like a show of fairies. It was this kind of experience that drew me to gardening in the first place—beauty, bounty and connection to the earth.

At home, I still enjoy spending a lot of time digging in the dirt. I’ve raised my first plants from seeds. My perennial garden continues to expand and I’ve had great success drawing pollinators. It’s thrilling to see my neighbor’s honeybees buzzing around the garden, and it has been fun and rewarding to grow my own vegetables. Neighbors now come to me with questions about invasive plants, identifying weeds and how to fight them, and, recently, about the emerald ash borer. I am always happy to help them find answers.

I now wear hats and gloves and even rubber clogs and flowered Wellies, though I still don’t grow roses. I understand the privilege and joy it is to be part of the MGV program. For people who are passionate about horticulture, enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience and want to make a difference in their communities, becoming an MGV delivers it all. I highly recommend the program and encourage anyone who is interested to check it out and join us.

Learn more at wimastergardener.org.

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