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25 Years of Master Gardeners in Arkansas

Who We Are and What We Do

BY ANN GLENN –

The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service started a Master Gardener volunteer program in 1988 with a class of 30 people from four counties, and today the program has grown to over 3200 volunteers in 65 counties and last May they celebrated their 25 years of the program.  Their handiwork is visible in counties across the state from beautification projects in local communities, to demonstration gardens in schools and nursing homes, to farmers’ market projects, educational seminars, and annual plant sales.  These trained volunteers share their knowledge and spread their passion for gardening all across Arkansas.

To become a Master Gardener in Arkansas, you have to apply through your local county extension office.  Most counties do an interview to make sure potential volunteers know what the program is about, and you must complete a 40 hour training, pass a test (it is open book), and pay back 40 hours of service to your local county to become a Master Gardener. Once accepted, fees will apply.  Costs vary across the state since some counties include lunch each day of training, while others have to pay for facilities—but all counties must pay for the MG handbook which covers a wide array of horticultural topics, plus the MG name tag which is given upon completion of the class. Counties conduct multi-county trainings at different times throughout the year.  Training is standardized across the state with 40 hours of horticulture information, covering ornamentals, botany, vegetables, fruit production, lawns, insects, diseases, composting, and more.  State specialists, county agents and local experts teach the course in various locations.   Some trainings are held once a week for 8 hours covering 5 weeks of training, while others do a combination of evenings and weekends, and others do half day trainings.  Each training site tries to meet the needs of their community.

Once a volunteer becomes a Master Gardener, the individual volunteer can choose how long they want to stay active.  The first year each volunteer must pay back 40 hours of volunteer service, working in sanctioned county projects, which include working in beautification projects, work in the county extension office helping to answer calls, working in youth projects, helping to write newsletters, conduct seminars, etc.  They also must accrue 20 additional education hours in the course of that year.  Educational opportunities are readily accessible. Most counties hold monthly meetings with educational programs.  In addition, statewide gardening events abound, with new ones being added yearly.  After year one, for each additional year the volunteer wants to stay active, they must pay back 20 additional hours of volunteer service, and add an additional 20 hours of education.  In 2012, 3234 total members reported 55,118 learning hours and 118,549 service hours.

You can see the hard work and beautification efforts of Master Gardener volunteers at county courthouses, county extension office buildings, libraries, fairgrounds and other public buildings across the state.  Most county fair horticulture programs and judging are handled by local Master Gardeners, and demonstrations, fair booths and other educational sessions are held at county fairs to help recruit new members.  Many counties hold educational seminars or classes for the public throughout the year.  Master Gardeners are the main volunteer force behind the Arkansas Flower & Garden Show in Little Rock, the River Valley Lawn and Garden Show in Ft. Smith, and the Pine Bluff Lawn and Garden Show.

Most county programs hold monthly meetings with an educational speaker on gardening after the business meeting. They usually have a monthly newsletter keeping them informed of what is happening in their county and the state.  We have a statewide network where we share information about events across the state, so Master Gardeners are informed of all the educational opportunities available.

Each year 500-600 Master Gardeners from across the state attend the annual state MG Conference.  The conference location rotates across the state to let people visit other areas and learn more about our state in the course of learning more about gardening. At each conference there are keynote speakers, concurrent break-out seminars, garden tours, trade show and special events.  The 2013 conference was in Rogers, Arkansas, while the 2014 event will be in Texarkana.  The local counties help organize and conduct this event.

Master Gardeners also work in the schools and with youth. Whether it is going into the classroom to teach a gardening segment, or do a year-round raised bed garden project, they are trying to teach the next generation about gardening and encourage healthy eating habits.  On the opposite spectrum, there are numerous nursing home projects and plant therapy projects working with our older population.   From beautification efforts, to hands on planting projects in raised beds, the types of programs are varied to meet the needs of the clientele.

Many counties also hold annual plant sales, where they raise plants that grow well in their county to sell to the public.  Some do weekly propagation sessions, where they go to their gardens, and divide, take cuttings and harvest seeds to grow more plants. Some counties are fortunate to have a greenhouse where they can grow even more plants.

The Arkansas Master Gardener program is like a garden—ever changing and ever growing! People of all ages and backgrounds, both men and women come together with one thing in common—a love of gardening.   This connection quickly unites them into a force to be reckoned with –and the results are pretty amazing.

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