Community News | CeTech Engineering
So you want to be a master gardener?
Thursday, 17 January 2008

By Jessica Richardson
Staff Writer
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Macon County’s annual Master Gardener classes are set to begin Jan. 25. The Master Gardener program, made available through the Cooperative Extension office, allows those interested in gardening to take 42 hours in class learning about the many aspects of horticulture and then to put education into action through a volunteer component.

The first Master Gardener program in the United States was taught in Washington State in the early ’70s, said Macon County Cooperative Extension Agent Alan Durden. North Carolina began teaching the program in 1979, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that it began in Macon County.
In Macon County, the program was started partly as an effort to help provide services as the county grew and those in the program were trained to take homeowners’ questions. “Most homeowner calls are not difficult to answer,” said Durden. “Class members agree to give back an equal number of hours,” said Durden.
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The Macon County Master Gardeners Association maintains a horticulture outdoor teaching facility at the Environmental Resource Center, which includes gardens and identified, landscaped plants.
Durden admits that in his several years with Cooperative Extension, he has fielded some interesting questions. Durden recalls a homeowner who called and told him about insects that were swarming on a bush in his yard and he wanted to know what kind of bug it was and what he could do to get rid of it. Durden asked for more description, such as what does it look like? The homeowner responded, “Are you kidding? I’m not getting that close to find out.”

Durden said for gardeners in the program, many of their questions come from neighbors and family members.

The class covers all the basics of gardening including botany, entomology, plant pathology, soils and fertilizers. Each course day is between four and six hours. The class also covers specific interests of class members such as how to grow the best lawn, berries, fruit trees, vegetables or other products people often grow as a hobby, said Durden.

“The reason I like to teach it all is that I know what’s been taught and I can link the subjects together,” said Durden.

Durden primarily teaches the class himself and uses a hefty, 500-page state manual that all extensions use in the state to teach the class. Sometimes he will bring in guest speakers.

“I started the program in Macon County in 1992, when there weren’t many resources available and had to use a manual from Virginia Tech,” said Durden. That year, he had about eight people complete the course, two of which have stayed active in the county Master Gardener Association, which was started that year by Bob Stiles.
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Students who take the class are required to “give back” 42 hours of volunteering hours, equal to the amount of class time, to become certified. Master Gardeners who join the association continue to give 20 hours a year.
Durden said the association is an “active group of volunteers” that also provides members the ability to meet others who share common interests. The association plans events such as plant trades.

The state Master Gardeners Association hosts an educational program nearly every year as well, which members can attend and learn from college professors and others renowned in the field of horticulture.

Gardeners in the class become certified after completing the volunteer component. “We ask for 42 hours in return,” said Durden, about volunteering. The biggest component of volunteering in Macon County is through the development of a horticulture garden at the Environmental Resource Center (ERC) that began in about 1999. According to Durden, the cooperative extension was able to make an agreement withl Larry Lackey, PE about maintaining the grounds of the ERC as an outdoor teaching facility. Durden said the ERC provided a “new venue for service” because prior to the ERC, many of the hours of the volunteer component were met in the office. The ERC is located next to the current landfill on Lakeside Drive in Franklin.

“If you’re looking for a relaxing atmosphere, you can’t beat the ERC,” said Durden. The building provides a large conference room and the garden includes several shrubs, trees and other plants on the grounds that are all identified.

The plants in the front of the building include landscaped plants along the building frontage, a nice lawn and an island in the middle of the parking lot full of identified plants.
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The master gardeners give a three-bin composting demonstration at the ERC as a part of an annual Recycling Day event that brings area students to the center to learn all about environmentally-conscious living choices.
Durden said one of the recent accomplishments is a basic irrigation system for the island, which dries out fast otherwise. Last summer, a few additional bridges were built and siding was put on the storage building. Volunteers also developed a butterfly garden and an herb garden.

Certified master gardeners also volunteer during the summer at the ERC and are available on Tuesday and Friday mornings from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. for people to stop by and ask questions.

Beyond the ERC, volunteers have given group talks in the community. Many have volunteered at the Highlands Biological Station or at schools. Several volunteer for the Macon County agricultural fair. Volunteers also work at the extension either making themselves available to answer homeowner calls or working with Kathy Kuhlman, the 4-H agent.

Volunteers also get together for larger projects, said Durden, such as when the extension office gets a number of trees in that need to be planted. Another annual event is the Recycling Day organized by Joel Ostroff, which brings school kids out to the ERC for lessons in recycling. The Master Gardeners Association perform a composting demonstration with a three-bin system on the grounds.

The garden allows for other demonstrations as well, said Durden, such as a steep bank on the property, which could be used to help someone who wants to know how to control erosion on their property. One homeowner, said Durden, wanted to learn about growing wildflowers and got to see an example at the ERC.
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The Master Gardeners identify and mark the plants at the ERC. A recent improvement has been a simple irrigation system added to this parking lot island.
Those who become Master Gardeners Association members agree to continue volunteering 20 hours each year, and some manage to exceed that number significantly. “I have one volunteer here in the office who is a part-time resident,” said Durden. “In the summer, she volunteers about 300-400 hours taking calls and answering questions.”

The cost of the program is $50, which covers the cost of the class, the 500-page manual and supplemental materials.

“My goal is to familiarize people with horticulture so they can become a self-learner,” said Durden. “If they have a question, they have the resources and know where to go for the answer.”

Durden emphasized that to take the class, all you need is to have an interest in horticulture. He has had students that had very little experience to those who already had a Master’s in horticulture.

“What draws you to it is an interest in gardening and a willingness to volunteer,” said Durden.


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