Are you thinking of becoming a Master Gardener?
I’ve been asked many times “should I become a Master Gardener?” or “is the Master Gardener program worth it?”
I took the time a few years back to become a Master Gardener and what I learned in the process was much less about plants and much more about the mindset of most Master Gardeners and the unfortunate limitations of the program.
Today’s post is likely to raise some hackles, so if you’re faint of heart or love being a Master Gardener, quit reading now. This is based on my own experience and you may have had a different one. That’s fine! I have plenty of Master Gardener friends.
(Actually, that’s like using the old excuse “I’m not racist against [insert group], lots of my friends are [insert group]!”)
Don’t worry, Master Gardener friends, I still like you. So quit reading now and go mulch some azaleas.
First, we’ll look at motivations for becoming a Master Gardener.
Why Become a Master Gardener?
I think there are three main reasons people decide to become Master Gardeners. Let’s cover them.
A lot of people wish to become a Master Gardener because they believe it will give them some prestige. That was part of the reason I decided to take the plunge back when I went through the program.
However, that prestige is a very limited thing. You’re only considered a Master Gardener so long as you’re active in the program and continuing to volunteer. You also can’t start a plant nursery, act as a consultant on a personal project, proclaim you’re a Master Gardener in your newspaper column or most anything else that points to your own research and not to the Master Gardener program itself… unless they have their fingers in it.
The Master Gardener title isn’t like getting an RN degree, where it’s granted and then you can go on and use that title to find work. They actively discourage their members from profiting in any way from being a Master Gardener. If you want to announce that you’re a Master Gardener in something that you’ve written, they want to control that narrative by editing your work first so it reflects the message they want given.
Master Gardeners are information distribution points for the State/Universities/Big Agribusinesses.
If you’re looking to gain some credibility as an expert for your lawn business, nursery, blog, etc, becoming a Master Gardener unfortunately isn’t the way to go.
2. Becoming a Better Gardener
This was another reason I decided to become a Master Gardener. I had just moved to the area and wanted to learn as much as I could about the plants that will grow in North Central Florida. I was also interested in talking with gardeners that were much more experienced than myself.
However, on both counts I was generally disappointed. I did make some great friends and enjoyed the conversations, but it turns out that many of the people join the Master Gardener program as complete gardening novices with little or no practical experience or even garden reading of their own. They knew little about organic practices, permaculture, building complete ecosystems, food forests, farming or even vegetable gardening.
We did learn quite a bit about grass, various non-edible hedge plants and azaleas, however, to the point where I made mentioning azaleas a running joke in the column I used to write for the Master Gardeners… though they didn’t realize my repeated mentions were a joke. Every column: azaleas.
Yes, I am a bad person.
The upside of the Master Gardener training was the stack of books I got at the beginning of the semester. For the small cost of entering the program, getting the books was a good trade. I enjoyed having a lot of the info from UF at my fingertips in three big bound volumes (though much of the data related to various toxins and inedible plants, plus bugs and how to make them dead.)
If you want to continue your gardening education, particularly in the realm of growing food, skip the Master Gardener program and find good gardening books to read instead. Then join some gardening Meetup groups and hang out at permies.com. Hang out here. Find gardeners that are doing what you want to do, then follow them around. Volunteer to pull weeds. Whatever – just don’t think you’ll get much from the Master Gardeners. Unless you like azaleas, grass and hedges.
3. Connecting With Other Gardeners and Getting Cool Plants
The Master Gardener program is a good place to meet other people interested in plants, right?
Well, to an extent. I made some very good friendships while I was there; yet most of the Master Gardeners really weren’t interested in edible or useful species. Instead, they liked ornamentals, bird baths and grass.
If you want to be a better food gardener… well…
Folks would share bulbs, seeds and cuttings; but yet again, they were often ornamentals. There was little interest in things you can actually use. Mostly, they were plants that consumed resources, not plants that were resources.
Why To Skip Becoming a Master Gardener
If you’re like me and enjoy pushing the boundaries and seeing what can happen if you let nature break free, the Master Gardening program is probably not for you.
If you’d rather be working in your own garden rather than volunteering for the government, don’t become a Master Gardener. They usually require a lot of volunteer hours to keep your title.
If you aren’t really a fan of toxic ornamentals, chemical gardening and perfectly manicured landscapes, the Master Gardener thing will frustrate you.
Many Master Gardeners don’t know any more than you do and may know a lot less if you’ve been reading good gardening books and growing your own food.
If you’ve ever criticized toxic farming techniques and don’t like big companies poisoning the environment with various nasty pesticides and herbicides, you’ll be angry in a Master Gardener program. I couldn’t publicly write the name of the herbicide [Grazon(TM)] that came through in a load of cow manure and wrecked over $1000 worth of my plants… because Dow Agrosciences helped fund the Master Gardener program.
If you really want to compost everything and explore permaculture possibilities, like I do, expect to get shot down by Master Gardeners. They love their rulebooks.
Case in point:
Never mind the fact that my popular composting book was titled Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, and that the section that gave poor Mr. Larson the vapors is in a section dealing with a grid-down survival gardening and sewage disposal situation.
I did cover the safety aspects and the dangers… but the book is NOT a “safe space” for stodgy gardeners, of which most Master Gardeners are. I did like the fact that he’s going to compost my book, though JUST BE SURE IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY TO REMOVE THE GLOSSY COVER FIRST OR WE’LL ALL DIE!!111!1!1!!!!!!!
If you’re an ornamental gardener who enjoys volunteering for the government, spending more time socializing and going to meetings than growing food, wants to tell people that you’re a Master Gardener but doesn’t want to actually make money off your writing, plant nursery, etc., likes being muzzled by big agricultural companies, plus enjoys learning about 1.5 zillion ways to keep your grass perfect through modern chemistry, go – sign up.
Otherwise, stick around here and spend more time in your backyard producing food for your family… because becoming a Master Gardener probably isn’t for you.
Pro-tip: your azaleas won’t feed you.