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.
I had always wondered about the MG program for both reasons 2 and 3 you mentioned above. I did have reservations about it since all the sites I found related to gardening connected to the state, university programs, county, etc. did have way too many suggestions related to chemicals of one sort or another. If they did address edibles, it was primarily in the context of growing in massive unicrop quantities for commercial production, again, with lots of chemicals. For my little backyard edible organic experiment, most of the info I found there didn’t apply to what I was trying to do. I am in FL, too, so your experience is likely what I would find as well. Thank you for the helpful insight in your article, even if it does step on some toes. It confirms my suspicions. I’ll stick with what I have been doing, searching for like minded people on the web and locally and reading lots of organic gardening and permie books. Thank you for all you do, David!
You were correct in your reservations. Because of toe-stepping, I hesitated to publish this post since I do have some close Master Gardener friends and really did enjoy some aspects of the program; yet overall, it’s really not suited for our kind of gardening… so what the heck – why not save folks some trouble?
Dude. I love you. I’m already broke, but trying to find a way to enjoy myself. I would have WASTED what little cash I do have. I had a feeling it was too good to be true.
You da best lol.
Thanks, Lisa. Good luck.
Ditto what Lisa said — you just saved me $400!
I have to disagree with the comments about the Master Gardener program. I’ve been a part of the program for 7 years, and it definitely is not a “pro-chemicals” program. That said, it is a ‘supported by verified research” program, and every answer to inquiries must be backed up by .edu or .org viable research. The program is very integrated with the Master Naturalist program. It is focused on good gardening techniques and practices. I’ve been a part of the speakers bureau which has included topics such as seed starting, pruning, composting, and ergonometrics of garden tools, among many others. A significant amount of volunteer work is helping community and school gardens get started. Books are good, but they don’t teach you where to find the right answer. That’s what the Master Gardener program does.
Lise, I’m glad you have had a good experience. I am new to the program and my experience has been different. In training, the organic program was put down as inefficient. The instructors put down healthy vegetable eating. One instructor bragged about his use of glyphosate.
The conclusion I draw from comparing your experience with mine is that it truly varies by location (In the US, that would be county).
Your MG program was taught in a different state/county than the one I just completed. Mine placed a strong emphasis on sustainable organic practices. Azaleas never came up, no instructor bragged about glyphosate, and everyone in the program as far as I know, is into eating healthy fruits and vegetables. We have a student garden + orchard, and every student is growing fruits and vegetables, and all seem interested in propagating them. What you experienced a 7+ years ago, is not what I experienced in 2023. I’m finding it’s totally worth it to become a Master Gardener Volunteer!
You make some great points. I think the only interest for me would be the cool title… Master Gardener.. and perhaps meeting some fellow plant geeks. But you kinda shot down those aspects. I have been a teacher for a long time. The process of obtaining various degrees with the titles that go with them are more about the ego process than the actual knowledge or lack of it that getting those degrees supply.
and one more thing… please do not give Mr. Larson another thought…
Thanks. At first I went, “whoa, that’s harsh!” – then I thought – hey, that harsh review could inspire a good blog post. I’m glad he left it. Now we just need a few people to comment with “you do realize this is a book on extreme composting, don’t you?” type responses on Amazon.
Done… oh fearless leader!
I must only assume Mr. Larson has never heard of a septic tank. It doesn’t take too long to notice the best grass and weeds grow over the septic leach field!
Yeah, as a very old new farmer with a septic system, I have definitely noticed that! Grass doesn’t grow over the buried tank however! As an 88 year old who just got two acres to play with, I am now using my college training in botany! Love it! Have rooted cuttings that the extension couldn’t! Ha!
That is fantastic. Grow!!!
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve worked with several MG over the years, and I found they really don’t know
anything outside the box of palm trees, fertilizing citrus trees (with chemicals of course), or grass. I went to
a class in Sarasota County on vegetable gardening (headed by a MG), and she told the group that she had
NEVER grown vegetables before (but yet she was teaching a class on it!!!!).
That’s hilarious. Thank you. I’m totally borrowing that story.
Great article! I want to open a nursery someday so I was warded off do to that anyway…and Uncle Sam don’t much need anymore help poisoning us all. I did not however know many of these things other than volunteer time and such. Thanks for laying it on the line. I have met an astounding amount of people due to gardening stuff and so many say why aren’t you a master gardener. I could only tell them its because I couldn’t own a nursery. Now I have a bit more to talk about…thanks David you the man!
You can be a Master Gardener and own a nursery. You just can’t use the Master Gardener title to promote your business.
Maybe what we need is a Master Survival Gardener organization.
That’s a great idea.
I think we all already have the reading materials!
Great idea! Count me in.
The real estate agent we used when we bought our first house this past year is a MG. She is a sweet old lady and very good at her job. A couple weeks ago, she stopped by for a visit to see how we were enjoying the new place and was horrified to find me in the middle of sheet mulching my grass and digging swales for some fruit trees. She said “I love what you’ve done to the place” and I know she was lying through her teeth because she looked like I was clubbing a baby seal!
That is a GREAT story. LOL
buy extra seeds while you can–there will be shortages this season
Not a bad idea at all. Thank you, Bill.
Poor lady. 🙂 I would have been, “This is cool! Show me what you’re doing.” And if I didn’t understand something, I would have said, “Tell me what you’re doing/why you’re doing that.”
hello again 🙂 and thanks for this timely critique on the MG program. I aspired for many years to ‘someday’ take the classes. I had assumed that they would be interested in growing food in the healthiest way possible because doesn’t that just make sense? After all, a garden is for eating food that you have grown yourself, right? Over the years , I encountered MGers at the library, nursery, county fair or farmers market and took the opportunity to ask questions about some problem or other that I was having with my growing things. I was disappointed many times by finding exactly what you describe in this article. I did ,however, take another class, given by the county extension service, which was very helpful and enjoyable. I became an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist.Because of this class, I realized that there was a title/label for people like me who just can’t get enough of nature. I have had the heart of a Naturalist/Conservationist from the time I was a very little child and spent most of my childhood in a field or up in a tree observing, pondering and studying my connection with the Earth. This class gave me a chance to share my experiences with other people, mostly children, which was just wonderful. These classes are not very well known or easy to find but can be the first step to permaculture awareness for some people and would make truly better gardeners. I highly recommend them….. peggy
That sounds like a great program. I count myself as a naturalist too.
Thank you David for a very informative post. I thought about it a while back and then saw how much time is volunteering so I thought no – not right now. I guess that is why at our local Yard and Garden show most (if not all) of the MGs were of retirement age and mostly female.
When they have a Q&A time at Home Depot they were unable to diagnose my strawberry problem and they never got back to me via Email when they said they would.
It sounds like they guard their titles tightly!
Heh. They also thought my Aminopyralid issues might have been too much nitrogen and sounded offended that I even called to ask them about it.
Sorry you had a bad experience or that the program wasn’t what you wanted. I’m a founder of the first pilot WSU Master Gardener Program in WA state. Just looked at the stats and it has spread across the US and Canada. In my county we have 370 dedicated MG volunteer educators. They are not working for government, they are volunteer educators tackling issues in their county, from proper pruning of trees, to reducing pesticide use and gardening practices that degrade water quality, composting and yes, answering the questions from the public about all aspects of gardening. We have a mix of gardeners and a few commercial landscapers who volunteered 30,000 hours IN THEIR communities. Many of our gardeners are great gardeners and work in demonstration garden where the public can come learn, some teach kids in schools or after school groups, others speak at garden clubs. While they are not able to promote their business when serving as a Master Gardener, they are allowed tomention that they are master gardeners among their other qualifications. Three hours per topic (lawns, soils, water quality, small trees, shrubs, vegetables, entomology, plant pathology, weeds, diagnosis, etc. doesn’t an expert make. It is a launching point. It is in applying the knowledge and answering questions that they really begin to learn. I would take a committeed novice over an experienced gardener who already “knows it all” in a heartbeat because one is open to new information and knows what it’s like to want information, the other is often closed in mind and willingness to update their knowledge based on new research and are too willing to share there outdated information. Our volunteers serve 50 hours each of two years to earn their permanent name badge. Many get their 100-hour pin in the first year and many have served 5, 10, 20. and 30 years (taking a minimum of 10 hours of continuing education each year). They become better and more valuable as they grow over time. (Don’t we all.) They aren’t doing this for me or for the government (though I don’t think of universities as “government”), it’s simply a way for them to give and strengthen their communities. It is inspiring to seen new a new sense of community grow as people come together to create food bank and community gardens. Something sorely missing in our society. Not all states are equal in what they ask of volunteers so I’m not saying your experience couldn’t have happened. Maybe that’s all the more reason to join, get to know people and build the quality of your community program. To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right. Check out our State MG Website for more information.
Thank you, Sharon.
I’m current intern in MG class in Arizona (Phoenix) I agree that this program requires work and volunteering, but it is clear from the beginning. To maintain the title requires only 25 hours of volunteering and 12 hours of education within 12 months. I don’t know how it looks in other states, but here – in Maricopa County – no one taught us and didn’t encourage us to use chemicals. Lecturers are practitioners (always) often with experience at universities and Phoenix Botanical Garden, for example. I agree that not everyone has deep knowledge in any field of gardening – but that’s the way it is in life. This is a non-profit program. This title will not give tangible material benefits to anyone and can not be used for commercial purposes. And I agree that there are many other ways (often better or at least different) to deepen knowledge about gardening and develop your career. It all depends on what you are looking for. https://extension.arizona.edu/maricopa What I like very much – this program opens the door to many organizations that promote a healthy approach to the nature around us. For working organizations, not with “an ominous government” but with local communities and neighbors – to promote respect for the soil and care for our priceless resources, such as water.
Having moved from Wa. State now to California, I am applying for the MG here. I took the horticulture series at WSU, which did not require volunteer hours, but I missed out on the continuing education that you get while volunteering and learning from others. I do not grow vegetables. I am hoping to learn enough to advise those who do or recommend someone who does have the knowledge. Most home gardeners are into their roses, perrenials, flowers, trees and shrubs. Not lawn. Most of them want to learn how to be water wise and use non toxic pest control. Going to a gardening center and expecting help isn’t realistic. This is a great avenue for gardeners to learn from others. I believe the programs alter their classes based on demand. I never grew vegetables because I didn’t have large enough land that didn’t have deer ravaging it. Putting in a 7′ fence was not allowed by law. I’d grow tomatoes only to see the deer eat them. This whole thing about the government is nonsense. You are volunteering to the public. You have access to the university science and research. It you don’t like science, then declare that you are not science based. Horticulturists get their degrees from universities, so that’s where those credentials come from. Many people are not suited for volunteer work because they have a pissy attitude. So by all means they wouldn’t accept you if you asked. I have landscaped extensively and worked as a volunteer in various roles. It is very rewarding to help others and share the passion of making things grow. That’s what it’s about.
You will end up hungry, but I am glad you are happy there.
Hungry and thirsty, you mean.
Thank you so much Sharon, Master Gardener here, from Florida. Can tell you, we are a group of volunteers who enjoy volunteering and learning to organically prepare our own lawns and gardens where we have attracted wildlife and our hummers. We have in our own yards brought back the bees and beneficial insects. We do have rules and regulations like many other volunteer programs have. We learn, to teach other home owners with questions they have regarding their trees or irrigation problems. There are questions regarding permaculture, lots of tropical plants and the growing of fruit in our state. We are required to volunteer a number of hours each year and giving this tine is usually spent in a botannical garden or maybe helping a teacher in a school develop a butterfly garden there. We give because, we are learning everyday and are happy to be there.
Thanks, Judy. I’m sure many people enjoy being in the programs or they wouldn’t exist. And I do still have Master Gardener friends.
Thank you! For many years I have been thinking of becoming a master gardener and until now it didn’t occur to me to Google the advantages and disadvantages. There’s this nice MG lady on the radio (SC) that has these short tips on gardening and I used to love them, they seemed to be mostly organic gardening tips and talked about native plants. Lately I’ve noticed they were mentioning chemical additives too much and yesterday I heard her praise non-native plants. I had it. NPR gets too much money from big chemical companies and if it wasn’t because the rest of the radio stations in this area are even worse, I would turn it off altogether. We all need to wake up to the fact that just like the HR department of your workplace is there to protect the company, not the workers, so the Extension offices of the universities don’t really exist to help the farmers and gardeners and the environment. I’m glad I found you, and will visit the website you suggested. Now back to my tomato seedlings.
I love that lady on “making it grow” she always has the coolest hats she makes from different blooming plants from here own garden. I have been watching her all my life. Wilson’s nursery, Rock Hill, SC and Wilson’s wholesale Nursery Columbia, SC. Check us out
I have to disagree that the MG training is not worth it, so you may want to stop reading my comment right here.
A healthy percent of the people I took the course with genuinely wanted to engage in volunteer activities to help people grow. I don’t know of any who got into it for “prestige” but there were a few who just wanted the training and not the volunteer obligation afterwards.
I did learn a lot in the 14 weeks, but it would be naive to think you learn it all in such a short time. I was inspired to continue to learn and have taken online courses, as well as availed myself of the many educational programs offered to MGs free or at a discounted rate.
There certainly are MGs who know mostly about palms, and others about flowers; after all, these things DO grow, just as food plants do . Most of us specialize in some area, because you cannot possibly know it all
You may not like to be called naive, so maybe you’d want to stop reading here. But given the many topics in agriculture and horticulture, it is naive to expect the focus of training to be entirely on edibles. That is my area of focus, by the way. But after the initial training, I sought more education and continue to do so. That is what a MG has to do, if he or she wants to provide an effective volunteer experience.
I don’t care if you disagree or call me “naive,” that’s fine. I’m glad it’s worked out well for you.
You sound a bit arrogant and not very open minded. You only thank people that agree with you. Don’t take on an attitude if someone chooses to disagree with you.
Everyone can share their experience and have an opinion. I’m signed up to start the class and glad I am after reading your commentary.
Who are you talking to, Gina?
You David. Respect an opinion even if it does not agree with yours.
I will respect or disrespect whatever I like.
OK, now I know I’ve come to the right place — good on you, David, this school-marmish scold mentality has gotten so out of hand! Respect, indeed. I guess telling the host of this forum he “sound[s] a bit arrogant and not very open minded,” is Gina’s idea of respectful.
Glad you’re here. Rock on.
As a permie (and contributing member of The Grow Network) I’ve been trying to get into my Master Gardner program for YEARS. I finally received an invitation to attend an introductory MG meeting! It felt like receiving that long anticipated acceptance letter for a prestigious college. I was excited! I began to read all the stringent requirements. “Oh wow” I thought! “AND they require me to PAY them $350 for admittance?” This really does feel like some sort of secret society!!! I was left wondering what all the crazy benefits I’d receive once I earned my coveted official Master Gardner status! A google search later and here I am. Thank you so much for this article, David the Good! You’ve inspired me to still attend the MG introduction meeting and make a point by asking questions I already know the answer to. Perhaps I can help deter others from wasting their time/money as well.
That’s funny. I wouldn’t give them a hard time, though. It gives retirees a good place to spend their time and I still love plenty of the Master Gardeners I’ve met.
I really appreciate this article. After moving to a new home, I paid a visit to my extension office to help me identify some of my weeds and plants for edibles. They were 2 retirees. Gentle and patient but unfortunately not very helpful. They misidentified at least three weeds. Thank God I did my own research! When I wanted to know about foraging they suggested that I take the MasterGardener’s class and maybe they could offer something like that. I scheduled an appointment with one of newest and youngest MG on staff that I had met previously from classes I had taken at the Extension center. He totally discouraged me to grow produce and told me It was too hard and suggested I get rid of my weeds in my front yard near my pear tree with Round up! I let him know that I would not be using any chemicals on my lawn.I asked him about comfrey for my tree and he told me he never heard of that plant. He did help me identify most of my trees but I felt something was not right. He seemed short with me and irritated. I was led here after looking up information about the MG program. Thank you for filling in the gaps and allowing it to all make sense now. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness in 2005. I will never puprposelly put anything in my soil. Will continue researching and finding like minded people that love to grow organically and with sustainability. Thank you for your boldness and truth.
Anita, that meshes exactly with what I experienced. You’re generally better off joining a gardening Meetup group or hitting the forums at permies.com.
Thank You very much for writing this article!!! I wondered about a few things that I might not like about the program, and after reading your article and learning more about the program, I know it’s definitely not for me – I would not be able to tolerate some of the things you mentioned.
I am a current member of the master gardener program in a west tn city. Have been a member for 6 yrs but don’t think I will go back next year. I have learned a lot and have had a good experience with the club. My drawbacks are that like any club there are clicks, don’t need that. My biggest problem is being driven to give myself as free slave labor. I don’t have the total intetest in all shrubs, trees, bushes, and flowers. Your made to feel odd if you don’t buy them at the plant sales or want to take the expensive trips all over the world and the US looking at trees, bushes, and flowers. I mainly like to grow my own food but do enjoy flowers. I have always felt embarrassed to tell anyone I was a master gardener because I don’t know how to fix everything, don’t know the names of all the plants or what to do to stop all problems. People expect you to know! I have met a lot of good people with a love for horticulture. It really is a club for retired people because you will have to make commitments to do the work and become involved in the club itself. I have a great county agent who is in charge of the club. She gives free classes all the time for the public and I hope she will not be too mad at me because that is how i will continue to learn. Use your county agents because they know the answers to your questions.
This is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you. I’m so glad that I did not proceed. I love to grow food. I loathe invasive species UNLESS I can turn them into food or medicine. I’m not afraid to use pooop. No chemicals. I’d rather not be social. I could give a rats ass about prestige. I don’t want to volunteer for the government. It seems I had the wrong idea about the program. I thought it might be something that would teach me more about what I love and that I could do that would enable me to transition careers while I go back to school for some kind of botany.
…and it could very well do all those things. It will be what you make it. Master Gardener programs are purposefully broad spectrum and cover a wide range of subjects, so of course it is not tailored to any one person’s personal mission or philosophy. Hopefully most people are open to listening to diverse topics and ranging philosophies and picking out what works for them If we seek only that which we already agree with, we have abandoned the potential to embrace new concepts or connections. I assure you there is room for all. The “requirements” to become a volunteer do screen out the ones without the wish to build a better community and those that are not open to the idea that it takes a village to make change. As far as it being policy to control the content of any information shared, it is certainly true that in any university sanctioned exchange, the information must be grounded in evidence, as that is how wise humans cull through information to sort out fiction and opinion from reality.
Carol, “wise humans” don’t call themselves master gardeners after sitting through 16 weeks of Thursday evening 90-minute ZOOM classes that are “purposefully broad spectrum and cover a wide range of subjects.” As with the words ‘hero’, ‘love’, and ‘friend’, the threads have been stripped from the word ‘master’.
You’re an idiot.
Is that an approved Master Gardener(TM) response?
I took the MG class at WSU this last year. But big whoop. I spent $300.00 for nothing. I’m a very avid gardener for almost 40 years. Not quite retired, but close. I have always done extensive research on line, at the library or by tapping my local nurseryman for information on all plants, trees and shrubs. Whether it was ornamental or edible. I did find the soil classes interesting and somewhat informative. For the most part what I learned is: If someone asks you a question regarding a plant or gardening in general you cannot identify yourself as an MG unless you only give a preapproved MG answer. Nevermind that you may have grown this plant for the last 20 years and maybe, just maybe, might have a different, possibly more hands on thus educated, view than what your County Extension (who has probably never personally grown the plant) might have. Gardening is not a one size fits all. The other thing I learned was chemicals, chemicals and more chemicals. I also agree with the free labor comment someone made. You can only get, and keep your MG title if you volunteer 40 hours in a season plus 10 hours continuing education. So in my state of Washington that’s 50 hours in a 6-7 month period. May not sound like a lot but believe me when you try to fit that around work schedules, husband, kids and aging parents it is a huge block of time. But really on the whole I learned very little that I didn’t already know.
Yes. It’s not that helpful for serious gardeners.
Just to clarify….I am currently in the MG program through Washington State University extension and the requisite volunteer hours (once you are certified) is 35 hours annually….25 volunteer hours plus 10 hours of Continuing Education units.
I am a WSU Mastergardener (2014) and you, Dawn, are seriously misrepresenting the program. The volunteer component is at the the level you mention only for the first year and then it diminishes. Secondly you actually have to sign a pledge stating that you will not “recommend” chemical means of weed eradication although you are allowed to refer to properly established control protocols in the case of invasive and dangerous weeds If you mean that chemical fertilizers are sometimes mentioned that is true. The teaching of chemical fertilizers was taught in the context of soil ammendation and soil tests to determine PH and possible deficiencies due to prior plantings. If anything I would say that the composting component of the training was the side that was truly stressed; and covered hot and cold composting and worm bin composting and the optimum uses of different types of mulch. As far as your own knowledge being sufficient qualification for advising people, we were always encouraged to make that a starting point for backing up with the required citation from a scientific source. It is a distinction similar to an opinion piece versus an essay backed up with footnotes. Since as a Master Gardener Answer Clinic volunteer you are essentially putting yourself forward as a representative of WSU, they would like to be able to trust that you are giving an educated answer and not an answer based on anecdote. Your experience in your garden does not encompass the totality of all experience. Other people’s mileage may vary and that is why findings based on researched studies following scientific methodology are more reliable for establishing guidelines. No one at the WSU program ever told you that you could not append an addendum based on your own experience, you are just not allowed to privilege it over a well-researched and well-sourced answer to the specific question that was submitted to you via the Answer Clinic.
Lilium, you pay WSU $650 for the “privilege” of this restriction on free and open discourse? Is there any case law out there on “Master Gardeners” who’ve gone rogue — given gardening advice based on their own experience — and then been sued by WSU? What’ll they do — strip you of your title?
I am a MGV in NYS and although I do agree with some of the comments in the article I also think thst the strength of the program relies a lot on what you bring to it. I initiated a pollinator program where we educate people about the importance of native plants and together with another colleague we have been volunteering with the land conservancy in removing invasive plants and replanting with native plants. We do.a lot of education and outreach and having that MGV title does give you a little more clout when you want to do something.
Thank you for the post because it did point out a lot of the limits of the program. A good NGV coordinator can make a huge difference in the quality of the program and like anything else they are not all equal.
Thanks for the info. I understand what one of the founder stated, but have to fall on your side of things, David, here in Canada there is something fishy going on with the legalization of cannabis, large AG companies, government regulations and this Master Gardener Title.
I was considering setting up a breeding program and a non-solvent medical cannabis processing shop here in Canada, now that cannabis is legal. But most of the licenses required a Master Grower to be hired and staffed. Having only limited gardening experience; some basic landscaping, veg and cannabis production, I had never heard of MG. So I figured it must be some kind of Masters or Phd program for people who have already been through a two-four year college/university horticulture course. But no, I just need to pay thousands of $$$’s to some company to get MG title? The first one that came up when I did a quick search (ontario master grower course) was $4200 for a one month online course (sorry, but WTF)? Or second is from the MG of Ontario and I have the options of two universities or at least it seems you can write a Certification Examination. Who knows how much the Universities will want to soak us for, I did not even both to check.
So can someone please explain to me why Dawn only had to pay $300, in 2018 at WSU and here in Canada we are being asked to pay thousands for the same title? Are these companies and schools just profiteering off Canadians backs, as cannabis became legal and the government has made mandatory to have a Master Grower on staff?
Sharon J. Collman or someone else who would know about this, could you please explain this to me. Oh also, a Master Grower cannot advertise they have the title to make a profit from it, but companies can advertise or our government can state in its policies, that the title is required?
Also I am just across the river from Michigan; so would I be able to take the course there or online from an American institution. Would this matter or is the “title” of MG the same regardless of if you obtain it in Canada or the United States?
Oh, just to explain a little as folks may be like “why should we help this pothead?” (not that I have anything against the recreational use of cannabis). Well, I am a T1 diabetic, medical cannabis patient and am pursuing this as there is very little done for diabetics and producing the best cannabis to treat us. Cannabis has worked better for me than anything else to regulate my blood sugar levels and improve the effectiveness of my rapid insulin, by up the five fold. After just four months, I was able to stop using rapid insulin altogether and reduced my long insulin by 60% down to just six units/per day, while having an A1C of 5.
Studies have shown certain varieties with high levels of THCV are the best for treating diabetes, but these varieties are very hard to come by and not something any large Ag company will focus on. This is why I want to set-up a breeding program for varieties specifically for diabetics. The processing is to make the cannabis into hashish, as it works better for me than dried flower for controlling my diabetes. Hash has over fifty new compounds that develop when hash is aged and are not found in the plant, dried flower or any other form of concentrate. Hash can be eaten or smoked (yeah, yeah, I know “smoking bad” – well…..checkout The Science of Cannabis on YT and it sites a number of studies show zero chance of getting lung cancer from smoking cannabis) and can be stored much longer than the dried flower without a loss in potency.
Thanks in advance to anyone who could help me with this pursuit. This is not about making money but helping diabetics have access to cheap, effective medicine – all the seeds and clones produced for diabetics will be given away for free to anyone who needs it or wants to grow it. It runs 500K-1M in Canada to obtain the licenses and you have to pay up front and have your facility completely built before you can be approved. Legal cannabis in Canada, for anyone with deep enough pockets, but I hope once I complete a business plan I will be able to obtain crowd funding to make this a reality.
Your experience will vary depending on your state’s program and your local coordinator. If Master Gardeners bother to attend meetings after being certified, we learn about the latest invasive pests and how to manage pests using IPM – integrated pest management, which involves using methods which will have the least impact on the environment. Of course the program is tied to the government – the Master Gardener Program is sponsored through university extension and the local county. When people apply, we let them know it is an organization dedicated to volunteering, not a way to make money. I’m sorry you had a bad experience, but don’t bash the whole organization. Our training had very little about lawns and palm trees, and more about water conservation, waterwise plants, insects (mostly beneficial), composting, and weeds. University of California Master Gardener
“Master Gardener” was never copyrighted, so there is sometimes confusion about training programs for professionals and the Master Gardener volunteer program, which involves being a messenger of research based gardening practices for the general public.
Thank you, David. I needed to hear this. I iwas planning to attend an orientation this fall for 2020 classes. The prgram where we live sounds like what you’ve described. I’m sure I’d learn a good amoutn of knowledge but while being disappointed on many levels. Appreciate this. You helped me dinalize my decision.
Your article made me laugh and nod my head yes to all of it. I grew up in a state where the MG program is practically revered as a holy institution. I was never able to join until I moved to the Tennessee Valley when I retired. Tenn is not as invested (rabid) about their program as my home state but they do have all the rules you mentioned. I enjoyed reading about your experience and would like to tell you in spite of all the red tape I really love the people I work with. You cannot tell Appalachian people to be quiet about organic gardening, medicinal herbs, gardening by the moon-no matter how many times our Ag agent reminds us. We exchange piles of coffee grounds collected at local McDonalds and attend composting lectures en mass every year. Our group is so dedicated to independance in our gardening that 30 years ago the first MG class created it own splinter group that functions independantly to but alongside the official MG organization. Everyone belongs to both! Because this is a rural area we have many farmers and hobby farmer members that give classes and are a wealth of information. So I guess I am lucky that location has given me the best chance to enjoy MG. You forgot to mention the FOOD. Eating is a huge part of MG-at least where I am. No one goes home hungry from a MG meeting!
I am sad of the experience you had in your Master Gardener program. The Baltimore County MG program is a MG you would like. They have a sessions about integrative pest management (IPM), saving the Chesapeake Bay health, garden pollinators, is almost entirely devoted to growing edibles, has had guest lectures on permaculture, and only involves herbicides when discussing insects and emphasizes less toxic alternatives like Bacillus Thurgiensis (BT) and neem. Most of the people in the group are in it for many years and volunteer 100’s of hours at the state fair, libraries and elementary schools around the county. People should check out their local county MG program and decide whether your own MG program fits your needs.
Maybe back in the day, before the internet and podcasts and myriad other opportunities for learning, these Master Gardener programs had more worth. Now, you can learn just as much — if not more — on your own and volunteer if, when, and where you choose.
Not to poo-poo volunteering, as there is most definitely a need for it ( and I have put in many, many hours in my own community), but I was disappointed to learn the that being a MG is based on volunteer work. As a new mom with future entrepreneurship on the horizon volunteering doesn’t jive with my schedule, at least right now. However, I would love to expand my gardening knowledge and take hands-on courses and have long thought that the MG program was just that…education and a great addition to a resume. I can read all the books in the world, but nothing compares to a hands-on “classroom” setting where not only are you learning but you are held accountable for regurgitating the information and applying it. I have been gardening for about 5 years, both professionally and personally, and would really love to expand my knowledge and skill set and would benefit from some formal education. Without going back to school for a full botany/horticulture degree, can you suggest any other means of gaining that can of education?
Yes – buy and read good books, and do all the gardening you can. I am self-taught and have learned lots just through reading and testing in my own home garden.
Brandi, We have no rules that say you can’t come for just the classes. I don’t know what other programs have to say about this. Becoming a Certified Master Gardener requires 40 hours the first year (20 the years after) of volunteer work. If you don’t do the volunteer work and get certified then you can’t call yourself a Certified Master Gardener. Also, you can’t say you are a MG for the purposes of promoting a business. You certainly can make it be known to your customers that you are, but not in advertising.
I had a different experience with Master Gardener training at Michigan State University. It was a very broad education, and ours relied a lot more on Integrative Pest Managenent, composting and organic methods than chemicals. I admit I was not all that excited about learning turf grass management, but that is a big MSU thing. I was surprised by the interest I developed in fruit and ornamental trees. But I took the program in the early 90’s when I was 26 and didn’t know much about any type of gardening. I did the necessary volunteer work to get certified, but I haven’t kept up on it. I was lucky enough to make very knowledgable and helpful friends in the various speakers who taught on their speciality.
I agree that it’s good for people to know what to expect out of the course. If there are people still considering doing it, ask to see the training manual before you commit.
You just saved me a lot of money and frustration. Thank you!
I was considering the course, thinking it might make me more desirable as a paid speaker on the subject of unusual edibles and Permaculture – which I already do a little bit of. Turns out, it would have had the opposite effect! haha!
Karl, if you were in my program, I would not have a problem with listing yourself as a Certified Master Gardener on your resume, or under experience. You are wanting to be a gardening educator which I believe is different than opening up a commercial plant business. You want that MG training to be known. It costs a lot of money to travel around speaking until you can get the organizations to pay all your expenses. In spite of all the negativity and misinformation being spouted on this thread, becoming a Certified Master Gardener is something to be proud of.
Hey david. Thanks for making me feel less bad about thinking master gardeners are up thete a…… i just wanna grow food and am always looking for better ways. Just like you
Oh man, I am so glad I found this article! I was getting a bit giddy at the idea of taking a Master Gardening course. Have been back yard gardening food for a couple of years now and have been loving it… I really want to have a thorough knowledge of it all to be able to take good care of my plants and reap the yummy benefits. So glad I did not enroll only to find they are, as you mentioned, moreso focused on chemical-ridden processes and non-edible plant varieties. I think my regret would have set in HARD once I heard them start on keeping grass and hedges looking perfect. Barf. Lol.
Anyway, thank you so much! You’ve saved me a lot of money writing this 🙂
Thank you! This filled in the blanks for me. It finally makes sense. Incentives sure maybe, but money making and career advancement- No not really. Yes I’ll just borrow some books and leave this Avenue alone.
So happy I found your site and all the valuable comments. I moved to Sarasota a few months ago. I had an organic garden up north, along with perennials and bee friendly plants since I raised them for many years. I thought the MG program could help teach me about how to grow edibles, fruit trees as well as flowers and gardening basically all year round which is a dream, and a challenge to a northerner!
Besides books and websites are there other learning opportunities you or your readers can suggest? Are there other programs or maybe apprentice oppurtunities? Thanks so much!
I am so glad I read this post! I have been searching for a Master Gardener course in my area because I want to know how to grow in this climate (moved here nearly 2 years ago) and I wanted to meet like-minded people. I did start a Master Gardener course when I lived in southern Arizona, but did not finish it for assorted reasons (I didn’t know I’d be required to volunteer to keep the title, so your post taught me something there). Like you said in your article, I hated the fact that they focused on poisoning more than working with nature. (I still have the book, btw.)
I think I’ll follow your advice and continue to learn from books, articles, and videos (and hopefully find likeminded gardeners here in Wyoming).
So is the term “Master Gardener” copyrighted or trademarked? When I learn enough about what I want to know, can I call myself a Master Gardener or will I have to make up some other title – such as Master Permaculturist or Master Organic Gardener?
P.S. The idea of human poop as fertilizer doesn’t faze me. In fact, there are countries that have traditionally used it for centuries. (I expect that’s in your book, though.)
I think you have to make something else up – the Master Gardener title is on lock.
Gosh, I agree with you completely. After 3 years in the Master Gardener program, I’m not renewing.
I came to the Master Gardener program with 20+ years of gardening experience, but I always feel I can still learn more. Yes, I learned a few things–frost dates for the area, kinds of lawn grass that grow here, how long the soil stays moist in this area before you should water again. Everything else, I learned from reading books and blogs, listening to an organic gardening program on the radio, and attending classes here and there.
The Master Gardeners in my group are GOOD people, but we have nothing in common. I like to read. I was told that none of them want to read so I needed to keep the minutes I typed and the articles I wrote short. Also, as much as I appreciate veggie gardening, just how many lectures on growing tomatoes can one listen to?
I didn’t join the Master Gardeners for prestige. I joined to make friends with similar interests. However, while the MG’s are good people, all but one person in my group lives on acreage in the country. I live in a house in town. Also, while I have donated my time A LOT, I don’t care how many hours I accrue nor am I interested in Robert’s Rules of Order. How many MG’s actually go back and read the minutes from a meeting 3 years ago? How many actually read the written minutes that are sent out if they attended the meeting? I think very few. I’m interested in growing native plants and preventing insect decline. No one in my group cares. Different interests obviously.
Thanks for helping me steer clear of a program that would only aggravate me! No wonder the “master gardeners farmers market” here has to get their produce from out of state. I thought that a bit odd. I guess they are too busy growing azeleas and fertilizing their lawns.
Hi David. Just stumbled upon this post after being rejected from a Master Gardener program. I had no idea why, but after reading your blog, I think I know.
I have recently developed an interest in sustainable agriculture and organic gardening. I attended an informational meeting last month. There were only about six others in attendance and I left with the impression that anyone who applied would be accepted. I was shocked when two days before our first class was scheduled I received a strangely vague and confusing email insinuating that my values were inconsistent with the program. I wracked my brain trying to figure out what I could have said at the information meeting to cause the instructor to view me this way. I am a well-spoken retired professional who has volunteered for many groups over decades. How could I be rejected for a non-competitive program? What could I have said to cause such offense?
After reading your blog and the comments, I think I know why: my support of local regenerative agriculture and my passion for organic gardening.
After reading your blog, I responded to the email by asking what exactly the instructors concerns were. He never answered, but gave me a terse response that my check would be returned. I am angry that the program would not welcome someone who supports organic gardening and am curious exactly how much industry funding they receive. Any idea where I could find this information? I’d like to write a letter to my local paper about this.
I am sorry you had that experience, but I do see what happened. I know I couldn’t /specifically/ share my problems with herbicides killing my garden because the company that made the poison funded our program, and that was a big shock to me. Probably the best way to find out would be to kindly call and gossip with some agents at a couple of different county extension offices about where their income and funding really comes from.
Thanks so much for your quick reponse. I will try to do some clever detective work as see what I can come up with.
The past two years have been so disillusioning for me. I used to be trustful of non-profits, especially those that I presumed cared about health and the environment. It seems industry-funding is everywhere. The least we little people can do is spread awareness of this potential conflict of interest. Thanks for doing your part. Looking forward to reading your other posts as I am new to all of this.
Please correct me if I am wrong, but are all MG programs directed by area land grant universities?
“Hundreds of millions of dollars are now flowing from corporate agribusiness into the land-grant university to sponsor buildings, endow professorships and pay for research. One land-grant university, South Dakota State, is headed by a man who sits on Monsanto’s board of directors.” https://civileats.com/2012/05/03/the-corporate-hijacking-of-america%E2%80%99s-land-grant-universities/
I had heard about the Master Gardener Program, but had no idea what it entailed. As an organic/off-grid homesteader trying to be self-sufficient, I thought it might connect me with older gardeners and give me the elders that I hadn’t found on my own. All the gardeners in my area/at the local farmer’s market aren’t really gardeners in the way I’m trying to be–they sell flowers, don’t save seeds, and have no compunctions about sprayhing the bajeebers out of everything with every Walmart chemical they can buy. Not my cuppa tea.
I’m so glad I found this post explaining the dirtier underbelly of the program, and so glad I didn’t waste my time and energy trying to apply. Looks like my hands-in-the-dirt experience will teach me a lot more.
Yes, I think so. Though there is still some good information coming out of the Extension offices.
Great article, David! Your picture made me chuckle! I took the Master Gardener’s program last year, mostly out of curiosity. I also study Permaculture and took the 72 hour PDC. I must say that I learned much more practical information at the PDC course and by watching your videos and others, reading books, doing gardening and experimenting with different techniques on my own.
I knew there would be some conflicting information, especially regarding pest control. There was one master gardener class regarding herbicide and pesticide use. The woman teaching the class had neurological damage, could not close one of her eyes and had involuntary twitching due to being poisoned by pesticides while she was inspecting a field as an extension agent. I couldn’t believe that she was still advocating the use of chemical pesticides! The class was told that we are to give advise on pesticide use. However, there was a lot of pushback from the
class. In another class, one student asked about companion planting. The teacher said he could not give any advise because there is no scientific data to suggest it works or doesn’t work. I tried not to laugh as I thought of my Iroquois 4 sisters garden. I volunteered for a project to start a native plant garden at a local park. I was excited to find a project that I felt passionate about and did not conflict with my Permaculture beliefs. Unfortunately, the Extension agent had the soil tested and fertilized, which may be detrimental to the native plants I chose.
Anyway, I see your point. Thank you for the articles, videos, and for always making me laugh!