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Master Gardeners help other gardeners grow

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Posted: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 1:00 am

I have a wonderful team of certified Master Gardeners here in Pinal County, and today I want to tell them publicly how much I appreciate their help.

Extension Master Gardeners are individuals who love plants. They love to grow them personally, and they enjoy helping others be successful. In Pinal County, these volunteers donate thousands of hours each year to carry out a wide variety of projects. As part of the Arizona Cooperative Extension, a department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they are certified volunteers for the University of Arizona. I am very proud of them all.

The Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program first began in the state of Washington in the early 1970’s. Because of its success there, it was soon adopted throughout the country. Our Pinal County program began in 1982 when we trained our first group of volunteers. It has grown in numbers of volunteers and service hours since that time.

“So,” you ask, “just what is an Extension Master Gardener program?” Master Gardener volunteers are individuals who are certified by the land grant university or college within a particular state to work along side a local extension professional to help plan, deliver and evaluate local garden and landscape programs. In Arizona, the University of Arizona is the land grant institution that conducts extension programs statewide.

Certified University of Arizona Master Gardeners volunteer to serve by filling out an application indicating their gardening experiences and why they want to serve, successfully completing a rigorous 12 week training program and passing a certifying examination that allows the University to accept them as trained and certified volunteers. To complete their certification, they must perform 50 hours of service during the first year and then 25 hours every year thereafter in order to maintain their certification. They must also report six hours of approved gardening education each year. They have to stay current in their knowledge.

Why do we use the name “Master Gardeners?” There are several meanings for the term. There are indeed many gardeners throughout the county, state, country and world who are masters of what they do. They quite appropriately are called master gardeners. I have met many during my career and have nothing but respect for them and their skills. In an alternative meaning, you will occasionally hear of people who use the name master gardener to gain credibility so that you will buy something from them. Master Gardeners, with capital letters, is a title used to describe a type of Cooperative Extension volunteers.

When we talk about Extension Master Gardeners we are really talking about everyday people who have gained experience and want to share it. You can be sure that none of our Extension Master Gardeners are in it for the money. As volunteers, they do not get paid, except in the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped someone. They will not try to sell you a product; and they certainly are not in it to have people look at them as fountains of all knowledge. My Master Gardeners would simply say that they are willing to learn and want to share. You can be sure that when they answer your question, they are giving you local, research-based information authorized by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

While some Extension Master Gardener programs focus on a few projects or tasks, in Pinal County we tend to take a broader approach. The projects in which our volunteers are engaged are often a reflection of their own interests and experience. In every case, you will note enthusiasm for what they do and their love for plants.

In Pinal County, our area of service is so large that we have split the volunteers up into what we call “working groups.” Currently there are five working groups countywide. San Tan Valley was added this past year. In addition to San Tan Valley, the other four working groups are Central Pinal County, focusing on Florence, Coolidge, Eloy and Casa Grande; Maricopa, housed at the Maricopa Agricultural Center; SaddleBrooke on the south side and Superstition Mountain in northern Pinal County.

All working groups do some of the same stuff everybody else does, but each group has its own flavor defined by the types of additional projects that they have taken on. Master Gardeners in working groups interact with the public. All answer questions and share insights when contacted. Some sponsor and teach at public seminars, others give lectures and help teach down to earth, non-university credit classes. Still others help me conduct field research or communicate through written and electronic media. Some answer garden calls, organize field days, operate office equipment and take care of teaching collections; and these are just a few of the many projects we have going on. However, the working groups each are different in key ways.

The Central Arizona working group works in direct support of the local Extension office by duplicating and collating many of the bulletins available for distribution from the office. They also sponsor booths at Pinal County Fairground events, like the county fair and other activities. They conduct a plant clinic every Friday from 9 a.m. to noon here in the office conference room, and they take the lead in directing our very popular annual garden tour in Casa Grande.

The Maricopa working group focuses on doing research and public outreach by managing a demonstration garden and orchard at the Maricopa Agricultural Center. They also sponsor plant clinics and open house seminars at that location.

The SaddleBrooke group is located so far south that many of the volunteers have a Tucson mailing address, but they all live and pay taxes here in Pinal County. They offer plant clinics, diagnostic services and seminars in their community.

Finally, the Superstition Mountain working group sponsors demonstration gardens, public seminars and other educational activities in the Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and Superior areas. They also volunteer many hours of service at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

The San Tan Valley group are just now gearing up and deciding what will be their distinct flavor. It will be fun to watch.

While reported hours are just now coming in for 2013, in 2012 our 136 volunteers countywide donated 7,753 hours of service at a value of $168,938 to the University of Arizona. More importantly, they successfully impacted the lives of many people. I am truly grateful for their service.

If this sounds like fun, and you would like to get involved, we would welcome any who might be inclined to join one of our working groups. We will find a project that matches your interest and that will benefit your community. We start a training session on Jan. 7 in Apache Junction and on Jan. 8 here in Casa Grande. Call our office for more information.

Master Gardener volunteers make a difference in people’s lives by helping them be successful in their gardens and landscapes. Without them, I would not be able to get the job done.

If you have questions, you can reach one of the Master Gardeners at the Cooperative Extension office, 820 E. Cottonwood Lane, Building C, in Casa Grande. The telephone is 520-836-5221, ext. 204.

Rick Gibson is an agricultural extension agent and the director of the Cooperative Extension in Pinal County.

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