The rapid urban growth in many areas of the United States coupled with increased interest in the environment and home gardening have prompted ever-increasing numbers of homeowner questions to County Extension Service agents. Many of these questions are seasonal in nature and are relatively easily answered assuming that one has horticultural training.
In 1972, an innovate Extension Service Agent in the State of Washington reasoned that well trained volunteers could respond to many of the everyday homeowner questions freeing him and his colleagues for more technical and difficult problems. Volunteers, such as Extension Homemakers and 4-H Leaders, had always been a part of the Extension Service but never in the area of homeowner horticulture. The Extension Agent selected, trained and certified volunteers as Master Gardeners. They soon succeeded in meeting his desired objectives – in fact they exceeded his expectations. And so it was the Master Gardener Program began.
Since that time, the Master Gardener Program has grown and is now active in 45 states. Florida’s began in 1979. The program has been a tremendous success and is now active in over half of Florida’s counties. The Florida Master Gardener Program is sponsored by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) of which the Cooperative Extension Service is a part.
Just what is the Cooperative Extension Service? For a more complete understanding of this unique organization, we must go back to 1862 when the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act which established colleges in each state to be financed through grants of land from the Federal government. They became known as “land grant colleges,” a name which persists today. These colleges would emphasize teaching practical subjects such as agriculture and home economics. The 1887 Hatch Act provided for experimental stations at Land Grant Colleges to conduct research for those colleges’ agricultural problems.
Then in 1914 the Smith-Lever Act created the Extension Service as a part of these colleges as a means of disseminating the practical knowledge gained through agricultural research. The University of Florida at Gainesville is Florida’s Land Grant College; The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is that part of the University which has responsibility for the Cooperative Extension Service. The term “cooperative” refers to the method by which extension services are funded. In Florida, three cooperating tax sources provide funds: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State through legislative appropriations and the counties through appropriations by county governments. The word “cooperative” also implies a sharing of information generated through sound research programs at the Federal and State levels. The term “extension” defines-this organization’s purpose – to extend the information generated at the State and Federal level to people at the county level in the form of a “service.” The Cooperative Extension Service is an informal educational organization which provides information in three main areas; Agriculture, Home Economics, and 4-H Youth. Community Development, Marine Biology, and Energy are Associated programs.
The motto and goal of the Cooperative Extension Service is “Helping People Help Themselves.” Thus, you can see how well the volunteer Master Gardener concept fits into the ultimate objectives and goals of the Extension Service.
Okaloosa County’s Master Gardener Program began in 1995 with 14 Master Gardeners. Currently there are 45 trained Master Gardeners in Okaloosa County. They were selected and trained and have committed themselves to giving 50 hours of volunteer service each year they remain active in the program.
Selection to become a candidate for the Florida Master Gardener Training Program is not based on prior training, education, knowledge or experience. Neither do age, race, sex or physical handicap dictate selection.
A SINCERE DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS, A DESIRE TO LEARN, AND A PERSONAL COMMITMENT TO VOLUNTEER SERVICE ARE THE MAJOR SELECTION CRITERIA INVOLVED. Gardening experience and knowledge are always helpful but they are by no means a requirement for selection for the Master Gardener Training Program.
The Master Gardener Training Program is demanding and intensive. Formal classroom work constitutes the major part of the 50 plus hours of training. Subjects include basic botany, soils, fertilizers, vegetables, entomology, fruit, turf grasses, use of (and alternatives to) chemicals, house plants, ornamentals, diseases and related topics. All information is based on the knowledge and research of the University of Florida.
Each weekly session is a minimum of four hours, which may include a practical, hands-on activity related to the theory just presented. Most sessions conclude with the “most frequently asked questions” relating to the subject matter. These are the questions most commonly asked by homeowners and serve to prepare the Master Gardener for the day when that first homeowner question must be correctly answered.
Each trainee is also provided, at a minimal charge, Master Gardener manuals containing extensive reference materials from the University of Florida. These materials are updated frequently so that Master Gardeners always provide the most current recommendations approved by the University at Gainesville.
Master Gardeners deal only with homeowner-type questions. The Extension Service Agents themselves respond to all commercial/professional growers’ problems.
On completion of the 50 hour training period, all Master Gardener trainees are required to satisfactorily pass a comprehensive examination on the materials covered. Only then can the trainees be certified and be awarded the title of Master Gardener.
Once certified, Master Gardeners must abide by a set of policies set out by the University of Florida and IFAS. Those “Policies Regarding Florida Master Gardeners” are attached and should be carefully studied.
Most Master Gardener activities center around the Extension Service office in Crestview. After successfully completing the training program, Master Gardeners return their 50 hours of volunteer service by answering home horticulture questions at the Okaloosa County Extension Office. This includes answering questions from the public over the phone and one on one. Master Gardeners may also help with clerical duties associated with the Master Gardener Program. Other activities include, but are not limited to, working at plant clinics in Fort Walton Beach, manning information booths, giving presentations at garden clubs, and working with youth groups such as 4-H.
As Master Gardeners assist the Extension Service Agent and staff, they are in effect “extending the Extension Service.” As such, they provide advice and recommendations which have been well documented as a result of experimentation and testing and are approved by the University of Florida.
Training never ceases for the certified and working Master Gardener. Throughout the year, Master Gardeners participate in monthly meetings. Specialized knowledge is gained to better enable the Master Gardener to give expert advice. These monthly meetings are also used for planning and status reports on various projects and information exchange and updates.
Once a year IFAS conducts “post-graduate” Master Gardener training at the University of Florida in Gainesville. This voluntary two-day session serves to offer Master Gardeners continued education with regard to some topics which may not be covered in the local training as well as to offer a time for Master Gardeners from throughout the state to share information and to receive recognition for the jobs they perform. The program is presented by State Extension Specialists and Agents who strive to bring all Master Gardeners into “sync” with the latest horticultural developments and provide a look into the future of horticultural research.
This is the Master Gardener Program in words – a very poor substitute for the real thing. Words cannot describe the sense of accomplishment one feels in helping someone be a better gardener. If you enjoy working with people and enjoy sharing information, have time to volunteer and want to learn more about horticulture, you may be interested in the Florida Master Gardener Program.