Master gardeners share down-to-earth skills

Published 9:16 am Thursday, September 3, 2015

Do you need information on growing garlic or fire blight in fruit trees? Help is close at hand — and chances are that hand is holding a hoe or shovel. Master gardeners, including 50 in our area, are ready and willing to help.

A master gardener is just what the name implies — an experienced gardener with advanced training in home gardening and horticultural and landscape management topics.

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“We’re a volunteer arm of Extension,” president of the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners Liz Dunn said.

The national Master Gardener program started in Washington State in 1972 and works in partnership with county Cooperative Extension offices.

While master gardeners are volunteers, a full-time effort is required to complete the course.

“Master gardeners take a 50-hour course,” Dunn said. “This is not your garden club class, and there are exams that go with it.”

Instruction starts with botany.

Photos of one of Dunn’s water gardens.

Photos of one of Dunn’s water gardens.

“You have to have some background,” she said. “As master gardeners we may know certain home remedies that work, but we are required to give science-based research information. If you’re going to give someone recommendations, they need to be backed up with something.”

Dunn and fellow master gardener Alice Metts signed up for the first Master Gardener class offered in this area in 2001.

“The course starts at the beginning,” Metts said. “Before you put anything in the ground, you have to get your dirt right — and you learn how to do that.”

Once the 50-hour course is completed, trainees advance to intern status.

“Then an intern has to do 50 hours of volunteer work in approved projects,” Dunn said. “Tech requires this; they want to make sure the person is working on a project that is going to benefit the community.”

“Trainees take 16 three-hour classes in each session — it’s a commitment,” Metts said.

One of the topics both Dunn and Metts believe is important is the course on pesticides.

“We do have some master gardeners who are die-hard organic gardeners,” Dunn said. “We’re not going to ask them to give chemical pesticide recommendations. They do have to take the pesticide class because it talks about organics as well. Organics are still pesticides and are dangerous if not used correctly.”

“How to use pesticides in the right proportions!” Metts added.

“Americans think if a little is good, more is better,” Dunn said. “Following directions is very important with pesticides. It’s a really good class.”

Once master gardener trainees complete the course work and community volunteer hours, they become official master gardeners qualified to advise and make recommendations on gardening topics.

“Our web site,, includes a speakers bureau list,” Dunn said. “These speakers are members who have programming they’re willing to do. A lot of the time, it’s to garden clubs, but I’ve spoken to the Methodist Seniors group, school groups, and 4-H.”

“Most of our programs are free,” Metts added.

The site also fields garden questions and offers blogs on timely topics pertaining to gardening or landscaping.

“We don’t do things to make money other than our annual plant sale (held at the Heart of Virginia Festival in May),” Dunn said. “That is to raise funds for our programming.”

The Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners currently offers a monthly Lunch and Learn event at the Prince Edward Extension office.

“It’s free and open to everyone,” Dunn said.

The next Lunch and Learn program will be held at the Prince Edward Extension office, 100 Dominion Dr., Farmville, Sept. 3 at noon. The program by Master Gardener Cynthia Wood will be “Go Native!” Members of the community are invited to bring a lunch (no preregistration is required).

A Fall Gardening Symposium is also coming up on Sept. 26 at Fuqua School. The $25 fee ($20 for members) includes lunch; three sessions given by John Galbraith, Virginia Tech; Katy Overby, Extension agent; Cynthia Wood, master gardener; exhibits and plant and book sales. A tour of the Extension BayScape Garden will also be included.

Other Master Gardener projects include providing books to public libraries in Cumberland, Buckingham and Prince Edward.

“We have a committee that meets with each librarian to determine readership needs,” Dunn said.

Over the past three years the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners have provided $1,800 worth of books to the three county libraries.

“We also gave each library a Fauna of Virginia reference book, some children’s books and the ‘Virginia Gardener’ magazine,” Dunn said.

Both Metts and Dunn see gardening as a life-long learning process, and they welcome others to join the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners — where learning starts from the ground up.