Master gardener training cultivates new experts in gardening and horticulture

The North Dakota State University Extension Service Master Gardener training program is planting seeds in more than just soil. It's planting the seeds of education, and they're taking root in the people who complete the master gardener training c...

Master gardener training class members
Master gardener training class members participate in a class session at the North Dakota State University Extension Service's Grand Forks County office. The course involves 32 hours of training in plant pathology and diagnostics, insects, plant health, fertilization, soil, weed control, pesticide use and safety, and even landscape design. Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University Extension Service

The North Dakota State University Extension Service Master Gardener training program is planting seeds in more than just soil.

It's planting the seeds of education, and they're taking root in the people who complete the master gardener training course each year.

The extension servicesponsored program involves 32 hours of training in plant pathology and diagnostics, insects, plant health, fertilization, soil, weed control, pesticide use and safety, and even landscape design.

"The whole idea is to help create more wellrounded gardeners," says Steve Sagaser, NDSU Extension Service horticulturalist in Grand Forks County and local coordinator of master gardener training.

People who successfully complete the voluntary course are on track to earn the title of master gardener. They become certified trainers and educators, experts in gardening and horticulture. Master gardeners offer horticultural expertise to the public and train other gardeners and horticulturalists. They are qualified to analyze and diagnose horticultural problems and recommend ways to manage issues affecting plants, whether they involve insects, disease, soil, water or the environment.


Aspiring master gardeners are beginners and longtime gardeners alike.

"You can come in with nothing but a desire to learn about gardening and become an excellent master gardener," Sagaser says. "People will take you in and help you learn."

For gardener Carolyn Van Mackelberg, enrolling in the program was an opportunity to dig deeper. She joined the class in 2010 already armed with several years of gardening experience, having grown up with an interest in it.

The class, though, was her first formal training in gardening or horticulture.

She says she took the course to learn more about plant and soil types and connect with other gardeners.

"It'sa broad area of knowledge that you're learning," Van Mackelberg says.

Van Mackelberg tends a large garden at her home a mile outside of Grand Forks. In all, she works in an area of 2.9 acres, which includes about 12 fruit trees-- including apples, pears, plums and cherries -- and space fora large vegetable garden in which she has grown potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, asparagus, lettuce, beets and sometimes corn.

Van Mackelberg also grows several types of flowers and landscapes her garden space.


"I try to stick with things that grow well here," she says. "It's actually surprising what we can grow here."

She encourages people with even a remote interest in gardening or horticulture to try the program.

"It was amazing," she says. "The master gardener program is awesome."

Growing program

Nationally, the master gardener training program started in the early 1970s at Washington State University, the state's landgrant institution, to provide research-based horticultural information to the public. Regionally, North Dakota's land grant university, NDSU in Fargo, adopted a training program in the 1980s.

NDSU Extension's program has grown through the years to incorporate the expertise of other extension horticulture specialists in the state, aided greatly by the use of the Interactive Video Network, through which all training now is disseminated.

Through IVN, class members have participated from the NDSU campus in Fargo, as well as Grand Forks, Bismarck, Dickinson, Minot and Williston, and smaller communities such as Bowman, Cavalier, Napoleon and Wahpeton. Sometimes as many as 10 to 12 different sites participate in a class session, says Sagaser, the site training coordinator for Grand Forks County.

Education in action


Before becoming officially certified, a course member's training needs to bear fruit.

Program participants are required to complete 48 hours of volunteer time promoting gardening and horticulture. That could mean conducting a garden tour, teaching a gardening class, publishing horticulture-based articles in local media, volunteering at a farmer's market or fielding gardening questions from the public ata local extension office.

The volunteer work is really where students get to dig in.

Van Mackelberg spent her volunteer hours answering horticulture calls at the Grand Forks extension office and even made "house calls," where she inspected gardens and plants and recommended solutions to problems.

As the county's horticultural educator, Sagaser says he is reassured knowing the program produces additional qualified people in local communities who can handle horticultural issues. In Grand Forks County alone, he says the extension office receivesa high volume of calls related to horticulture, and having the extra help is aplus.

"It's a great relief in many ways," Sagaser says. "In a way, it's exciting. It helps me realize my goal as an educator."

Class members maintain master gardener status for one year, and then must recertify, which usually means six to eight hours of training to update their knowledge.

A transition for 2013

Until his retirement last year, the training program was headed up by state horticulturalist Ron Smith, who structured the program's curriculum, guidelines and objectives. Dr. Esther McGuiness assumes the role of state horticulturalist on April 22, and Sagaser anticipates she will carry on administration of the training program in the future.

There will be amaster gardener training program in 2013, Sagaser says, but specific times and dates have not been established. Fees run about $100 for the course, which covers a master gardener manual and additional course materials and handouts.

Training typically begins during the last week in August and runs through mid-October.

Anyone interested in enrolling in the training can contact NDSU Extension Service. The Grand Forks County office is at 780-8229.

A northern focus

Local programs cover an array of topics, but are designed to address issues specific to northern gardening-- which Sagaser says has its own set of challenges, but also presents a special set of options.

"Whether it's trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, grasses, ground covers, vegetables; we have a vast palate of plant material to work with," Sagaser says. "It's probably more than any one gardener will ever have a chance to grow."

While the northern climate limits the kinds of plants that can be grown, colder weather also cuts down on the number of diseases and pests. Many pests and plant problems can't thrive here because of the weather.

A shorter growing season, another result of the climate, means northern gardeners must make the most of it.

"Our short growing season seems to make gardeners in the North even more passionate about this hobby because they have less time to enjoy gardening," Sagaser says.

Most gardening books are written for warmer climate gardening, he says. Some plant recommendations from seed catalogues aren't ideal for northern growing conditions, so Sagaser says northern gardeners should research their plant purchases.

Junior master gardeners

The extension service offers Junior Master Gardener training for children in grades four to six. The program is modeled after master gardener training and offers horticultural and environmental science education through activities.

The course theme this year is woody plants, specifically leaf terminology and identification, trees, plant parts, flower morphology, fruit types and woody plant diseases.

Planned class activities include planting a garden for the Salvation Army, a field trip to the Myra Arboretum in Larimore, N.D., and possibly establishing a community orchard at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks.

Classes will meet every other Wednesday from 1to 3 p.m. from May 29 until Aug. 7. Classes are free, but size is limited.

Information and registration: Grand Forks County Extension Office, 780-8229.

Related Topics: GARDENING
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