Gardening Tips

Master Gardener – Far from a Master

When and Why the Master Gardener Program was Started

The master gardener program is a volunteer program and was started in 1972 by Washington State University Cooperative Extension in the Seattle area.  It has since spread through the 50 states and into parts of Canada.

The Virginia program was adopted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension service to create volunteers to meet the demand for gardening advice to home gardeners.

Requirements for Virginia Certification

To acquire the title of Master Gardener in Virginia the individual must attend 50 hours of classroom instructions and then 50 hours of volunteer service.  These hours must be completed in one year.  To keep the certificate up-to-date an additional 8 hours of re-certification training is required.

Wrongly Titled

Although the MG program performs an important function, I think the program has acquired a “status” that in most cases is undeserved.

It’s just about impossible to make a blanket statement about any one group of people, since groups are made up of individuals and there are always differences in people no matter what the group.  Nonetheless, it has been my experience that the program may have been wrongly titled.

What is a Master?

I have encountered many Master Gardeners and they are all extremely proud of their certification.  It’s certainly well and good to be proud of an accomplishment, but I think many have come to believe that they are indeed “Master” Gardeners. Being a master at anything denotes having or showing very great skill or proficiency: a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. (Practitioner indicates having a garden. I’ve met MG’s who don’t.)

I’m confident that kids hearing that someone has 50 hours of classroom training would consider that person a master.  However, if you’ve experienced enough of life to realize that book learning is just the beginning – then surely your know that 50 hours of classroom training and 50 hours of volunteering does not qualify you as a Master anything.

10,000 hours of hands-on or 50 hours of classroom plus 50 of volunteer work

Most MGs probably know a lot more about chemical fertilizers and pesticides than I do.  I don’t use them and am not the least bit interested in knowing anything about them except how I can keep them out of my life.  In addition, the MGs probably know more about the names of various wild plants in the area and correct names of all the native trees and shrubs.  (I’d be interested in that myself.)

But when it comes to my garden, I would put my 10,000 hours (plus) of hands-on experience up against their 50 hours of classroom and 50 hours of volunteer work anytime.

First Encounter with a Master Gardener

As readers of this site will know, I love lettuce.  I grow lots of it and have for 32 years.  Unless it’s unusually cold in March, lettuce will start coming abundantly for me and I’ll have it through July. (Yes, even in drought this year, I had it through July.)

Years ago in the month of March, when I had been gardening for only 15 years or so, a lady visited our shop who happened to be the President of the MGs in our area.  My garden then was very visible to guests — so of course she asked to look around.  When she got to my lettuce she exclaimed, “You’d better pick that lettuce because it will bolt and you won’t have any in another week.” (As usual – I had lettuce through July.)

That was my first encounter with a Master Gardener and my first alert to the fact that maybe Master Gardeners were not Masters. Since then I’ve had many encounters with them.

Bottom Line

There is a lot of “information” and “advice” out there. You might just need to get some experience under your belt to know what is correct and what’s not; who’s a master and who’s not.


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  • Hello Theresa,
    My mom just sent me the link to your blog and I am happy to be here learning from all your experience. This particular blog caught my eye because I am in fact a Master Gardener “intern” in Virginia Beach. I appreciate your comments and can testify that many “Master Gardeners” are in fact NOT masters at gardening and will admit it. So, the title may mislead folks but after going to a recent MG meeting and hearing the volunteer hour milestones reached by some of our master gardeners I was truly impressed and appreciative that we have such dedicated volunteers.(Some with over 8,000 volunteer hours) So, for some of us who are just beginning and barely have 100 volunteer hours under our belts I would love to send out a BIG thank you to those dedicated “Master Gardeners” who rack up hundreds of hours each year helping educate the general public and also maintaining the many public gardens all over Virginia. Many of these folks give up spending time in their own gardens to volunteer and others are unable to have large or small gardens because of their living space.
    So, I do not feel worthy of the title YET but I am striving to live up to the title by learning as much as I can from experience, volunteer work, reading and learning from others. And, as most Master Gardeners will admit, we are always learning even when we are out there educating the public and promoting every aspect of gardening. It is a wonderful group of people and I am so thankful to be associated with them.

  • Hi Katy,

    My thanks to your Mom for sending you the link to my site.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    Best regards,

  • I too have had experiences with Master Gardeners that would indicate they consider themselves Masters.

    I think the following true story makes a good analogy:

    A few years ago, I decided to take a course at our community college on computer repair and maintenance. I was in a class with a number of people who actually repaired computers for a living.

    The instructor had us doing some hands-on learning and I managed to destroy 3 computers. So ——I knew ——the only way I could manage a good grade was to study the book and do every extra credit assignment given. I ended up with a grade point average of 103! (Obviously, the hands-on work on the computers was ungraded.)

    I’ll make my point with a question. Who would be better qualified to fix your computer? Who would be the most likely candidate for the label of “Master”? People who spent years repairing computers or someone who managed to ace one course and leave a trail of computers in their wake?

    After completing the class, I could tell you the procedures to follow for trouble shooting; how a computer worked; or a number of other interesting facts ——but my knowledge, in comparison to the hands-on guys, was superficial at best.

  • Thanks for the entertaining and informative article. I agree with all the perspectives that have been expressed here — both yours and those of the other commentators.

    I’m sure that the Master Gardening program is a good start for many people, in spite of its obvious limitations like its emphasis on the use of chemicals instead of organic gardening methods. Maybe some people wouldn’t even get into gardening without this program. But it’s only a start. I’ve written about this subject on my own website in an article entitled Getting Past the Expert.

    I’m not a Master Gardener myself. I got my gardening education by reading books at my local library, subscribing to several gardening magazines (including Organic Gardening), and spending 15 years in my own garden. I now own a seed business, and I frequently give advice to other people. Of course, I sometimes get questions that I can’t answer. I don’t pretend to know everything, and I’m happy to admit when I don’t know the answer. Sometimes the only advice I can give is to tell people to “Google it”. There’s plenty of info on the internet, so nobody needs to know everything. That takes the stress off the ego, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for a great website, Theresa.

  • Hi Theresa,

    I took the Master Gardener class at our local community college. I loved working on several community gardens, helping to create gardens for Habitat for Humanity houses & teaching kids about gardening in various schools.

    I had completed all of the classroom hours and almost all of the volunteer hours, but dropped out when I was told I had to spend a certain amount of hours taking calls from people in the community who were having problems & would have to instruct the callers to use various chemicals to “fix” their problems.

    Being an organic gardener and knowing that some of these products can cause cancer, birth defects, seizures and many other health problems I could not recommend them.

    Thus, the end of my short time as a master gardener.


  • I agree with your actions 100% Betty!
    I think when the need arises we have to stand for what we believe to be right.

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