By CARL MARIO NUDI
No matter how much of a green thumb someone may have, sometimes that individual may have a question, such as how to rid one’s garden of a pest naturally, is the strange plant growing in the yard beneficial or a weed or what kind of plants are native to Florida.
Manatee County Extension Services has a volunteer program where all those questions, and more, can be answered. “The Master Gardener program is a volunteer program that trains individuals to provide expert horticultural information to the community,” said Alyssa Vinson, Master Gardener coordinator and residential horticulture agent for the extension services.
The Master Gardener program concept started in the state of Washington in 1972 and became part of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences 40 decades ago. “It’s been in Manatee County for 40 years,” Vinson added. “When it started in 1979, Manatee County’s program was one of the first pilot programs in the state.” There are about 75 master gardeners in Manatee County.
The Manatee County Extension Service offers a 14-week training program once a year, starting in August, to be certified as a Master Gardener. “You attend one day a week,” Vinson said. “It’s a full day of training. We found that the majority of folks are retired, but we have a few who have full-time jobs and work out their schedules to attend the training sessions on Wednesdays.”
Applications for the training are taken throughout the year and kept on file, but classes are capped at 20 people. Once trainees complete the 14-week training session, they begin a one-year internship of 100 hours of service to the community, such as working in the Plant Clinic, the Educational Garden at the Manatee County Fairgrounds, in community gardens throughout the county, or other outreach programs.
After the one-year internship they become certified, but to maintain their Master Gardener active status, they have to volunteer 50 hours per year. “We have 10,000 volunteer hours annually,” Vinson said. One of the more popular volunteer opportunities for master gardeners is the Plant Clinic, located at the county extension service offices at 1303 17th St. W., at the fairgrounds across from Palmetto High School.
The Plant Clinic is a diagnostic service where individuals can call or bring in a problem they are having in their landscape, Vinson said. It could be about pests, weeds, soil, fertilizer, plant identification, or any question residents may have concerning their landscape and gardens.
“Without the Master Gardener program, there would be significantly less information available to the public,” Vinson said. “Good information by experienced people wouldn’t get (to the public) without the Master Gardener program.”
Connie Burnett,a Master Gardener for three years, agreed. “People here are so knowledgeable and well informed. It was amazing to me, and I feel honored (to work with them).
The experience and knowledge of the Master Gardeners impressed Pauline Tasler, who also has been a Master Gardener for three years. “They are great people who come with a wealth of knowledge,” Tasler said. “For instance, one (of the Master Gardeners who had been there for many years) took notes over the years about what kind of calls come in at different times of the year and then shared that information with us.” She noted that at different times of the year, there would be different problems, so knowing what kind of questions will be asked, the volunteers could study up on that area.
Tasler, who moved to Manatee County seven years ago from Kansas City, said she became a Master Gardener because of the people. “I like gardening, and people who garden are wonderful folks; I wanted to be part of that,” she said. “I read about a new class starting in the newspaper and wanted to take it.”
Burnett said she became a Master Gardener at the urging of another volunteer. “A neighbor had been a Master Gardener for many years — more than 20 — and he had been after me for many years because I love flowers and gardens,” she said. “Since I’ve been a Master Gardener, it’s been a very good experience.”
The 14-week training course is very intensive, and Tasler said she worried at first. “You have to know the common and scientific names of 200 different plants. But if you take your time, you can learn them. I put pictures of all the plants with their two names all over the house. If you do things in small steps, you can do a lot,” she explained.
Becoming a Master Gardener has been a great experience for both Tasler and Burnett. “We probably became Master Gardeners because we like to play in the dirt,” said Burnett, who has lived in Manatee County for 25 years, having moved here from Kansas by way of Michigan.
Both women said meeting and helping people was also very rewarding. “One of the big problems is that a lot of people don’t know we are here,” Burnett said. “You can come in with your problem, or we’ll go out into the community.”
This is how the Master Gardener outreach programs help.Vinson said the volunteers can be found providing advice in the mobile Plant Clinic at the Bradenton Farmers’ Market, giving tours of the Educational Garden to community groups, passing out informational material at the Manatee County Fair, and offering their services at other outreach activities. “We get numerous requests from the community for presentations at garden clubs and resident associations,” Vinson said. “And schools would ask us to do presentation at their events.”
Master Gardeners also help with the Extension Service’s Florida Friendly Landscape program, which provides property owners with suggestions on appropriate plants, water efficiency, fertilizers, pest control, and other aspects of a landscape that are compatable with the Florida environment. “The landscape assistance program is an intensive one-on-one opportunity for residents to discuss specific landscape issues and receive recommendations,” Vinson said.
Another important service of the Master Gardeners is maintaining the garden area behind the Extension Service offices and giving educational presentations in the garden. “The Educational Garden is really a demonstration garden for the public,” said Kathy Oliver, a program assistant and resident horticulturist at the Extension Service. “Visitors learn what to plant in Florida and when to plant different kinds of vegetables,” said Oliver, who oversees the work in the garden.
She explained that part of the garden was developed as a Children’s Garden about two years ago, and about 100 school children a year have visited. The Children’s Garden provides educational opportunities with a sensory garden that gives students a chance to feel the various plants, an A-to-Z garden where plants with animal names, such as the Ant Plant, the Butterfly Vine or the Cat’s Whiskers, line a pathway and a bromeliad maze.
All of the Master Gardener services and activities are free to the public.
To raise funds to supplement the volunteers’ work, the Master Gardeners spend the year propagating and growing plants for their annual plant sale. This year’s sale will be on Saturday, Oct. 5, in the Educational Garden at the Manatee County Fairgrounds.
To learn more about the Manatee County Extension Service and Master Gardeners check out the website at sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/manatee/lawn–garden/master-gardener-volunteer-program/ or call 941-722-4524.