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Master gardener volunteers: An invaluable community resource

As summer winds down, it’s always a great time to assess your gardens to see how they’ve fared during the past several months. Some of the new plants may not have thrived in certain locations. Maybe they needed more sun or shade. Have some of them run shoots in another direction trying to reach what they needed?

There’s something quite beautiful in getting to know your plants … no, really, I’m talking about really getting to know them by understanding their needs and what truly makes them flourish. Let’s take a seed for example. Most must wait at least a year before sprouting.

Then some perfect trigger causes it to take a chance at living out its destiny. Some can wait hundreds of years. For a gardener, what a seed is waiting for—that perfect combination of something, sunshine, temperature, moisture—makes it that much more interesting for us as we coax it into life and help it thrive.

If you have some time on your hands and you love to garden and help others, the NC State Extension Master Gardenersm program (EMG) may be a perfect fit.

In North Carolina, the EMG is part of the NC Extension Service, which provides education and research for advancements in the areas of agriculture and food, and health and nutrition. The NC Extension Service also is responsible for 4-H Youth Development programs.

The Buncombe County Extension Master Gardener sm volunteers are part of a vast national Cooperative Extension system designed to put research-based knowledge and horticulture practices into the hands of individuals, families and communities. The information is generated at NC State University, NC Agricultural and Technical State University and other land-grant colleges.

If you’re a certified Master Gardener volunteer, you may have your own lawn, trees and garden, but you also promote community horticulture practices by volunteering your time in community and demo gardens, responding to inquiries through gardening helplines, and presenting classes and workshops.

You may also work with community youth organizations and participate in plant sales or clinics, garden tours, or speaker’s bureaus. There are many volunteer opportunities and ways to support, teach and encourage your community gardeners.

A visit to an Asheville Learning Garden where Master Gardener volunteers use sustainable agricultural practices is a poignant reminder of the important connections between community gardens and the local food security network. Providing horticulture advice and expertise promotes healthier food and communities and helps provide a sustainable, safe and nutritious food supply as well as protecting and preserving the landscape where that food is produced.

The Learning Garden features several gardens growing herbs, vegetables, flowers and native plants geared toward supporting pollinators. According to Master Gardener volunteer, Marilyn Lonon, the gardens are educational and provide opportunities for demonstrations for those in the community interested in learning more about plants and nature.

In Asheville, the demo gardens are located at the County Extension Office in West Asheville at 49 Mount Carmel Road. According to Marilyn, the gardens have been slower to grow this year due to the spring cold weather.

She points out an interesting raised bed where squash and corn are growing symbiotically—the squash vines growing up the corn stalks as if they were poles—are fascinating. This type of “companion planting” is called a Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans, squash), which doesn’t negatively impact the corn, and the squash is lifted from the ground and provided with better access to the sun.

This summer marks the first year for their rose garden. They are featuring easy care, disease resistance varieties, and will be happy to provide information that can assist gardeners with planting or caring for their own roses.

Similar to the US Department of Agriculture’s ‘People’s Garden,’ Master Gardener volunteers can help individuals of all abilities plant, grow and harvest a garden. According to Bill Hoffman, from the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, Master Gardener volunteers “bring to bear the science base of the land-grant university system in service to their communities, through the training and certification they receive as well as the research-based answers they provide.”

A Little History

The program began in 1972 when Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension realized a need for urban horticulture and gardening advice. In 1973, the university officially established the EMG and a curriculum was created and training began. From there, the program quickly spread to other US states and Canadian provinces.

In 1979, Wake County NC began a training program for Master Gardener volunteers and it has grown throughout NC ever since.

While it’s a commitment, the rewards are many. Master Gardener volunteers not only cultivate plants, but also environmental stewardship. They provide programs on water conservation, water quality preservation, composting and management of earth friendly lawns.

Through the Garden Helpline, Master Gardener volunteers provide unbiased, research-based answers to gardening and landscaping questions, guiding you toward environmentally responsible decisions to manage your yards and gardens. They are environmentalists focused on renewal and beautification.

Certification Program Requirements

To become a Master Gardener volunteer, individuals must complete a rigorous training program presented by the North Carolina Extension Service, under the guidance of County Extension Horticulture agents. This is a 12-week course, with classes once a week for a total of 40 hours.

Once the training program has been completed and an examination passed, Master Gardener interns must provide 40 hours of volunteer service to the Agricultural Extension programs and their community to become certified. Training sessions are held every year during the winter months, based on need.

Once certified, volunteer service is imperative. Alison Arnold, Agriculture Extension Agent says there are many opportunities for Master Gardener volunteers to support the community. Their community outreach programs focus on limited access populations. They teach, advise and consult on such gardening issues as site locations, building raised beds, how to get a garden started and how to maintain them.

According to Alison, they work with senior centers, low-income housing communities, new residents, churches and veterans groups. They have a garden club at the VA Center where they assist veterans with hands on gardening activities and help with garden maintenance.

There is also a school grants program that provides start up funds that is associated with Asheville city and Buncombe County schools and some charters. Alison points out that the seed money helps get gardens started, with Master Gardener volunteers advising on various aspects of the process, including staging expansions for existing gardens, where to plant and what to grow. In some schools, Master Gardener volunteers work directly with school garden coordinators. These curriculum-based gardens are used as teaching tools for a variety of topics such as math, botany and other sciences.

Outside of the school program, the EMG also has a youth program. This summer, they completed a downtown camp at the Wesley Grant Senior Southside Center, in cooperation with Parks & Recreation. Alison says they’ve also partnered with 4-H groups and work with teens to tots.

After certification, NC Master Gardener volunteers must complete at least 15 hours of continuing education through the local Extension office and provide 30 hours of volunteer service to the program annually to maintain their certification.

Educational hours and service to the community is required for each year’s re-certification. Master Gardener volunteers keep track of their certification requirements through an online program.

There are approximately 95 active, certified Master Gardener volunteers in Buncombe County and many more throughout North Carolina.

In deciding whether the EMG is right for you, ask yourself these questions: Am I interested in learning more about growing different types of plants? Am I eager to participate in a practical and intense training program?

Do I look forward to sharing my knowledge with others in my community? Do I have enough time to attend training sessions and to serve as a volunteer?

If you answered yes to these questions, the EMG could be right for you.

If you don’t have the desire or time to become a certified Master Gardener volunteer, you can attend events and classes put on by the program and the Extension office.

You can also take advantage of the Garden Helpline—in Asheville (828) 255-5522—to ask your lawn or gardening questions. Master Gardener volunteers staff the helpline during the growing season—March through September—Mondays through Thursdays from 10a to 2p.

You can call, or go directly to the Extension office. After gardening season, Alison will be available to answer your questions. The Extension office hours are Monday through Friday, 8a to 5p.

The Buncombe County Master Gardener volunteer website ( provides access to many different resources. You can search for information about gardening or specific plants. The website also provides links to blog posts about such topics as Gardening in Small Spaces, Pesticide Use, Plant Propagation, Pruning and Soil Testing.

Check out the Events section to find out about upcoming demonstrations.

You can find Master Gardener volunteers at the Asheville City Market and the North Asheville Tailgate Market on alternate weekends. Check the events calendar for specific days. Also in August at the WNC Farmers Market, Master Gardener volunteers will be presenting information about the various composting methodologies.

Native plants are critical for many environmental reasons. As part of their ongoing Gardening in the Mountains series, on Thursday, August 16, from 10a to 12p, the Carolina Native Plant Nursery will present a discussion of Native Plants in Your Garden. This event will take place at the Extension office, and while the talk is free, registration is requested by calling (828) 255-5522.

The website also provides you with information about native plants and why it’s so important to pollinators and wildlife to create native plant gardens. There are many benefits for selecting native plants for your own gardens and landscaping.

Once established, natives generally require little maintenance. Native plants produce an abundance of beautiful flowers, colorful fruits and seeds, and brilliant and vibrant seasonal changes in colors.

There is less of a need for artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, which are harmful to wildlife as well as people. Native plants can help combat climate change, as many are effective at storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Because native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, they require far less water.

They provide vital habitat for birds and other species and nectar for our important pollinators including hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, moths and bats. Essential food and protective shelter is made available for all forms of beneficial wildlife.

As you look forward to autumn, you may be considering what plants you’d like to see come spring. Master Gardener volunteers are an invaluable resource as you decide what you might be able to plant now or what should be held off until after winter.

For NC contact information for your EMG agent, access and follow the links to your specific county.

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