This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Arkansas Master Gardener program, a program of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. What began with a 30-member class from four counties in 1988 has grown to over 3,400 volunteers in 67 counties in Arkansas. As horticulturally trained volunteers, Master Gardeners extend research-based information through demonstration and educational programs, strengthening communities and families throughout Arkansas.
Master Gardeners’ handiwork is visible across the state, from beautification projects to demonstration gardens in schools and nursing homes, farmers’ market projects, educational seminars, annual plant sales and much more.
The first step in becoming an Arkansas Master Gardener is to contact your local county extension office and register. Master Gardener training is standardized across the state, with 40 hours of horticulture information covering such topics as trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials, botany, vegetables, fruit production, lawns, insects, diseases and more. Today there are multiple training opportunities. Some counties continue to offer face-to-face trainings, but some offer video conference training in the fall and/or online training opportunities in the winter. Regardless of how training is conducted, the Master Gardener program is a local county program, with applications taken and accepted at the county level. Most counties do an interview to make sure potential volunteers know what to expect. Expectations for becoming a Master Gardener include completion of a 40-hour training program, passing a final exam (it is open book) and paying back 40 hours of volunteer service to your county. Once accepted into the program, fees will apply. Costs vary.
Once a volunteer becomes a Master Gardener, the individual volunteer can choose how long they want to stay active. The first year each volunteer must pay back 40 hours of service, working in sanctioned county projects, which include beautification projects, county extension office duties, youth projects, producing newsletters, conducting seminars, helping with plant sales and more. Each volunteer must also accrue 20 additional education hours in the course of that year. Educational opportunities are readily accessible. Most counties hold monthly meetings with educational programs. In addition, statewide gardening events abound, from public seminars to garden shows and garden tours. Master Gardeners are the main volunteer force behind the Arkansas Flower & Garden Show in Little Rock, the River Valley Lawn and Garden Show in Fort Smith, and the Pine Bluff Lawn and Garden Show, where volunteers can get work and education hours.
After year one, for each additional year the volunteer wants to stay active, they must pay back 20 hours of volunteer service, and add an additional 20 hours of education. In 2017, 3,400 volunteer members reported 170,301 service hours and 94,767 education hours. While maintaining membership is a personal choice, many volunteers have accrued lifetime status with 15 years of service, and some have 29-30 years of membership.
Although the program is standardized across our state, each county conducts its programs and projects to meet its needs. Monthly meetings are held in most counties, but day of the week and time varies by county. County newsletters go out to inform volunteers of educational opportunities and to keep them connected. We also have a statewide network where we share information about events, so Master Gardeners are informed of all the educational opportunities available. A yearly Master Gardener calendar is produced, with all photos taken in Arkansas by state Master Gardeners. Gardening tips and dates of gardening events are included in the calendar. Copies are available for $1 plus shipping.
Each year 500-600 Master Gardeners from across the state attend the annual state Master Gardener Conference. The conference location rotates across the state to let people visit other areas and learn more about our state in the course of learning more about gardening. At each conference there are keynote speakers, seminars, garden tours, and an art and garden fair. The 2019 event will be in Hope; the 2020 conference will be in Jonesboro. Local counties help organize and conduct these events, which build leadership and gardening skills.
Master Gardeners are trying to teach the next generation about gardening, while encouraging healthful eating habits. They go into the classroom to teach a gardening segments, conduct children’s gardening activities at public events and farmers’ markets and work with kids on raised-bed garden projects. On the opposite spectrum, there are numerous nursing home and plant therapy projects working with our older population.
Many counties also hold annual public plant sales, featuring plants they raised that grow well in the county. Some do weekly propagation sessions, where they go to gardens and divide plants, take cuttings and harvest seeds. Some counties are fortunate to have a greenhouse where they can grow even more plants.
The Arkansas Master Gardener program is one of the strongest volunteer programs in Arkansas. People of all ages and backgrounds, both men and women, come together with one thing in common — a love of gardening. This connection quickly unites them into a force to be reckoned with — and the results are pretty amazing.
Janet B. Carson is an extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.