By Leslie Cerf

If you love to garden, consider becoming a Master Gardener.

Are you the kind of person who loves gardening? Do you wish you could have the chance to expand your knowledge while meeting and spending time with your fellow gardeners? Then you should consider becoming a Master Gardener. Penn State, like many other State Universities with agricultural programs, offers a Master Gardening training program.

Dr. David Gibby created the idea with a co-worker in Seattle, Washington in 1972 when, as county agents, they were overwhelmed with so many backyard gardening questions and–Eureka!–the idea of recruiting talented volunteers came about. Now, most master gardener training programs have evolved into multi-faceted endeavors. Simply put, with master gardening, there is a lot of ground to cover!

Almost every county in Pennsylvania has a Master Gardener office. The combination of institutional education and research activities coupled with passionate gardeners’ energy and experience has led to a very successful volunteer training program. Through this organization, gardeners can earn a certified master gardener title and join a mission of assisting the public using their treasure trove of gardening insights and university resources.

I decided to become a master gardener after I rediscovered my childhood love of playing in the dirt in a Woodward rental on Gate Lane in Mt. Airy. It was then that I realized I wanted to become a better gardener. Also, I seriously wanted to learn how to plant the right plant in the right place, and to keep the investments alive. Like many of you, I get a thrill from growing my own herbs for culinary or holistic purposes, and find great pleasure from turning a bald spot in the yard into a flower bed or green space for the family and wildlife’s enrichment. My parents–also avid gardeners–nurtured some of these instincts but, hungry for more, I began to volunteer at Awbury Arboretum, and my love of learning about horticulture grew exponentially from there. Soon thereafter, I enrolled in the Penn State Extension Master Gardening program.

I attended my classes at the Penn State University Extension offices at 6 Sansom St. in Center City. Class consisted of a weekly three-hour session led by a master gardener coordinator. Our class was attended by 50 fellow gardeners from all walks of life and with diverse gardening backgrounds and interests. The coursework encompassed a broad array of gardening and horticultural topics. My favorite part consisted of classmates giving brief presentations on their favorite topics including hydroponics, flower arranging, urban farming, growing plants from seed and more. Another key part of the training involved completing 50 hours of gardening-related volunteer activities.

The master gardener coordinators have a deep knowledge of available volunteer projects in our area. Finally, one more course requirement consists of completing eight hours of continuing education outside of class.

Besides the formal coursework and other requirements and activities, the MG program offers students an excellent online resource in the form of its digital portal. Here, users can access a diverse array of information about research projects and other gardening topics. There is an event calendar listing various activities like the Phila County MG Plant Sale preparations, speakers bureau, and the platform facilitates communication with all the other master gardeners and trainees.

Applying to become a master gardener is easy–the application/course fee is about $125 and the one-year program culminates in a final open book exam and presentation requirement. Following the graduation ceremony, you will receive regular updates about ongoing master gardener activities, coursework opportunities and relevant local and national conferences.

Being a certified master gardener requires an ongoing commitment to learning and service each year, and this includes a minimum of 20 hours of volunteer time and ten hours of continuing education annually in order to maintain your master gardener title. The title cannot be used for personal commercial purposes.

I continue in my role as a master gardener primarily by taking care of a pollinator habitat with other volunteers at Awbury Arboretum’s Agricultural Village. But I also do lots of other fun things from volunteering at the PA Farm Show, teaching school children about the danger of pesticides through use of Penn State’s educational character, Mr. Yuck!, to the construction of a bentwood fence for native honeysuckle and passion flower vines. I also enjoy being a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Tree Tender, planting trees throughout Philadelphia to improve the tree canopy for the benefit of all.

Good luck with following your gardening dreams! May they grow and flower for a lifetime!

The multi-talented Leslie Cerf is not only a master gardener, but a trained chef and an advertising sales representative for the Chestnut Hill Local. She can be reached at leslie@chestnuthilllocal.com or 215-248-8816.

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