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Master gardner

OSU Extension Master Gardener Larry Steele teaches a composting class as part of his volunteer payback hours.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – You get as good as you give when you become an Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener.

At a farmers market, Ginger Edwards, a Master Gardener since 2014, met a homeless man, who told her, “I really want to garden, but I can’t imagine how I could do that.”

So, Edwards brainstormed with him about what he wanted to grow and eventually settled on herbs. They worked out that he could use a 28-ounce soup can with holes punched in the bottom and sides and a piece of string pulled through to hang on his rearview mirror. He already had canned food, so all he needed was seeds and soil. 

“It really empowered him, and that made me feel like I made a difference,” said Edwards, who volunteers in the Portland Metro area. “It was a great experience.”

To have similarly inspiring experiences, think about becoming a Master Gardener yourself. In most counties, registration is still open. Get on the ball, though, because enrollment in the program, which starts in January or February, is due soon. Trainees spend at least? 40 hours – more typically 60 to 70 – in weekly classes. Following the course, new Master Gardeners must volunteer the same number of hours during the next year, less in following years. Recertification is required annually. Prices, days and times vary by county. Contact your local county Extension office to find out specifics in your area.

Dennis Brown, an Oregon Master Gardener for two years following a six-year stint in California, enjoys the camaraderie with fellow MGs and the people he meets during his many activities in the Portland area, including being the person behind the table at farmers market plant clinics where people can get help with their gardening questions.

“I also volunteer at the Oregon Zoo Education Center,” he said. “It’s a great venue for getting information out to the public. We engage kids in activities and while they’re busy, we talk to their parents about gardening and pest management. It’s a lot of fun.”

Demonstration gardens and educational booths at farmers markets and other events are just a few of the volunteer activities available to Master Gardeners. Active members staff phones to answer thousands of questions a year and lead workshops throughout the state, including for children. More than 3,000 Master Gardeners volunteered nearly 145,000 hours last year.

Brown, who has degrees in biology and horticulture, was an engineering and environmental consultant working on various water quality issues and hazardous waste site cleanup and is interested in passing along information about pollution prevention. He enjoys using his experience to educate people about sustainable gardening that reduces the impact on waterways and the environment. 

Edwards became a Master Gardener out of curiosity. She’s been a gardener from childhood when she took on the chore of weeding. Since then, she’s become an avid gardener.

“Before I became a Master Gardener, I would walk around the neighborhood and think, ‘How did they do that?” said Edwards, who does her volunteer work in the Portland Metro area. “Finally, I had the time to satisfy my lifelong curiosity about the environment and gardening. And I get to empower others that they can garden successfully, too.”

The science-backed information taught by OSU Extension faculty and guests connected the dots for Edwards in a way that made sense to a layperson. As time went by, she said, “I found my tribe; other people who looked at the environment and gardening in the same way.”

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“For me, it’s working in the environment to do no harm, to improve and continue to improve to support the environment so it supports me,” she said. “I have a deeper understanding now.”

For both Edwards and Brown, the education they received was key to becoming a Master Gardener. Though both knew quite a bit about gardening beforehand, they appreciate the additional information their training gave them.

Edwards said she learned a lot about entomology and uses that knowledge to educate kids at the King Farmers Market in Portland. She hands out coloring pages with line drawings and text that she made. If they come back with it colored in, they get a button that says, “I love bugs.”

“It draws people to the booth,” she said. “When we engage kids, we engage adults. We tell them that these crawly things are great and we should do things to conserve them.”

As part of the bug coloring, Edwards invites folks to go look for the large ground beetles at night with a flashlight. They suggest parents also take out a small container with soapy water to drop in any destructive, non-native slugs and cutworms they might also see.

“When I talk to people who are curious, it’s an opportunity to keep them – and yourself – curious and take it to the next level,” Edwards said.

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