Since 2016, Coastside Magazine has featured monthly articles written and edited by members of the San Mateo-San Francisco chapter of the University of California Master Gardeners. But what, exactly, is a “master gardener?"? Presumably, master gardeners are really good at gardening, but what does the title really mean and where does it come from?
The short answer is this: Master gardeners are volunteers from your community who have been trained under the direction of the University of California Cooperative Extension to assist home gardeners with science-based information. But there’s more to it than that, so what follows is a bit of history, personal reflections from veteran UC master gardeners, and information about how you, too, can become one.
Roots of the Program: In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted federally owned lands to each state to use for the creation of public colleges and universities and led to the founding of the University of California in 1868. A revolutionary idea at the time, these “land grant” schools were centered around a practical curriculum of agriculture, science and engineering and made higher education widely available to people of modest means. Subsequent legislation led to the establishment of Cooperative Extension programs under the auspices of each land grant institution for the purpose of connecting farmers and growers directly with university research.
Growing with the times: In 1972, Washington State University Cooperative Extension agents, being overwhelmed with calls from home gardeners, recruited and trained a team of volunteers to help and christened them master gardeners. The University of California adopted the concept and created the UC Master Gardener program in 1980. There are now master gardener chapters in 52 counties across the state working under the auspices of the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources.
Cultivating Communities: As agents of the university, master gardeners provide people in their communities with current research-based information on everything related to home horticulture, sustainable landscape practices, pest management and more. Education and outreach is accomplished through classes and workshops, personalized trouble-shooting via the helpline and plant clinics, print and digital media, school and community gardens. These programs and services are offered at no charge and are largely self-funded by each chapter.
Making of a UC master gardener: Anyone 18 years and older who is a resident of San Mateo or San Francisco counties may apply to become a master gardener. Once accepted, applicants must complete an intensive course of training on everything related to plants including abiotic disorders, botany, bugs, composting, pruning, plant taxonomy, water management, weeds, invasive plants and more. Trainees are also required to hone their presentation and public speaking skills.
After training, First Year Master Gardeners must complete a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer service with additional requirements for continuing education in subsequent years. Many master gardeners amass hundreds and even thousands of hours while working on projects in their communities.
Who does it and why? Although people decide to join for different reasons, each person enriches the program with their own culture and skills. We asked two veteran master gardeners on why they joined and what they’ve learned.
Barbara Williams-Sheng became a master gardener while living in the hills east of San José and now resides in El Granada. She entered the program because she wanted to teach people how to grow vegetables and fruit trees.
“I was motivated by the belief that, with climate change, people would need to know how to grow more of their own food,” she said. “Being a master gardener has given me an opportunity to know and learn from people who value the natural world and who have a desire to pass on scientific knowledge.”
What has she learned that has surprised her? “I have learned just how complex and interwoven all life is!” Williams-Sheng said. “Everything above ground is connected to everything below ground.”
Williams-Sheng says the most valuable thing she has learned about gardening is worth passing along to Coastside readers?
“We are a part of nature. To be healthy ourselves, we must take care of the soil beneath our feet and the air we breathe and the water we drink,” she said. “What is good for us will probably be good for the earth, so eliminate plastics (landscape cloth/artificial turf), pesticides and herbicides.
“Rejoice at bugs, birds, and butterflies in your garden,” she said. “Feed them native plants so they are plentiful and will pollinate the foods that keep us healthy.”
Carol O’Donnell became a master gardener because of her interest in vegetables and was inspired by the research projects she discovered on UCANR master gardener websites.
“I’ve had time to form deep friendships with like-minded master gardeners, especially cherished during COVID, when we could garden together,” O’Donnell said.
And what has surprised her?
“I never thought I would go ‘No Dig’ but I have been researching it over the last year and have gotten serious about composting as a result,” she said. “Yesterday I dug into my 10-month-old compost bin and the compost is absolutely black, crumbly and sweet smelling.”
O’Donnell identified one garden-related topic that has her attention these days.
“I’m in the process of developing a fall vegetable talk on greens. So much attention is focused on growing summer vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, but the most nutritious and valuable crops are greens,” she said.
If O’Donnell had to pick a favorite plant, what would it be and why? The answer: tomato.
“They’re nutritious and delicious, but my fascination lies in the variety of different, beautiful tomato varieties,” she said. “In 2007, I led a master gardener ‘Tomato Trial’ on Kelly Avenue in Half Moon Bay to see which of 27 different varieties grew well on the coast. You guessed it — cherry and plum tomatoes.”
What is the most valuable thing O’Donnell has learned about gardening?
“Grow greens, grow cover crops, make compost!” she said.
The article was written by Maggie Mah who is currently the marketing chair for SM/SF UC Master Gardeners. The article was edited by Cynthia Nations; photos by Norine Cepernich and Cynthia Nations.
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