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Master Gardeners Get Advanced Training at Statewide Conference in Albuquerque

ALBUQUERQUE - Santa Fe master gardener Lezley Jacobson received so many questions about thrips and other bugs this year that she decided to attend an advanced course on insect identification and management during the third statewide master gardener conference in Albuquerque.

Santa Fe master gardener Lezley Jacobson examines flea beetle larvae on a twig of juniper during a class on bug identification and management. The class was one of about 20 advanced training workshops offered at the third statewide master gardener conference in Albuquerque July 26-27. (08/05/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

"There's a big onslaught of bugs because of the drought, so I'm trying to learn as much as I can to better answer questions from gardeners," Jacobson said. "The class taught me more about distinguishing between good and bag bugs and it gave me some helpful insights into what to do about some of these pests, like thrips."

The course was one of about 20 workshops offered July 26-27 during the conference, organized by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service to provide master gardeners with advanced training about water wise landscapes, tree care and grass identification. The Master Gardener program, launched by Extension in 1981, has created a volunteer corps of experienced gardeners around the state who assist county Extension agents in educating the public and answering gardening questions.

About 140 master gardeners attended at the Technical Vocational Institute's South Valley campus, the highest turnout since the annual statewide conferences began in September 2000.

"It's an opportunity to deepen their knowledge about gardening issues, and it helps keep them interested and excited in the Master Gardener Program," said conference organizer Rick Daniels, horticulture agent with the Bernalillo County Extension office.

About 350 master gardeners currently work as volunteers in 12 counties and on the Navajo Nation. Participants manage local gardening hotlines, run information booths at growers' markets and other public places, give gardening lessons and frequently make home visits to answer questions and analyze problems.

"Burgeoning public interest and demands in gardening exceed the capacity of Extension's staff and resources, so we developed this program to ease the workload of Extension agents," said Curtis Smith, an Extension horticulture specialist. "With trained volunteers, we can satisfy a lot more community needs in both rural and urban areas."

To become master gardeners, participants must attend 40 to 80 hours of basic gardening classes, Smith said. The Extension courses cover a core curriculum that includes plant and soil science, climate and weather, entomology, plant pathology, weed science, vegetable and flower gardening, and tree and shrub management.

Course graduates must then commit to working 40 hours or more per year as volunteers to earn the title of Master Gardener, Smith said.

Extension offers some continuing education for the volunteers through county offices, but opportunities for advanced training are limited, so the statewide conference provides a unique chance to learn new things, Smith said.

"During the conference, we try to offer workshops on issues that master gardeners have requested more training about," he said.

This year, the agenda included classes in xeriscape design and plant maintenance, water-efficient irrigation systems and landscapes, fruit trees adapted to the Southwest, healing herbs, ornamental grasses and tree care. It also included workshops on hummingbirds and bugs, which were particularly popular.

"We generally don't teach about things like hummingbirds, so this was a real treat for them," Daniels said. "That class was packed."

The conference also offers master gardeners from across the state an opportunity to share experiences and learn from one another.

"It's really beneficial to bring all these groups together," said Tom Behnfield, master gardener coordinator for Bernalillo County. "We have the oldest and strongest program, with 180 active volunteers, so we have a lot to share with the other counties. Besides, it allows us to develop friendships and camaraderie."

Participants said the workshops and general sessions were both educational and fun. They particularly praised the class on insect identification, which included a morning of collecting bugs in the field followed by an afternoon analyzing them under microscopes and magnifying glasses.

"They got to see details on real living creatures that they had caught," said Carol Sutherland, an Extension entomologist who taught the class. "That hands-on approach really drives the lessons home."

Participants caught some beneficial predator insects, including a praying mantis, a big-eyed bug and a minute pirate bug, Sutherland said.

"Those were all big hits, drawing 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from everybody," she said. "These bugs are the lions and tigers and bears in your own backyard. You don't have to go to exotic places to see exotic things."