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Master Gardener programs up and running for spring 2011

The recent blasts of Arctic weather may have set back the hands-on gardening plans for many New Mexicans, but classes in the Master Gardener program will be on track in the 10 New Mexico counties offering spring 2011 classes.



Master Gardeners in Sandoval County harvest green beans in July 2010 for the "Seed2Need" Food Pantry Garden in Corrales. The statewide Master Gardener program is coordinated through the New Mexico State University Extension Plant Sciences Department in cooperation with county Extension agents. (Courtesy photo.)

The statewide program is coordinated through the New Mexico State University Extension Plant Sciences Department in cooperation with county Extension agents who organize the specific county programs.

"The New Mexico Master Gardener program is an outstanding example of a truly collaborative effort designed to meet the needs of our clientele," said Natalie Goldberg, EPS department head. "County agents and state specialists work with dedicated Master Gardeners to make sure that expert gardening advice is available to anyone seeking assistance."

The Master Gardener program originated in Seattle in 1973 to help meet the burgeoning demand on the Extension office there for gardening information. The idea was that if you teach the fundamentals and regional twists of gardening to a core group of interested and committed individuals, they can teach others, thus expanding the knowledge base beyond the limited capacity of the Extension office specialists.

According to the national Master Gardener website, "Today's Master Gardener volunteers continue to join Extension educators in sharing their knowledge of and enthusiasm for gardening to meet crucial needs within their state and their local communities." Their approach emphasizes science-based knowledge, sustainable and environmentally friendly approaches to gardening, gardening as a healthy activity and gardening aesthetics, among others.

The New Mexico program sprouted up in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 1981. Thirty years later they, as well as Chaves, Colfax, Eddy, Lea, Los Alamos, San Juan, Sandoval and Valencia counties, are offering the basic Master Gardener program this spring. (Doņa Ana and Otero counties offer fall classes and there are additional counties that offer courses only in alternate years.)

Certification as a Master Gardener involves a combination of classroom learning and volunteer work. Maintaining the status requires continuing education activities of various sorts, frequently including some class attendance in future years' programs. For veterans of last year's first-time program in Colfax County, this involves tapping into Valencia County's 12-week program via the Web, according to Kyle Tator, Valencia County Extension agriculture agent.

The curriculum varies somewhat from county to county in New Mexico, and also varies state to state, but all programs for Master Gardener interns include more than a dozen core topics related to gardening, including basic plant science, plant varieties, soil and water, pest management and pesticide safety. Classes are typically taught by a combination of NMSU faculty, local plant industry experts and current Master Gardeners. In addition to the class content, NMSU Extension maintains the Master Gardener Manual as a reference work for participants.

Graduates of the program sometimes establish Master Gardener clubs in their communities that support the enterprise in a variety of ways.

Cheryl Kent, Bernalillo County horticulture agent, reports that she and the Albuquerque Area Extension Master Gardeners club have organized a two-tiered set of classes for this semester, with Tuesday morning classes designed to meet the basic needs of interns and a dozen afternoon special topic classes designed more for the veterans. Kent said the topics include beekeeping, water harvesting, tomato gardening, pruning and New Mexico water resources. She is especially excited about a new class on grafting. "We will actually have rootstock and scion wood and a grafting expert," she said. "We will get to do some hands-on grafting and if any of it takes, the Master Gardeners will sell the fruit trees in the annual fall plant sale."

The Master Gardener program attracts people from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience. Pam Johnson was a rancher near Chaco Canyon in the northwestern part of the state who felt she was pretty knowledgeable about gardening. She and her husband moved to Roswell in 2007 and proceeded to plant all sorts of trees and garden plants. After many of her efforts failed, she signed up for the 2009 Master Gardener program in Chaves County.

"The program was absolutely fabulous in teaching us about gardening in our area," Johnson said. Among the many things she learned were how to deal with the more alkaline soil and hotter summers of her new environment and that she needed to seek out later-blooming, self-pollinating fruit trees. Today she has productive fruit trees along with some of the original ones that "just look pretty in the spring." She also raises a variety of berries and vegetables and is passionate about her herbs. She sells dill at the local farmers market.

Johnson attended the program again in 2010 and is involved in the 2011 version, learning more each time. According to Sandra Key Barraza, Chaves County Extension agriculture agent and coordinator of the program, Johnson has been invaluable in assisting with this year's program on a weekly basis.

The demand for the Master Gardener program has expanded greatly over recent years. In Sandoval County, where the program has received national attention, their current class is full, there are 131 active Master Gardeners and they have a waiting list for next year's program.

Steve Lucero is the local Extension agriculture and 4-H agent. "The Sandoval County Master Gardener program has been rated as one of the best in the country, receiving the 2009 Master Gardener International Search for Excellence Award, and was featured on the national syndicated television show Home and Gardens HGTV," he said.

Sandoval County has a very active Master Gardener club that has developed exciting and innovative approaches to local problems. "One Master Gardener, Penny Davis has spearheaded an effort named the 'Seed2Need' Food Pantry Garden in Corrales," Lucero said. "They produced over 30,000 pounds of produce, including tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, bell peppers, green chile and melons for the food pantries of the county which fed over 1,000 homeless families."

For help with your gardening issues or to inquire about the availability of the Master Gardener program in your area, call your county Extension office or visit the NMSU Master Gardener website at http://aces.nmsu.edu/ces/mastergardeners/index.html