Master Gardeners – once scary, now a necessity

Way back when, in a previous Extension lifetime, I worked in Palm Beach County, Fla. For those of you unfamiliar with Florida geography, Palm Beach County lies on the east coast of the state, just north of Miami (Dade County) and Fort Lauderdale (Broward County).

If one were to travel there in the winter months, one may think that they were in southern New York or New Jersey, as it seems like half the population migrated south once the temperatures reached freezing in the northern hinterland.

As these snowbirds use their genetically encrypted sense of direction (or Interstate 95) to flock to places like Boynton Beach and Boca Raton, they also seemed to bring along their knowledge of plants and growing environments.

Don’t get me wrong – many of them knew their horticulture. They were skilled in all genera of plants, and the Master Gardeners in the county were more than happy to teach me the right way to grow a perfect “Jersey tomato” or “New York corn.” Science be damned, they were right. It didn’t matter if it was the type of fertilizer, plant-hardiness, organic-approved or even the best time to plant that precious Jersey tomato; I (and my youthfulness – or ignorance) was unequivocally wrong.

So in all honesty, Master Gardeners scared me. In fact, when I was applying for the job I currently hold, the biggest red flag was the expectation that I was now in charge of the county Colorado Master Gardener program – teaching, facilitating and managing those dreaded volunteers.

Heck, in Florida I wasn’t even expected to work with the volunteers; I was just doing it as common courtesy. Now I had to manage them?

My first year coordinating the program here was 2008, and the class size was 37 students, so obviously I wasn’t tempering my fright. Lo and behold, the class was amazing, and many of those students are still active today. In fact, some of our volunteers are going on 10 years of service!

Currently, La Plata County Extension is taking applications for the 2013 class, and as a heads-up, I plan on taking only 25 students (give or take a few). For those of you who are not familiar with the program, students will receive training in tree care, vegetables, soils, native plants, waterwise gardening, pruning and much more. The training uses on-site and distant-education experts to teach a series of 11 classes.

The series will start Jan. 31 and will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. The cost is $275 if you intend to volunteer (50 hours minimum), or $625 for a certificate without volunteer time. I would also recommend the program to those who may have taken the class before 2004. (We’ve really spruced up the joint.)

The volunteer aspect allows Extension to thrive in our community. I try to tell my students as often as I can that without their help, Extension (and other organizations and gardens) could not do half of these things we do – events, demonstrations, booths, working with young people and gardens.

So thanks to all of you volunteers and keep up the amazing work, because with your help we all will continue to grow this program.

parmenterdm@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.

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