Me & Master Gardeners

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Written Jan 9th, Saturday:  Yesterday was my first day of Master Gardener classes.  As I packed up my backpack with a notepad and highlighters, I thought how ironic that I was using this backpack again.  Five years ago, I carried it every day to classes on the UCONN campus while studying horticulture.  My next thought was, “What a great buy.”

As I carried it to my car, I took a fall which caught me by surprise.  My foot slipped on the ice beneath the morning’s fresh snow.  Then when I arrived to class, something blew onto my contact in the midst of having my first conversation with a classmate. I felt rude for having to walk away to clear out my lens in the bathroom and disappointed I couldn’t finish my chat. 

By lunch time, I spilled hot water from my coffee cup onto my hand as I pulled out the tea bag.  The water was so hot it scorched my hand, and disrupted a conversation with the next student I met. Personally, I wasn’t having a great start.  But worst of all was during class introductions, I got nervous when I spoke about myself.  “What is wrong with me?” I thought.  “I’ve spoken in front of groups before, why am I anxious now?”  I didn’t feel I represented who I was when the other students – all sixty of them – did such a wonderful job. 

The amount of students in this class was my first big surprise about the Master Gardener program, and perhaps why I felt intimidated.  When I received an email the day before about the snow cancellation policies, I noticed this huge distribution list on the email.  “This couldn’t be all the names of students for my class,” I thought.  “It must be for all counties where these courses are held all over the state.”  But I was wrong.  All names on that list were for the same location at the Tolland County Extension Center in Vernon, CT.  In fact, the class is completely full.  It is quite popular and for many reasons.

Listening to the student introductions, we discovered many interesting backgrounds.  The group included two retired doctors, a therapist, engineer, school teachers, college professor, architect, language major, landscaper, herbalist, and of course, many avid gardeners and designers like myself.  A number of students (known as Interns in this program) are recently retired or laid off from their jobs.  My favorite introduction was by a lady who said her children paid her enrollment fee as a Christmas present. She was thrilled and full of anticipation.

So of course, one may ask, and someone did ask me – why I would take this program when I already obtained my degree related to floriculture five years ago.  Well, this program has some different facets not present in the degree program.  For starters, there are clinics which provide interns valuable hands-on experience in diagnosing plant problems.  When I first graduated in 2005 from UCONN, I started working at a garden nursery – and that was the biggest challenge – quickly learning to id all the plant diseases and insects!  It is something that isn’t really practiced during the degree program because you learn more of the technical aspects of botany and growing, etc.  In master gardener classes, there are also topics, like Water Quality which wasn’t an area I was exposed to during my former studies.  Also, this program is very well-respected amongst the gardening community.  I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard, “She/he is a Master Gardener!” since I’ve been doing horticulture work.  It is regarded as a badge of honor, and quite frankly – one I wish to wear.  Perhaps this is the case because the training is intense, fast, and also includes an outreach component where you volunteer time to projects. 

The Master Gardener program is coordinated by UCONN and has run since 1978 – making this year number 32.  It is held in Cooperative Extension Centers throughout the state.  Extension Centers are valuable resources to homeowners, communities, and anyone that may have a question about the environment, plants, and even bugs.  In fact, as part of our Internship, we must complete 30 hours at an extension center answering questions called in by the public.  But in this situation, you are trained on where and how to find correct answers when you don’t know – or perhaps can’t remember!  And there are strict regulations to follow on many areas.

Another really cool part of being a Master Gardener Intern is you are required to participate in an outreach activity.  This is a commitment that many would find rewarding, and I personally can’t wait to see the choices or create one of my own projects! And, interns must perform 60 hours of volunteer time, pass the final exam, do a plant identification project and write an essay.  All after completing 16 weeks of class (one full day a week; fortunately – not every day!).

Our first day kicked off with a lecture Water Quality.  The instructor started with a comment stating that ‘less than 1% of our earth’s water is available for our use’.  Water use is affected by homeowner activity on many levels.  Excess from lawn fertilizers, car washing, roof runoff, driveway pollutants all can run off into our water sources which negatively impact the quality of our precious resources – and often we cannot fix what we damage.  The lecture covered some preventative measures and how to implement tools like rain gardens to reduce some of the common problems with runoff.  A lot is about awareness too.  Learning what you can do as a homeowner to minimize risks of polluting is not only worthwhile but critical these days.

In fact, that very evening, when I was watching television upon returning home from my first class, I quoted the instructor’s “less than 1%” stat to my husband as we heard the news cast introducing the next topic as, “Where America Stands on Water”.  Low and behold, Katie Couric of the CBS Evening News started her broadcast with stating the same exact statistic, “less than 1% of the earth’s water is usable.” And Americans are the biggest users compared to other countries.  In fact, we are kind of like water hogs on some levels – so to abuse it is really pushing the earth’s envelope!  You can find this broadcast video at www.CBSNews.com under the same date as my first class, January 8, 2010.  And if you are now intrigued as a gardener yourself, you can learn more about Master Gardeners at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

Water I walk by when I snowshoe in winters

What would we do without our rivers?

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