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Extension teamwork cultivates new Master Gardeners

Throughout its 100-year history, Cooperative Extension experts are probably best known to the public for their tradition of outreach in rural communities –  sharing university-based knowledge with local farmers, helping them to grow and prepare healthy crops for families and markets. But beyond soybeans, corn, and watermelons – Extension experts are busy cultivating a valuable commodity – specialized volunteers who will further Extension’s outreach into the community.

Dot Abbott, UD Extension agent in renewable resources and wildlife discusses the importance of providing food, water and shelter in the landscape to encourage wildlife
Dot Abbott, UD Extension agent in renewable resources,  discusses the importance of providing food, water and shelter in the landscape for wildlife.

One such group of adult volunteers are Delaware Master Gardeners who after their training is complete, commit to serving a cminimum of 30-40 hours each year in their community. Extension’s investment in this human talent has been well worth the investment. In 2012, Delaware Master Gardeners volunteers provided a total of 18,805 professional hours throughout their local communities, rendering a savings benefit of $352,969.85 to the First State.

Master Gardeners listening to instructor
UD Fruit and Vegetable Specialist Gordon Johnson teaches several Master Gardener sessions. Here, he reviews best practices with vegetable gardening.

This fall, a new class of Master Gardeners from Kent and Sussex counties began 12 weeks of training delivered by Extension experts from Delaware Cooperative Extension’s two land-grant universities – the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. Kent and Sussex are trained together every odd year,  a partnership that has lasted for 18 sessions.  A similar training is conducted in New Castle County on even years.

Alternating at Extension classrooms in Georgetown and Dover, this new crop of Master Gardeners met twice a week. The training ended on November 20.  Upon completion of their coursework, 24 new Master Gardeners absorbed a diverse range of Extension knowledge specifically targeted to meet the residential horticulture needs of Delawareans.

With these 84 hours of instruction behind them, Master Gardeners have a solid foundation on such topics as botany, plant identification, soil and plant nutrients, home landscaping, vegetable gardening, insect identification, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), plant propagation, pesticide safety, backyard composting, turf management, weed control, herbs and herbaceous perennials, fruit production, diagnosing plant problems & diseases, backyard habitats, small animal pests, sustainable landscaping and enhanced presentation skills.

Megan Pleasanton, DSU and Tracy Wootten, UD are partners in planning the Master Gardener training curriculum.

Developing meaningful curriculum for the students is coordinated by Tracy Wootten, UD Extension agent in commercial horticulture and her partner at DSU, Megan Pleasanton who is the interim Master Gardener coordinator.  Pleasanton follows Maggie Moor-Orth who retired earlier in 2013.  Wootten also teaches three of the sessions and with Pleasanton review the curriculum, factor in trending topics or particular concerns that have arisen in the Delaware landscape, and adapt their program accordingly.

They drew heavily from their Extension colleagues’ diverse talent pool. Joining Wootten as UD educators were Dot Abbott, Sue Barton, Nancy Gregory, Gordon Johnson, Brian Kunkel, Carrie Murphy and Caroline Romeo. DSU educators were Rose Oguto, Susan Yost, Maggie Moor-Orth and Arthur Tucker.

Master Gardeners listen to a Sustainable Landscape lecture via technology.  Barton usually teaches in person, but the distance technology is occasionally used when convenient or a conflict in a schedule. A live Q & A session is incorporated with distance learning
Master Gardeners listen to a sustainable landscape lecture via technology. Barton usually teaches in person, but the distance technology is occasionally used. A live Q & A session is incorporated with distance learning.

Sue Barton, UD Extension specialist and professor at the Department of Plant and Soil Science has taught at 27 Master Gardener classes in all three counties. Barton adapts her lesson plan and varies her lectures depending on topics she feels are important to emphasize. “I have added more sustainable practices, like reducing lawn space to my turf lecture,” Barton said. Barton travels to each county to give her lectures, but her last session was via Adobe Connect, a technology which allowed her to remain in Newark and teach live to students in Georgetown.

“Master Gardeners asked great questions throughout the presentation, ” Barton said.  Barton uses photographic examples and also brings samples, such as the five major types of turfgrass, and challenges trainees to make identifications.

Nancy Gregory, UD plant diagnostician, reviewed plant diseases and prepared the class for diagnosing plant problems for garden helplines and gardening questions from the public. “This was my second time doing Master Gardener training, ” Gregory said. “I did New Castle County in May and Kent-Sussex in October. Teaching has given me an opportunity to get to know the people who are the first line of responders to plant health issues and samples.”

Anita Smith, a Master Gardener who relocated to Delaware from Virgina, asked if she could repeat her training. Smith wanted to brush up on issues that might be unique to the First State. “I am really glad I retook the training,” Smith said. “This is a really good review and I learned a lot.” In particular, Smith found pest control and identification from Brian Kunkel very helpful. “You can never get enough information.”

Brian Kunkel, UD ornamentals IPM Extension specialist taught two of the sessions. “Master Gardeners are very eager to learn new things.  They have wide-ranging interests and that led to very good questions.” Kunkel said.

Susan Yost, has taught in 15 sessions in her career at DSU with her lectures often concentrating on plant, twig and wildflower identification, and  field trips to the Charles E. Phillips Herbarium on the Dover campus. Yost leads trainees into the campus’s woods where “hand lenses allow us to appreciate the beautiful details of ordinary weed flowers,”  Yost said. “It is a good learning experience and fun to work with living plants in their natural setting. “The Master Gardeners were always wonderful – interested  in learning, engaged and enthusiastic.”

Students at computers while instructor talks
Caroline Romeo, 4-H agent, shares her knowledge of creating effective PowerPoint presentions with the Master Gardener class.
Classroom inside a greenhouse
Rose Ogutu, horticulture specialist at DSU, provides hands-on instruction on plant propagation.

New Master Gardeners Curtis Coleman and Karla Boulter, both of Dover, agree. As they near the end of their initial training, both feel empowered by the education they have received. “It’s a really good foundation on nature that will help us help other people,” Coleman reflected. Master Gardeners also learn technological skills that will help them present in workshops and to community groups. While Coleman prefers the in-person lectures, he remains open-minded to the possibilities offered by distance learning. “It is another tool. Any way we can get it into the 21st century – helps us to keep up – it’s great!”

Boulter is looking forward to teaching her own workshops. Master Gardeners may complete their volunteer requirements in a number of ways – answering hotlines, tending to demonstration gardens, serving on planning committees or teaching their own gardening workshops in the community.  Boulter has been inspired by the Sustainable Landscape initiative which advocates using native plants and encourages biodiversity through more natural arrangements in the landscape. “My head is crammed full of information,” Boulter said. “It’s been a real ‘aha’ feeling!”

Master Gardener trainees confirm what Wootten already knows. “My colleagues’ level of expertise and instruction are outstanding,” Wootten said. “Delaware Cooperative Extension is fortunate to have so many professionals who are accessible and eager to help improve Extension’s outreach.”I enjoy Master Gardener training  because it emphasizes the long tradition of great teamwork we have at Delaware Cooperative Extension.”

Article by Michele Walfred

Photos by  Michele Walfred and Tracy Wootten