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Masters of the Garden

Whenever I have a question about gardening I know where I can turn. My neighbor, Bob Bourke, has been a Master Gardener for about seven years. Since his 60 hours of training he has answered a lot of questions for lot of people, but he has also judged vegetables at the Youth Building at the Franklin County Fair, and built a Question Wheel for the Master Gardeners Fair booth. He’s worked for the Spring Symposium and visited many gardens as part of his ongoing training.

Master Gardeners answer questions in a whole variety of ways. They attend Farmers Markets to talk to people and do soil tests, and there are telephone and email (wmmga10@yahoo.com) hotlines. I asked Bourke if people stopped him on the street to ask questions? He said, “Yes, and we always know where to get answers when we are stumped.”

The Master Gardeners still have a strong connection to UMass and they have experts in every area who can assist.

Ellen Weeks works for the Cooperative Extension Service and began her career as a Master Gardener when the program was still a part of the Extension Service. Budget cuts in 1989 changed that.

“I really enjoyed the training. I had a degree in horticulture, but I was 12 years out of school and the course was a great refresher, plus I picked up a lot of new stuff. Our class became a cohesive group and I’ve made lasting friendships through Master Gardeners.”

Week’s day job is still with Extension, but she is sitting at a desk most of the time. “The Master Gardeners program is a good way to feed that part of my life,” she said.

Once, while she was staffing the telephone hotline a woman called to say she had a spider and she was very concerned and wanted to know how to get rid of it.  “I explained to her how to scoop it up and bring it outside. The caller then said she couldn’t do that because the spider was outside on her window. That just shows how we have to ask a lot of questions to give a useful answer.

“We do pH testing at clinics and Farmers Markets, but it is also a way to engage people who have all kinds of questions, and sometimes it takes a while to get down to the real question or situation that people are worried about,” Weeks said.

Gary Lemay, signed up for Master Gardener training two years ago when he retired from the State Police.  He had been a gardener and had learned a lot as he went along, but he had never done even a pH soil test. “If things came up that was great, if not I probably wouldn’t try that plant again. I never thought about the fact it might be the soil.”

Lemay enjoyed the 60 hour course which covers a broad range of material about botany, soils, nutrients, fertilizers, entomology and turf grasses. “A lot of people want advice about their lawns,” he said. The Master Gardeners promote best practices in the garden, lawns included, with regard to uses of pesticides and herbicides.

When he began his first 60 hours of  community service he went down to the Wisteriahurst Museum in Holyoke every Tuesday because they were renovating old gardens and putting in new beds. “It was cool!”

Lemay continues to maintain his own gardens. “We don’t have as many vegetables as we used to. I’m going more towards perennials, plants that attract butterflies and bees,” he said.  He is looking forward to continuing with the required annual 15 hours of community service in the different categories.

I often see Tish Murphy on the Bridge of Flowers. Murphy is a gardener without a garden so she gardens at a friend’s house, and is the Assistant Gardener on the Bridge.  She became a Master Gardener five years ago because she wanted to learn more and she wanted to be able to help others more with their garden questions. She does this in a big way because she is one of the chief organizers of the Spring Symposium which answers questions and provides inspiration for hundreds of gardeners every year.

The Bridge of Flowers now has docents, Master Gardeners, who have scheduled hours to answer the questions of visitors to the Bridge.

Murphy is especially interested in medicinal herbs and has interned at Goldthread Herb Farm in Conway. She is finding her way to a career, but sees that gardening in one form or another might be answer.

Many of the Master Gardeners I’ve talked to recently have said that because of the economy and concerns about food quality and the environment many people are starting vegetable gardens. New vegetable gardeners are a rich source of questions.

If you are interested in gaining new friends and new skills and bringing benefits to your community – in short, if you want to become a Master Gardener, there is still time to sign up. The application with full information and the class schedule which begins in mid-January  and runs into April is on the website, www.wmassmastergardeners.org. ###

Between the Rows   October 9, 2010

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