Becoming a Cornell Cooperative Extension-certified Master Gardener is about sowing more than just seeds. The program, launched in Washington in 1972, pairs planting prowess with philanthropy.
According to the CCE of Delaware County website, the Master Gardener program “is a national program of trained volunteers work(ing) in partnership with their county Cooperative Extension office to expand educational outreach throughout the community by providing home gardeners with research-based information.” Master Gardeners, the site says, “assist with gardening projects in the community, teach classes and workshops, plant and maintain demonstration gardens at CCE, provide information and soil pH testing at events and answer gardening questions.”
“It’s really about volunteerism,” Carla Hegeman Crim, Master Gardener and horticulture educator with CCE of Delaware County, said. “People have gained these skills over the course of a lifetime and of course they get more in the training, but they also just want to get out and share their love of gardening with their specific community.”
Trainings, the site says, are open to anyone who “enjoys people and plants.”
“Master Gardeners … usually have no professional gardening or landscaping experience,” the site says. “Trainees should have a basic knowledge of, or interest in, gardening; enthusiasm for acquiring and sharing horticultural knowledge and skills; good communications skills; and a willingness and free time to participate in volunteer educational activities.”
Master Gardener programs exist in 46 states. Delaware County’s program is one of the nation’s youngest, taking root in 2016.
“We’re pretty new to the game,” Crim said, “but we’ve been really lucky in the last couple of years and we have a lot of good people with passion who say, ‘I can make a difference.’”
Crim said she began helping to facilitate trainings in 2018 and, this year, will participate in a “true, four-county effort” between Delaware, Herkimer, Otsego and Schoharie counties. Trainings are held every other year.
Some of the classes, Crim said, will take place in Delaware County for the first time with the Sept. 21 start of a roughly 50-hour, 10-session training. Trainings cover “a broad spectrum of subjects applicable to home gardening,” ccedelaware.org says, including “plant nutrition, soils, vegetable and fruit culture, trees, shrubs and lawns, diseases and insects that affect plants, pruning and more.”
“It runs Mondays through Thanksgiving and (each session) is a full-day commitment,” Crim said. “It’s $150, but you figure that’s for 10 classes, so it’s a pretty good deal and … it’s a really nicely curated series. Everyone comes out saying, ‘I learned so much.’
“It’s not something people should be intimidated by,” she said. “You just need a love of gardening, a willingness to help others and the time to give.”
Crim said there are seven active Master Gardener volunteers in Delaware County, though she expects that number will “easily double in the 2020 training.”
Following a training, Crim said, Master Gardeners must complete a designated number of volunteer hours during a two-year period.
“It’s different in every county,” she said, “but (in Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie counties), it’s a minimum of 50 hours for a period of 12 months … and we’re very flexible in terms of giveback hours. We let (trainees) find their passion and then we do what we can to support them, but when you’re doing something you love, the time just flies by.”
“To fulfill their volunteer time commitment,” cthe website says, “Master Gardeners have in the past worked in the office to test soil samples, maintained files of gardening information, answered gardening questions through our ‘Grow Line,’ taught gardening classes, organized and run the annual plant sales, spoken or demonstrated to groups and worked in the Education Center’s gardens.”
Because of the time commitment, Crim said, Master Gardener trainings are well-suited to retirees.
“It tends to be women because they’re natural nurturers, but there are some men," she said. "And generally, it does attract retired people, because they’re the ones that have the knowledge base, the passion and the skills to share.”
Bonnie Seegmiller, a retired psychologist and Hunter College professor living in the town of Colchester, said she became a Master Gardener after working with Crim and CCE in other avenues.
“I have always liked learning about things and gardening and producing things,” she said. “I’ve been involved with CCE for years and going to workshops or calling them when I find something I can’t identify. Then Carla took over (as horticulture educator) and … I loved going to her presentations and working with her, because I’m always learning so much.”
Seegmiller, who said she quickly surpassed the required number of volunteer hours, said she finds the philanthropical aspect of the program fulfilling.
“It is a commitment and you have to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to be here when I’m expected,’ like any other job or volunteer position … but there are all sorts of things that allow you to get the hours you need,” she said. “When the community garden was starting up, I’d get there early and work there for two to five hours. In addition to that, I worked with Carla to bring CCE on the road. I’d help set up different workshops for people in Colchester, because it can be hard for people to get other places. We had workshops … on growing succulents and making a hypertufa flowerpot.”
Later this year, Seegmiller said, she and Crim will likely present a six-week “Seed to Soup” workshop to “help people learn to grow their own food successfully” and she plans to help Downsville Central School develop its new greenhouse.
Delhi resident Sheila Ayres, 65, said she, too, was drawn to the educational aspect of the program. Ayres, formerly of Virginia, is a retired nurse anesthetist.
“It was like being back in college and I love learning,” she said. “You have to be open to learning and listening and getting involved.
“(During the training), we went to a variety of different farms and gardens and the Clark greenhouses in Cooperstown. You learn a lot and get some of the best instructors — biologists, microbiologists — that talk about pests and organisms and soils, so it is just a wonderful program … and interest in it really has grown.”
For Ayres, Master Gardener training also helped cultivate childhood habits.
“As a Southerner, you’re always in the garden doing something and as a little girl, I always had a plot of flowers I would grow,” she said. “It’s just something I grew up with. In college and in grad school — everywhere I went, I’ve always done it. It’s always been an interest and a part of me and I always wanted to be a Master Gardener.”
Ayres restarted the Delhi Beautification Committee and, through her membership on the Delaware County Historical Association board, also established a garden at the association’s Frisbee House, using historically appropriate seeds, plants and fencing.
Ayres said she especially enjoys sharing what she’s learned through life and the program.
“We’re a reference,” she said. “We get (people) from all over the county … and Master Gardeners help them through projects, guide them and answer questions. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll find the answer for them. We’re here to help.”
“We’re the face of the program,” Seegmiller said. “We’re what the public sees, so we try to be knowledgeable and helpful and get along with other people. Everybody learns from everybody else. It’s hard work, but it more than pays off in knowledge and the people you work with. It’s a very nice experience and it helps with things you’re growing, but it’s sort of a whole package: knowledge and giving back to the community.”
For more information or to enroll in the next Master Gardener training, contact Crim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-865-6531 or David Cox, CCE educator for Schoharie and Otsego counties, at 518-234-4303, ext. 119, or email@example.com.