Calling on Garden Support – Extension Master Gardener Volunteers

Early spring is the time when garden organizers are taking stock: Are there enough tools on hand? What needs to be fixed or upgraded? Do we need to order compost? In our logistical rush to get things ready, let us not forget perhaps the most important question: Do we have the people committed to the project to make for a successful season?

Volunteers—the force that makes the garden community go ‘round! This season as you’re reaching out, consider another source for volunteers–the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener (EMG) program. This month we’re shining a spotlight on the UVM EMG program, taking a deeper look at the program and how Vermont community and school gardens can benefit from EMG volunteer support.

The University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Program

The UVM Extension Master Gardener program recruits, trains and oversees volunteers who promote successful, safe, and environmentally sound horticultural practices through education and community outreach activities. To become an Extension Master Gardener, individuals must complete a 13-week online course that provides training in the fundamentals of home gardening, including: soil fertility, plant pests and disease management, fruit and vegetable production, an introduction to landscape design, and more. Over 3,000 Vermonters have taken the EMG course since the program started in 1991 and there are currently more than 560 active volunteers.

Upon completion of the course, trainees become Extension Master Gardener Interns. To transition from an Intern to a Certified Master Gardener, trainees must volunteer 40 hours by sharing their knowledge with the community. Each intern works under the direction of their local Extension Master Gardener Chapter and Certified EMG Volunteers on approved local projects. EMG Interns have just under a year to complete their 40 volunteer hours and become certified. To maintain certification, EMG’s must continue to volunteer 20 hours per year or pay an additional fee.

UVM also runs an Extension Master Composter program (EMC) that provides training and support for community members interested in increasing their expertise in compost systems management. This program works similarly to the Extension Master Gardener program in that EMC volunteers must complete a course as well as service hours to become certified.

More information on how to sign up for the Extension Master Gardener or Extension Master Composter course can be found at http://www.uvm.edu/mastergardener/.

Extension Master Gardeners in the Community

EMG volunteers serve communities in a variety of ways, which fall into three primary categories: one-time volunteer opportunities; ongoing volunteer projects; and the Extension Master Gardener Hotline.

  1. One-time volunteer opportunities can be requested by any group in need of support or by EMG volunteers themselves. A one-time volunteer request is most appropriate for a single event that happens one day per year for a few hours. In 2016, 44 one-time volunteer opportunities took place across the state of Vermont. Some examples of one-time opportunities with community-based gardens include:
    • Speakers for one-time workshops or a short series of workshops. (e.g. “Ask a Master Gardener Day” in the community garden)
    • Speakers needed at schools or community groups to deliver a one-time class. (e.g special classroom guest speaker)
    • A garden advisor for a school, community, or public garden. (e.g. consulting on site assessment, planning advice, pest management support, etc.)
    • Volunteers needed at one-time events to display gardening/composting information. (e.g. “Ask-A-Master-Gardener” information table at a community celebration)

How to request a one-time opportunity?
The form for requesting an EMG volunteer for a one-time opportunity is found on the UVM Extension Master Gardener website: “Need a Master Gardener Volunteer?”. These requests are reviewed by EMG staff and, if approved, are sent out to the EMG volunteer listserv. Follow-up on a request is dependent on EMG volunteer interest in the opportunity.

  1. Ongoing volunteer projects can only be requested by a certified EMG volunteer. These opportunities take place at a single garden project and provide ongoing support for as long as it’s needed. Projects must align with the educational mission of the UVM Extension Master Gardener program. As a part of Vermont Community Garden Network’s (VCGN) 2011 School Community Garden Mini Grant Program, dedicated EMG volunteers provided ongoing assistance to school community gardens through a variety of tasks, including:
    • Evaluating sites and assisting with plot design;
    • Testing soils and making recommendations for soil improvement;
    • Developing seed sowing, transplanting, and succession planting schedules;
    • Identifying pest or disease problems and recommendations for organic control;
    • Providing hands-on garden support, such as weeding, planting, and watering;
    • Establishing compost structures and methodologies, and providing compost education;
    • Delivering sustainable gardening lessons based on garden site needs/requests.

According to VCGN grant program participants, EMG volunteers were most valued for their role as technical advisors as well as the direct education they provided to students. Here are a couple of interesting examples:

–One EMG volunteer designed 20 minute long “mini-workshops” provided after school hours, to give teachers more ideas and resources for lesson plans and activities involving gardens.
–At Middletown Springs Elementary School their EMG volunteer ran a 6-week summer Garden Club for students, Wednesdays, 1-3 pm, during the summer school program.

Click here for more examples of ongoing EMG projects at community-based gardens.

How to request an ongoing project?
Once the EMG volunteer submits the request, the process for project approval involves EMG staff and the local EMG chapter where the request is being made. Approval of the project is based on the number and distribution of projects already active in the area and if they’re getting enough support, as well as whether the proposed project meets the needs of the area.

Approved projects must be coordinated by a Certified EMG, serving as project leader. Responsibilities of the project leader includes: recruiting, training and coordinating other EMG volunteers, leading activities, and reporting to state EMG staff.  Click here for advice from EMG project leaders and community partners on running a successful project.

  1. The Extension Master Gardener Hotline provides volunteers to help with your gardening questions. EMG volunteers are available via the hotline, currently on Mondays and Thursdays, 9am-12pm, at 1-800-639-2230. More info and updated hours can be found on the website under Ask a Master Gardener.”

Words from Extension Master Gardener project leaders:

“Our residents are proud of their association with the Master Gardener program and they know we’re available if needed to help them succeed.”
– Christina Shaw, Benson Heights Community Garden

“The expertise of Extension Master Gardeners helps both individuals and garden groups be more successful.” – Faith Alexandre, Upper Valley Haven Gardens

For more advice from Vermont EMG project leaders and their projects read on.