2. The Best Gardening Advice – The Master Gardeners


The Women of the Lewiston Garden Club doing Spring Cleanup

Everybody starts somewhere. Even Master Gardeners. Many in a class are newbie gardeners, but come to learn. What better place to learn than one surrounded by experts?


I get asked often how does one become a Master Gardener. Many have the desire to learn, but also they yearn for having those of experience as friends to ask. They ask about becoming a Master Gardener, but not what we do for the community. You know, what I discussed last post – the doing.

For instance, the Niagara County Master Gardeners are pulling garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, this weekend at a local park. Hard work that would not get done otherwise. When people hear this, they change their minds on joining.


Above you see garden club members planting and doing Spring cleanup. Master Gardeners work in their communities on tasks like this too. The hands on projects help to teach them new things, where even garden clean up has a few tricks, like giving the beds a clean-cut edge.

The members of garden clubs and the Master Garden Program also share from their own gardens for these community gardens. They generously share amongst each other too. They put on plant sales each year to raise money, but it is also a good place to learn about how some tried and true plants grow in your area.


I was serving as a Master Gardener three years at our Extension Office before I actually took the classes, answering gardeners’ questions in person and over the phone. Required to complete the program eventually was necessary to get my paper certificate. It was mandatory for Cornell certification. The interesting program had many fine speakers from Cornell, so it was worth the time.


In Master Gardening classes, we had a manual which was mostly consisted of lists. Things like lists of pesticides and what insect they were used on for instance.

I got caught being an uncertified Master Gardener, reported for dispensing a recipe for an organic home remedy for aphids. Cornell does not endorse pesticide application that is not one of the listed chemicals.  Funny how that works. Something innocuous to the environment is a more “harmful solution” than one reviewed by the FDA, approved by the USDA – chemicals manufactured by a large chemical companies. I wonder if the policy changed on this 15 years later.


With plants, it was all practical field learning, taking trips to sites. We learned to identify trees, insects and weeds mostly, but also learned what weeds are beneficial to keep on our properties. But it is helpful to know the difference between a Spruce and a Fir or a Asian Lady Beetle and a Cucumber Beetle too.


Other things Master gardeners do and learn, is how to make abandoned lands more beautiful, productive and beneficial. They plant urban gardens for instance.


Why is field training important? Well it is learning by doing.


Conditions in one locale will not be conducive in another, so learning what you have and how to work with it is easiest done by doing, like mentioned in the last post. Learning soil structure helps in figuring out how to contend with what you’ve got – the same with learning soil pH. Learning weeds helps you to know what you have and how to eliminate it if you must. Even knowing what weed is growing can give an indication to soil structure and pH.


One does not have to be a Master Gardener to excel at planting and maintenance, but Master Gardeners become Master Gardeners through lecture and practical experience.

They work with each other too. It is fun and rewarding, where anyone at any level can participate. Complete the program and you gain knowledge and the paper certificate. Honestly, I don’t have a clue where mine is!

Make friends with a Master Gardener. It may be your best gardening buddy yet, who knows?


Most Master Gardener classes are run during winter, so check out a program. Some, like ours, have a greenhouse and that is really a great place to learn.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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50 Responses to 2. The Best Gardening Advice – The Master Gardeners

  1. I really enjoy your posts and the photos are stunning. I agree with your premise that a good deal of learning is doing. I also agree that gardening is a privledge and requires a payback, and in some cases a pay-it-forward.

    • Thank you Charlie. I finally decided to write a little about my real involvement in the gardening community and talk a bit about things I deal with in my work (not the architecture, but the landscaping). Usually I am private on my work.

  2. I am a MG and love the social aspect of it as much as the gardening aspect. I’ve really been able to broaden my horizons by meeting like minded folks. The lectures and learning is okay too:)

    • I never have time for the social aspect. I know it is fun and rewarding, but am always too busy with work to attend all the parties and get togethers with either the MG or garden clubs. I rarely participate in the work sessions either, but do contribute with many other things like promotional items, web design and such. Glad you stopped in and mentioned you are a MG.

  3. EcoGrrl says:

    I love the idea of the program but it’s VERY expensive, so what I did was buy the curriculum binder and read it myself which was very helpful. I’d love to become a MG but unlike becoming a Master Recycler (which also requires volunteer hours etc) it’s not the most affordable unfortunately 😦

    • Our program was only the cost of the binder, but that was quite a while ago. I have heard some programs are very expensive. That surprised me and I would never had paid those prices for something I was doing for them for three years running.

  4. nicole says:

    When I ran the eco club at my school we took the kids out to the forest preserve to help in pulling out invasive species as well as planting natives. It was a very cool experience for them and for me. I think the Master Gardeners program sounds wonderful! One of these days when I have more time I would like to try my hand at it! Beautiful photos Donna! The colors are so vibrant!

    • Kids love to get involved. As a MG I worked with school kids taking them on a nature trails for Nature Days in our area a few years running. When they saw a garter snake sunning itself, it made their day. Also at a local school the MG’s set up a community garden for the kids. It was the first time most of these urban kids ever saw vegetables grow.

  5. I have not taken the master gardener training, I am taking classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden instead. Don’t have time to do both, unfortunately.

  6. People can ask questions of the Master Gardeners, even if they don’t want to take the training and become a Master Gardener themselves. People can call or sometimes email their questions, and Master Gardeners often have tables at gardening events.

    • As a MG I was one that the people called before we lost our office in Niagara Falls. It was very handy for communities near us rather than going all the way to Lockport to bring in samples. I also manned the tables in Lewiston for a few years and enjoyed it immensely. The MG are a great resource for local gardeners and their questions.

  7. very nice article, donna!
    havent heard from you for a while…hows life in niagara?

    • All is fine here. I have not heard from you in a while either. I enjoy YOUR posts, but the reblogs were getting to be to frequent and I could not keep up. Are you back to your own posts?

      • yeah…i still do reblog quite a lot…but only stuff that i think may be of interest….aside of that, i do post my own stuff, too….now and then.

        by the way, feel quite free to unfollow me if the reblogs are getting too annoying…i wont take it to heart!

  8. I completed MG training in 2007. Our county group holds a plant sale in June in order to fund community projects and we donate our time on many projects through the area. It is a good opportunity to learn and meet other people with the same interests. Nice post.

  9. Christy says:

    My hubby and I went through the Master Gardener class in 2011. There were both “newbees” (people who had never done any gardening) and experienced gardeners in the class. It was one of the best things we ever did because we’ve met some wonderful friends through the Master Gardener program, plus we enjoy volunteering and giving back to the community. I would recommend this program to anyone interested in gardening.

    • You are a MG’s dream since you like the volunteering. That is what keeps many from joining. I try to fit in what I can with work. Often I get called in on the designing of projects. I too recommend it because the MG’s do so much good in the community. Garden Clubs too!

  10. Master Gardeners are a great resource for gardening advice as well as the Extension office services such as soil testing and MGs to help id gardening problems. Someone above commented about the cost. I took the MG class several years ago and it was only the cost of the book. We had very reputable experts lecture our classes too. My conflict with MGs is that the “official” answers to questions needs to be the one from the University that sponsors the program and they promote the use of pesticides. I personally garden organically so I struggle with this at times. Donna, does your MG group do advanced training for its members?

    • My class was cheap too, only the cost of the manual. I am not sure the cost now though, since I took it so long ago. As I said in the post, I got a visit from the ‘big wigs’ because I was freely giving out alternative pest control recipes. I had not taken the classes so I had no idea I was doing something they did not approve. I was one of two people answering questions from call ins and walk ins, and was doing for three years before taking the class. Had I not done that, I probably could have never taken the classes since I was even requested by people calling in. Things were going great until somebody told on me.

      • We would never be allowed to answer phones at the Extension office if we hadn’t gone through the class. After the course we have to do 25 of the required 50 hours on the phone in the first year. It is not most MGs favorite thing to do so they are always looking for people to work the phones so it is funny to me that someone would have tattled on you. 🙂 Answering the phones is a great way to learn and keep up with the latest information. You never know what crazy questions someone will call in. It is interesting how certain parts of the MG program vary state by state and even county by county. We are a very active group here and have a waiting list for people to take the class.

        • It is the same here as of late. There is greater attendance and more recruitment. The phones were only allowed to a select few. It was myself and one other in Niagara, and at the main office, only the extension education officer answered questions. He had MGs do soil tests for him though and mail out cut sheets to people. My local office knew I could handle the questions, they just did not know I was going to offer up organic options to the use of pesticides. I think one of the ladies in the office tattled to Cornell. It was a really big deal too. I felt like I was sent to the principals office. I almost told them to shove it after three years, but kept quiet, and took the class. I was the only one to ace the exam too.

  11. HolleyGarden says:

    For the past few years I have considered becoming a MG. I’m considering it again this year. Good to hear most that have completed the program recommend it.

    • Many who are very experienced will not really learn, but the networking is great. You meet many great contacts for future reference. I am constantly contacting those from Cornell, whether, bugs, birds or plants.

  12. janechese says:

    I found this interesting, I am attracted to learning trees and plants and weeds though admittedly on a superficial basis.I was supposed to take care of a friend’s garden but was not fond of weeding because it was easier to go off with my camera but do appreciate what gardeners do and they have a love for it.More fun with many hands.

    • I too have a tendency to shoot the weeds rather than pull them out. I find so much interest in what I find out in nature as opposed to the ordinary growing in gardens. Ordinary to me because I work with a big nursery and design using the garden plants.

  13. I learned something new today pertaining to gardening and Master Gardeners – thanks so much for sharing. Have a Great Day:)

  14. Marguerite says:

    I was rather surprised to hear that your Master Gardening association has lists of chemicals to direct clients to and appears to ignore organic methods. I would have thought a more rounded approach, providing a variety of solutions, would have been used since not every person calling an extension office would necessarily want to use pesticides.

    • Well we did and do IPM, Integrated Pest Management. But that is not what most clients want to hear. They want fast results like I mentioned last post. Gardening takes time and that includes growing the plants that attract the beneficial insects. Also, learning what plants (those that do well in your area, preferably natives) provide security from predators, shelter at night, food and places to lay eggs and raise young. Most people (not true gardeners) do not want to wait for these things to occur naturally in nature and just want plants they think pretty. As a designer and MG I must do what the clients want. It does not mean they don’t get my advice and recommendation, but in the end, they are the ones that call the shots. Even as a MG we have to design a program of management to suit their needs and immediacy if need be.

  15. Great post about the MG program. I had intended to take the courses, but instead have elected to go through Master Naturalist training, which will start in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait! Volunteer programs are great–capitalizing on the passions of people who participate.

    • I have heard of the Master Naturalist training. http://cce.cornell.edu/learnAbout/GetInvolved/Pages/MasterNaturalistProgram.aspx The program has two different certificates, a two-day course -Certified Naturalists. To become a Master Naturalist one must complete 12 additional credit hours of training, and contribute 20 hours of volunteer work.
      Cornell has the program in the link. We had some of that in our training, about as much as would be to be certified. The Master training takes less time than our MG program did and has less community service time participation. Training for a MG is a 75 hour training course for 10 weeks followed by a 100 hour volunteer commitment for the next two years. http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/education/mgprogram/mgmanual.htm This link is the requirements, but the program included much more.

      I hope you enjoy and learn in your program, but I am guessing you might know much of what is being taught.

  16. Brian Comeau says:

    Is there going to be a part 3 and 4 on birding advice? Hope so!!!!

    • What did you want to know? I took down the feeders so no more backyard bird tips. I want to join a birding club and if I do, will be getting to places to shoot eagles and other birds of prey hopefully. Also, they go to coastal areas. I am not sure how much traveling I could do though. I am selling the lens (55-300mm) I have shot all the birds. I am getting a replacement FX lens, but not sure which one yet. I want better glass and to utilize the wider sensor of a FX camera. I am still debating that too. I have to start using my 80-400mm lens, so getting rid of the 300mm will help for that.

      • Brian Comeau says:

        Really I’m open to anything. I just find a lot of your information useful. I’d like to join a club since they would know all the best spots too but committing to the time is hard right now. Kids are keeping me pretty busy. Like you I’m looking at a lens upgrade so saving my pennies now.

        • I just came back from a talk on bees by a local expert, and people from Audubon were there. I am going to be joining them now in their club. They take trips each weekend to look at native plants, birds and insects. They asked me to do photography instruction. I was honored.

  17. A.M.B. says:

    Very interesting! It does sound like a good idea to get to know a Master Gardener. It’s interesting to hear that there is a certification process, too. I had no idea.

  18. alesiablogs says:

    Learning is by doing! Getting out in the field-seeing the gardens etc–working in them…that is the way to learn. I will tell you in my nursing career and I had TONS of education–it was not until you do it you feel comfortable..All the books in the world do not teach common sense…lol

  19. It sounds like master gardeners are a great resource.

    • They are a knowledgeable bunch. I noted local independent nurseries in the one post as a great resource for talks, demos, and information too. I was thing of you when I was writing on where, besides books to learn.

  20. Gineen says:

    Thanks for sharing about your experience as a master gardener. I love to garden, I’ve worked on farms, backyards, garden centers, and such… but I find that master gardeners seem to always talk down to me…

    • You have been talking to the wrong ones most likely. They are a very helpful and friendly bunch up here. Always willing to learn from others too, a humble bunch of great gardeners. It sound like you have much and varied experience and really don’t need to be talking to them anyway.

  21. I have wanted to take the MG classes but my area’s program is not user friendly…the classes happen at night in a not so safe part of the city of Syracuse. I have asked them to consider making changes with no response so I have been put off by this group as they are so non-responsive…so I hope to join the GCA-Syracuse chapter once I retire. Maybe there will be a MG program that will fit my schedule in the near future.

    • I did not find our class to be inconvenient. We met in a church in downtown Buffalo and the Roycroft Arts center in East Aurora, NY. A few classes were in Niagara. It was regional and took in many counties. We also met in the daytime.

  22. I, like Karin, am surprised that the office allowed you to answer questions from the public without the MG training. As for your offering other than chemical responses to aphids, the big thing with extension is research based information. Some home remedies or organic methods haven’t been researched at the university level for them (extension) to support it. I am surprised of how many SC MGs have been sharing anecdotal methods rather than ‘the party line’ when answering questions from the public. (we were set up in the mall for a Home and Garden show).
    I took the class in VA and then again when I moved to SC. In VA the cost was $90…here in SC, $300! Pretty steep price!

    • With over twenty years experience designing, they had a niche to fill. I got asked because of what I brought new to their office, plus one other reason. I could walk to the extension office from my house. It made it awfully convenient since my work schedule was flexible and I was prompt for opening the doors.

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