My long-simmering beef about master gardener programs



Two things I read over the last week have impelled me to finally rant on what bugs me the most about master gardener programs. The first is a column by Buffalo horticulturalist Sally Cunningham in which she writes about the recent passing of two local master gardeners, one of whom she trained. The second is Kathy’s post at Cold Climate Gardening, in which she speculates on why more twenty and thirty-somethings don’t garden and why that should matter.

I’m going to assume that the late Adrian Kyriakopoulos, one of the master gardeners Sally trained, was older than she, as she notes that he tolerated the sobriquet “wise old man.” I’m guessing Sally is about my age. It would probably be safe to assume that many of the master gardeners trained by Sally were older than she. Why? I’ll tell you why. Master gardener training is held during the day on Fridays where I live. From what I hear, weekday training is quite common in other areas—at least it is in Austin, Chicago, and Cleveland, as I was told by Pam, Gloria, and Kim.

So, who’s free to attend a day-long session on Friday or any other weekday? I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that a lot of the attendees are retirees. The training is just one day a week. Why couldn’t those hours be allocated to late afternoons on weekdays or Saturdays? The weekday training shuts out anybody who works—and these days most of us can count on working fulltime well into our sixties, as hideous as that sounds. (Personally, I don’t plan on retiring, though I’d like eventually to move into 100% freelance.) Is this a factor in keeping young people from gardening? Probably not a major one but it certainly can’t help. If one thirty-something is taking a master gardening class on Saturdays, he or she could tell friends. At least it would be a known possibility. I’ve heard some of the justifications for having the classes during the weekday; one was that the accompanying volunteering would take place at that time. Well, that’s just not true. I volunteer for public plantings all summer, always on Saturdays and weekday afternoons. And, boy, could we use some younger volunteers! (I could probably pull down some cold weather duty at the Botanical Gardens too.)

Obviously, I can’t begin to answer the question of why younger people don’t garden; I’ll leave that to Kathy’s post and its many interesting comments. But I do think that master gardener programs should adapt themselves to the way people live and work in the twenty-first century if they don’t want all their graduates to die off before a new generation of MGs can step forward and take their place. As Susan has compellingly related here, there are plenty of problematic issues with these programs. I feel a good start toward fixing some of them might be to make the training more accessible to all gardeners.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Here, here! In my county the training is held on weekdays and attracts an older, retired bunch, as you say. Because I was fully employed at the time, I enrolled in the ultimately worthless DC program because their training is during evening hours. Two other DC-area counties provide evening classes but they give first preference to residents, as they should, so I couldn’t get in.
    From my research, the programs that still only offer training during the workday do it for *their own convenience,* much to the detriment of the community, as you point out.

  2. I believe that the last Master Gardener class offered in Oswego Co was in the evening. They combined with, I think, Oneida Co, so there was major winter travel involved. The last time I talked to them they were hoping to offer something with Jefferson Co but since I haven’t heard back from them I guess they couldn’t work it out so I’ll be waiting at least another year I guess. I am hesitant to sign up for a class an hour away in the winter anyway so even if they do have an evening class I wouldn’t call it accessible.

  3. Exactly, I’ve wanted to take a master gardener class for several years now, but around here it’s a six week class on Thursdays. Yeah right!

  4. Same situation here in NJ. The reason is that whereas speakers are willing to come to teach classes during the day, they are unwilling to come out at night. My county is now offering night classes but it was literally years in the making, the big stumbling block being finding lecturers who would “sacrifice” their evenings to teach MG classes.

    Not all MG trainees are retired. In my class, there was myself, who works nights and therefore could attend morning classes after work and a nurse (quite young) who traded shifts with her coworkers so that she could attend classes. The chairperson of the Executive Committee is a SAHM who took classes while her daughter was in school.

    Don’t despair! As the song says “The times they are achanging”.

  5. I was just accepted to our Master Gardener program here in Sonoma County, CA. I was shocked when I heard the times the classes were scheduled: Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:30 to 5pm. And several days are from 9am to 4pm!

    I am in my 30s, and I believe I was the youngest person in a room full of people wanting to be in the program. I can take the classes because I am self-employed and can work nighttime hours and weekends if I need to. But I know I’m lucky in that regard!

    Youth in the Master Gardener programs could, among other things, create an online information center geared more toward young people and also schedule events that will draw young people in. My hope is to try to do some of those things when I become a Master Gardner. Wish me luck!

  6. I realized my dad was a ‘master’ gardener one day when he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s. The ease to which he took to all his garden chores, and the gleam in his eye when he spoke about one of his projects indicated a certain mastery.

    To apply the term to someone who completes a few hours of classroom and field instruction is a gross misuse of the English language and a discredit to the program itself.

    In Canada, I believe a similar program resulted in the title ‘Qualified Plantsman’…which perhaps has now been changed to ‘Qualified Plantsperson’?

    Years ago I contemplated completing the course to fill in gaps in my knowledge, but like many others, could not afford to take a day off work – which was, in fact, the very best classroom.

  7. I’ve been looking into the Master Gardening programs at the Portland, Oregon area

    I’m not sure when the classes are held. Still, being able to have access to formal education about gardening instead of trying to find a local “mentor” is, in my eyes, and important part of getting more young folks (myself included) into gardening.

  8. Here in Iowa, our MG classes are offered in the evening on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the fall (Sept/Oct) and also late winter (Jan/Feb). The classes are from 6:30pm to 9:30pm. The Tuesday night classes are via Adobe Connect direct from Iowa State. The Thursday night classes are taught by local MGs. We are often criticized because we only hold our classes on those two nights. So folks who have prior commitments on either Tuesdays or Thursdays are unable to attend. We do have a wide range of ages in our group but there are a lot of us who are in our 50s. We try offer projects and activities for all ages and interests. I guess I didn’t realize how lucky we are to have evening training classes!

  9. Same here. Daytime classes. Wonder how much that has to do with the fact that the staff who teach the classes work days, so they think in terms of daytime activities?

  10. I’ve never taken a Master Gardeners class yet I have been a continuing education student in ornamental horticulture and landscape design for the past 30 years or so.
    Community college is a good thing.

  11. When I took a Master Gardening class (at age 27) it was held in the evenings here in Bozeman, Montana. It was definitely more than a “few hours”. I think it was a 30-40 hour class…

    It started in January and ended right about when we were ready to start planting our cold weather veggies.

    While nothing compares to the experience of actually doing something, it sure was some nice background information. Plus, it kept us excited about gardening through the cold of winter.

    I bet if someone spoke to their extension service (or whoever puts on your class) they’d be willing to consider changing the time.

  12. I agree that there are many ways to learn about gardening. What I like about good MG programs, especially those with great instructors like Sally, is their focus on volunteering, community gardens, and passing along good, sustainable practice. I would love Sally to contribute her views! I know she has plenty to add.

  13. Absolutely! 100% in agreement!

    I have been trying for three years to get into the Master Gardeners program here in Utah, I’m retired but I take care of my ailing Father-in-Law while my wife works and only weekends are semi-free.

    I tried in San Diego for three years prior to this with the same story but I was working then.

    Their motto is ‘It is now time to give back’ Well they need to understand that there are more than just retirees who want to give back.

  14. When I asked the Master Gardener spokesperson here in Austin why they don’t offer weekend classes, she said it was because they couldn’t get speakers to come then.

    The daytime schedule has kept me from signing up.

  15. Gardeners may be the one segment of the population who can figure out how to be employed and still have daytimes free to attend master gardener classes. Classes here in the District of Columbia were held in the evening. The problem was that people most wanted to train at well-established gardens–many of them private–followed by a non-existent volunteer program. So much could be done–in public school gardens, community gardens, recreation centers, city streetscapes–yet the program seems to perform an annual vanishing act, until the next class of recuits is inducted. But Susan has already detailed our issues in a previous post…

  16. I agree with Dan – as a non-American (and hence outsider to the system)I always found it a bizarre choice of title.

    In the UK “Master Gardener” usually is the name of a sort of winner takes all points prize winner at horticultural shows.

  17. Our Master Gardener program in Marion County, Oregon runs classes on Mondays in the winter, right when I have a busy teaching schedule. Of course, with a Master’s degree in botany, I suppose I have credentials enough already. It’s just that when you pick up a gardening book and think, “Hey, I could have written this,” and the author bio mentions that the author is Master Gardener… well, the title just has a certain cachet.

  18. Amen! I’ve wanted to take MG classes for years, but 11:00 on a weekday morning doesn’t get it for a working guy. Are they trying to keep out the riffraff who has to earn a living?

  19. “she said it was because they couldn’t get speakers to come then.”

    Oh, you can get a speaker to show up anytime, anyplace, if you pay them right. It’s getting freebies that’s tricky.

  20. Act. That is what actors do.
    Writers write.
    Gardeners garden.

    Why do all these people who just enjoy gardening NEED to (and seem to strive to) be a “master” at it? I do certain things well and I know what I grow. If I need to learn something I either figure it out myself, ask other gardening friends, go to the Internet, or head to the library.
    I gardened (18 years of volunteer “Master” work in Manhattan) where there wasn’t a formal “program.” Just garden! I have been meaning for over a decade to write to the New York Botanical Garden for my Honorary Degree. A degree is vital for those who need them. It is terrible that so called teaching institutions do not meet on the days/times of the people they should be courting.

  21. Interesting questions raised here…I don’t often post , but felt I had to in this situation. I am a Master Gardener in Eastern Pennsylvania in what I consider to be an excellent program (but I am biased). Yes, the majority of our volunteers are retired, but there are also some of us in the 25-50 year range. When I was trained a couple years ago, the classes were held on weekday nights (every Wednesday for 8 or 9 weeks), which is one of the many reasons I chose to join the program at that time, as I work full time during the day. Since then, however, all training has been during the day. Our program director has said they do it that way because that’s when the majority of our requests for Master Gardeners’ time also come in. We get a lot of requests from school and community seniors’ groups that meet during the weekdays, so their thinking is that by offering the training during the day, they will get more people who can actually volunteer their time when it’s needed most.

    Also, as a (very) part-time horticultural student at the local community college, I’ve run into similar problems – many of the hort courses are only offered during the day and I simply can’t get the time off from work to take them (that’s another rant that I won’t go into here). Reason being – since the ‘school’ year runs from late August to early May, the classes need to be held during daylight hours to maximize the amout of time students can spend outside studying actual plants. While I totally understand their reasoning, it is frustrating to not be able to take those classes. Someday, I will have to make the scary jump back into underemployed student life again!

  22. The MG program in Summit County, Ohio, is not available to someone who works a regular weekday schedule. Recently I asked myself why I wanted to participate in the program. The answer: I would like to use my gardening experience to help others come to understand and enjoy plants. There are volunteer opportunities that just require interest, not credentials. And they are available on Saturday. I assume that the MG program will continue on its way to become a retiree ghetto. But I don’t care anymore. How liberating.

  23. Mississippi only offers courses via satellite. I would have to take the equivalent of 12 vacation days to participate in the program. All satellite video sessions are offered from 1 PM until 5 PM on weekdays. This completely excludes those of us who have jobs from participating. An extension office employee shared that most MGs were retired or did not work. Well, with that training schedule who else do you think can come? Is there not some uprising yet for a totally online MG program for those us dying to join in and suffering from the unfortunate scheduling of our county extension office?

  24. The Adobe Connect system used in Iowa is a sort of online classroom. The Presenters are all professors at Iowa State University. They give a 2 1/2 – 3 hour class each Tuesday evening, for a total of 7 classes. It is a video feed from ISU to the extension offices around the state, with a chat section where each office can ask questions or make comments. The best part is that they are recorded, so that if you miss one of the classes, you can view it later on your own.

    We have four in-person classes, these vary depending on the county and the makeup of the class, ours were Houseplants, Herbaceous Onamentals, Vegetables, and IPM/Pesticides. You are able to miss one of these and still graduate.

    We also have a one-day lab on campus at ISU. The Lab Day is offered two times in the fall, and two in the spring on saturdays from 9am – 4pm. The day includes a soil lab, soil testing lab, plant pathology lab, botany lab, entomology lecture, entomology lab, and a tour of the extensive Greenhouses. You must attend this Lab Day to graduate, however if you miss it, you can always attend the next session, and still graduate at that time.

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