A love of gardening and a desire to pass along that love by educating others is the driving force behind the Master Gardeners’ program, conducted through the Penn State Extension.
To become a certified Master Gardener, candidates must complete 40 hours of training and score at least 80 percent on a final exam. Once certified, a Master Gardener must perform 50 hours of volunteer service the first year. These service projects can differ from county to county.
“ If you commit to doing the training, the first 50 hours goes so fast, there’s so much to do,” said Suann Leighow, Master Gardener volunteer coordinator for Montour, Columbia and Northumberland counties. “There’s really programming anywhere you turn around. It’s not really hard to get your hours in at all. Once that’s done, then you only need to volunteer 20 hours a year.”
Volunteer opportunities might include anything from attending farmers’ markets and answering questions from home gardeners in the community to manning a Master Gardeners’ hotline.
“We love to do farmers’ markets. I think farmers’ markets are fun,” she said. “You get to meet the people and answer questions, and it’s usually a good day. And, they have food and I’m all about that,” she added with a laugh.
“At the Bloomsburg Fair, the Master Gardeners have a potting shed in the Horticulture Building. We man that all week long. From Saturday to Saturday,we have Master Gardeners in that hut all day long,” Leighow said.
Some of the questions the Master Gardeners address might deal with plant selection, plant propagation, problems with the soil and anything else gardening related. They also work with local scouting organizations. There also is a Master Gardener working with a group of students at Bucknell University in Lewisburg and another working with students at Mount Carmel on a greenhouse project.
Leighow modestly admitted that she has served as many as 500 hours in one year, reinforcing how easy it is to fulfill the required time.
Both in Columbia and Montour counties, the Master Gardeners conduct talks at local libraries at various times of the year. Topics covered include butterfly gardening, raised bed and container gardening, pruning conifers, houseplants and updates on the spotted lanternfly problem in the state.
An upcoming program on May 4 at the Ag Services building in Sunbury is titled “Spring Garden Essentials” and covers topics such as the dos and don’ts of vegetable gardening and preventing skin cancer while gardening.
“We’re all about teaching; that’s the whole gist of it,” she said.
Quoting from the group’s mission statement on the purpose of the program, Leighow continued,”To support Penn State Cooperative Extension by utilizing research-based information to educate the public on best practices in consumer horticulture and environmental stewardship.”
Leighow, who has been with the group for more than 20 years, cited a lifelong love of gardening that got her interested in the Master Gardener program.
“I actually went to see a program by a Master Gardener and I was hooked,” she said.
One thing that appealed to her was that the Master Gardeners seemed to have fun doing what they did.
She told her twin sister, Suzet, who was with her at the presentation, “This is fun, I think we can do this.” Her sister also decided to become a Master Gardener.
In the three-county area, about 50 Master Gardeners have joined the program.
“It is great to be around people who enjoy gardening as much as you do. It’s a fun group. We have fun doing it,” she said.
She recently worked at the Rural Ag Safety Day at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds, an event that is aimed at youth and safety.
“Being with the soil conservation people and other Penn State groups ... it was just a fun day. We get to do a little networking, but it’s fun being together and being out and sharing gardening with the public,” she added.
Another Master Gardener, Mary Jo Gibson, who has been involved with gardening her entire life and has been in the group for 16 years, also likes the fact that the Master Gardeners share their love of gardening and their knowledge with others.
“I was aware of them for a long time and I had liked the idea of sharing information with the public because not everyone knew as much about gardening as I did,” she said.
Helping people solve problems with their plants appeals to Gibson.
“I came from generations of what I call serious backyard gardeners,” she said. “I didn’t always realize that not everybody knew some of the things that I was born knowing or I just automatically took them for granted because that’s what my family did, we gardened. We weren’t farmers, we were gardeners and there is a huge difference between the two. I like helping people solve their problems.”
One of the things Gibson is involved through the Master Gardeners in writing articles for the newspaper in order to educate the public.
“On Monday I’ll be doing a presentation on container gardening for a garden club. Garden clubs and other groups ask us to do presentations,” she noted. “We’re very busy.”
“It’s a very rewarding job,” she said, adding that everyone is a volunteer. No one gets paid for the many hours they devote to educating people.
“Some of us do consider it a job in a way, and it’s very, very rewarding,” she added.
For more information about becoming a Master Gardener or about their upcoming programs, go to the Penn State Extension website for your county and click on Master Gardeners.