Arkansas Master Gardeners

Photographer: 
Courtesy University of Arkansas Master Gardeners
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With Master Gardener programs in 55 counties and nearly 2,500 members, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is a powerful force in Arkansas, working hard to make many of the state's public areas more beautiful, while also educating citizens on the intricacies of successful gardening. The program, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, was established in 1988 in just four counties and has grown exponentially every year. “As county extension offices became smaller, the requests for information did not slow down,” says Janet Carson, extension horticulture specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and state coordinator for the Master Gardeners. “So the Master Gardener program was implemented to train these interested volunteers to answer others' questions and promote horticulture.”

To become a Master Gardener, you must complete 40 hours of training in your county or an adjoining county. “We train them in a variety of subjects, including horticulture, soil, irrigation, insects and disease,” Carson says. “There are numerous opportunities each year, and they mostly take place during the fall and winter, when our members can't get out and garden.” Once training is completed, you're required to return 40 volunteer hours to the organization by working on gardening projects, planning events, creating presentations or even manning the phones. “A lot of our Pulaski County gardeners answer the hotline at the Master Gardeners office, and they learn so much from researching the questions they get,” Carson says. After the first year, 20 hours of volunteer service are required, with lifetime status achieved after 15 years and advanced classes available for continued education.

Master Gardeners create and maintain landscaping at many non-profit spaces, including courthouses, libraries and even the Old State House, but their mission goes beyond beautifying their surroundings. They also spearhead youth gardening projects and plant therapy in nursing and retirement homes. “The plant-people connection is very strong, and many older people really miss it when they move into assisted living situations,” Carson says. Garden Voice classes are also available in leadership and public relations, teaching the gardeners the fundamental of PowerPoint presentations, graphic design, digital photography and public speaking, enabling them to promote horticulture across the state. “After Garden Voice, the volunteers have a month and a half to create a presentation or flyer or teach a class in their community,” Carson says. “And now we have an amazing library of materials that any chapter in any county can utilize.”

Yearly projects including the state meeting, which brings 500 gardeners to a different spot each year, and the Flower & Garden Show in Little Rock, which is staffed almost entirely by Master Gardener volunteers. A variety of trips are also available to the members, from regional and international meetings to trips abroad and around the country. “We just got back from a trip to New Zealand in celebration of our 20th anniversary, and next year we're going to Charleston, South Carolina,” Carson says. “Everywhere we go, we meet with the Master Gardeners in that area and get to see lots of private gardens and behind-the-scenes things you wouldn't be able to see on your own.”

Though many Master Gardeners are retired, the group becomes more diverse every year, with men and women from all walks of life participating. “The youngest ever was 13, but every county's membership is a little bit different,” Carson says. To become a Master Gardener, call your local county extension office and ask about their program, or one in an adjoining county. After completing an application and interview process, you're ready for training, and the opportunity to strengthen community bonds and beautify your own neighborhood.

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