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In the Garden

Becoming a 'Master Gardener'


THIS WILL PROBABLY NOT COME AS A SURPRISE to any of you, but I have never taken a class on gardening. Never. Not once. I possess no certificate or degree, I have received no formal training; I have not, as far as I can remember, attended so much as a one-hour seminar at the nursery on pruning techniques, pest control or any other useful topic.

Mind you, I'm not bragging. It's a joy to learn about gardening as you go, to let the backyard be your classroom, to swap tips with fellow gardeners and pick up ideas from garden books and seed catalogs. But a class on, say, soil ecology or fungal diseases might come in handy. That's why I got in touch with Deborah Giraud, plant science farm advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension program in Eureka. She teaches a Master Gardener class every other year and I was hoping to enroll. The next class begins in February.Book cover "California Master Gardener Handbook"

"I'm really emphasizing the volunteer commitment this year," Giraud said when I met with her last week. "Master Gardeners spend at least 50 hours doing volunteer work in the first year, and after that there are volunteer and continuing education requirements. So we're really looking for people who can put some time into this program."

The class itself is held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays from February 5 through April 30. She'll cover soil science, pests and diseases, fruit crops, cover crops, landscaping techniques and more. Giraud teaches about a third of the classes herself; the rest are taught by local horticultural professors and other experts.

"I try to cover the things that people up here want to learn about," Giraud said. "Some other counties spend a whole day on houseplants, but I just don't see the point. I left it out, and so far, no one has ever complained." (That doesn't surprise me -- I mean, houseplants are nice and all, but a real gardener has bigger things to worry about.)

The program, now in its 15th year, has trained over 350 Master Gardeners. The training provides a good background for landscapers, people who work for a lawn service or retail nursery, and, of course, backyard gardeners. However, if you want to call yourself a California Master Gardener, you've got to put in the volunteer hours and take at least 12 hours per year of continuing education from a venue of your choice.

"We're pretty flexible about the kinds of volunteer activities people can do," Giraud said. "Of course, I can always use help here in the office. People call me if they've got a question about gardening, a concern about a diseased tree, anything like that. It's great to get those calls, but sometimes I can't research an answer or get out to look at the problem as quickly as I'd like. So we're always looking for people to staff the phones."

Other Master Gardeners choose to staff a booth at the county fair, teach a composting class at an environmental fair, write articles for newsletters and newspapers, or teach in the Junior Master Gardener Program for children. Some Master Gardeners help take care of community gardens such as the one operated by Food for People.

"The volunteer component can be completely self-directed," Giraud said. "The only requirement is that you get out in the community and share your knowledge."

Sadly, I just couldn't free up 13 consecutive Wednesday afternoons to take the class. But if you'd like to apply, call Deborah Giraud at 445-7351 by Jan. 15 and ask for an application. The fee is $112, which includes the cost of being fingerprinted, a requirement of anyone participating in a UC volunteer program.

Even if you can't take the class, you can enjoy one important benefit that Master Gardener students get: You can purchase a copy of the California Master Gardener Handbook, a 700-page tome that covers anything and everything of interest to California gardeners. Soil management, plant propagation, lawn care, and -- yes -- houseplants, it's all here. About a third of the book is devoted to specific growing information for vegetables and fruits, and the rest covers every aspect of managing a lawn and garden. It's a useful reference book, one that belongs on the shelf right next to the Sunset Western Garden Book.

My only reservation about this book is its sometimes scant treatment of organic gardening issues. In one section, organic gardening is called a "philosophy of gardening" that has "national and international clubs where members can get additional information." I've been an organic gardener for years and I'm not aware of any clubs I need to join, nor am I likely to find out, because the book doesn't list any. I was disappointed that this section didn't even mention the fact that organic gardening is, in fact, the only method that was practiced the world over until the introduction of petrochemicals in the 20th century.

At times the authors seem to treat the issue tentatively: Chapter 3 briefly describes the organic gardening "philosophy" and refers readers to Chapter 1 for information on how Master Gardeners carry out these philosophies. Chapter 1 says that the Master Gardener program only provides "scientifically defensible information" and encourages people to make informed choices. Beyond that, readers are instructed to read the aforementioned "in-depth discussion of gardening philosophies" in Chapter 3.

The University of California is renowned for its agricultural programs; perhaps if scientifically defensible information on organic gardening is lacking, UC's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, which investigates organic and low-chemical approaches, could be pressed into service. Unfortunately, the term "sustainable agriculture" is not even defined in the Master Gardener Handbook.

Still, these are mild quarrels for a textbook that was never billed as organic in the first place. Overall, the book offers many non-chemical solutions to garden problems, and although half of the "Controlling Garden Pests Safely" chapter is devoted to the use of chemical pesticides, an emphasis is placed on their safe handling, storage and use. Cover crops, integrated pest management, composting and other organic techniques do get their fair share of space. The same can be expected of the class: Both organic and non-organic methods are taught. "People need to know about all kinds of approaches, even if they're not going to use them all," Deborah said. "We try to offer a balance -- some of everything."

To order a copy of the California Master Gardener Handbook, call 800-994-8849. The book sells for $30; Master Gardener students will receive a copy as part of their enrollment fee.


E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.

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