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January 3, 2014

Master Gardeners gear up for new year

JACKSONVILLE — It began in the 1970s as a means of sharing horticultural information with general public, but today, the Texas Master Gardener program is a way for participants to give back to their communities.

“It's of great benefit to the counties themselves,” said Cherokee County Extension horticultural agent Kim Benton, who leads a three-month program that kicks off Jan. 14 in Rusk.

“It's a lot of money and energy through those resources that are being put right back into local communities” as master gardeners – and candidates – grow involved, she explained. “And it's a way for each community to be recharged, even to a small degree. For us in Cherokee County, which is a small, rural county, the time these volunteers put back into the county is a real strength for residents.”

It's a thought echoed by Texas AgriLife Extension, which, 40 years ago, adapted a program created in Washington state for Texas gardeners.

“The program’s strength lies in its ability to meet the diverse needs of the individual communities it serves,” according to the website http://mastergardener.tamu.edu. “When the term 'Master Gardener' was first coined in the early 1970s to describe a new Extension program in Washington State, few could have predicted it would spread into Texas and blossom into one of the most effective volunteer organizations in the State.”

TAMU extension vegetable specialist Dr. Sam Cotner is credited with the program's creation in 1978, done in response to “overwhelming demands for horticulture information,” the site states.

The program – comprised of 50 hours of coursework and an equal amount of volunteer hours – grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1987, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service hired a statewide coordinator run run it. Four years later, in 1991, the Texas Master Gardener Association – a state-wide non-profit organization – was formed.

Today, numerous program members have contributed hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer service, in projects ranging from teaching various kinds of gardenings and wetlands reclamation to landscaping state property such as the Capitol grounds in Austin.

In Cherokee County – where the program has been in existence since 2002 and numbers 28 certified Master Gardeners – recent projects have been in the form of the annual fall Scarecrow Trails, which benefits HOPE, a county-wide clearing house assisting those in need, and events like Ag Days, which Benton said strengthens the knowledge local youths have about agriculture and its impact on a communty.

“These are our future gardeners, so this is very important,”

she said.

Orientation for this year's Cherokee County Master Gardener Training session is Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Cherokee County Extension office, 165 E. 6th St., Suite 104 in Rusk. Cost is $95 per person.

Classes are from 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 1, held predominantly at the Rusk office, with planned field trips to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, as well as to the Texas A&M Research Center in Overton.

Classes will focus on native plant identification, annuals and perennials, and permaculture – growing various plants together in a way to make a stronger, more beneficial system of planting, Benton explained.

“It's kind of like companion gardening, but to the nth degree,”

she said.

Those interested in the program can apply up through the beginning of the orientation session.

While class size varies, students have in common a love for or an interest in gardening, Benton said.

“They want to learn, and they want to help the community – we have a lot who volunteer in other areas, but they find this a creative way to give back to their community,” she explained.

Program candidates are screened through a background check (“Anytime you're volunteering with the public that involves, kids, we're going to do background checks – it's a safety net for volunteers and the public,” Benton said) and take a final exam at the end of the course.

“We have never had anyone fail the testing,” Benton laughed.  

To learn more about the Master Gardener training, contact Cherokee County Extension Agent Kim Benton at kim.benton@ag.tamu.edu or call 903-683-5416.

 

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