Cherokee County: Master Gardener program begins Jan. 9

CHEROKEE COUNTY – Calling all green-thumbs: A 12-week course that turns gardeners into educators begins Jan. 9 in Cherokee County.

Part of the Texas Master Gardener program, the Cherokee County Master Gardener program is offered through the county AgriLife Extension office in Rusk and to date, has about 28 members, said Cherokee County horticulture extension agent Kim Benton.

“We offer some amazing classes” in the program, which will be offered from 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays through March 31, she said. “We teach about plant growth process, about soils, about growing vegetables, about landscape design and permaculture – that basically revolves around the premise of having everything in your yard or garden work together so that all areas are utilized to benefit that garden – and composting,” Benton said.

The course includes 50-plus hours of horticulture training, with classes held in a variety of settings: At the Courthouse Annex building in Rusk, as well as on field trips to an area greenhouse and to the Stephen F. Austin State University gardens in Nacogdoches.

“I'm so blessed to have such a great connection with SFA, with their biology department and with Mast Arboretum – when you walk around their arboretum, you're doing plant identification and ecosystem studies, taking note of the landscape. But you're also walking around for the pure pleasure of the beauty there,” she said.

The course fee is $110 per person, with no limit on class size.

“The largest class we've ever had has been 17, but the number fluctuates from year to year,” Benton noted. “Last year there were eight, which is about standard for us, and it's nice, because it's a more personal one-on-one environment with smaller classes,” she said.

According to a history of the Texas Master Gardener program (www.mastergardener.tamu.edu), the volunteer program dates back to the early 1970s, when a new program launched in Washington State drew much interest in Texas, where “county agents in the Texas Cooperative Extension were experiencing overwhelming demands for horticulture information, much like their colleagues in the Pacific Northwest.”

An inaugural class was held in 1979 in Montgomery County, drawing approximately 25 people and led by extension agents and university specialists. “Volunteer service was optional, but class members were encouraged to work on extension projects,” the site noted.

Interest quickly spread throughout the state, and in 1987, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service made an official commitment to a Texas Master Gardener program with the hiring of a statewide coordinator, it noted.

By 1991, “a statewide, non-profit organization was formed and called the Texas Master Gardener Association,” according to the site.

For Benton, the program is a means for educating people locally, in a way that help them “to live more mindfully.

“(It's about) teaching people to conserve their resources, or that by planting the right plant in the right place, they can actually potentially save money, through less use of pesticides and reduced use of water,” she said. “I think we have an impact on individual lives that way, and it's so important to bring that to the county.”

The program also helps create a resource for county residents, who have access to people who are able to answer even the simplest questions about plants and gardening.

“Absolutely! This is a great resource for our county – some Master Gardeners have really strong specialties, whether it's knowing about a certain plant or about environment” so they are able to impart that knowledge, she said. “What you love is what you're going to be passionate about, and therefore can share that information with others.”

In a more public setting, most residents are familiar with the group's work with annual spring and fall plant sales, sponsorship of the Scarecrow Trails, the Gardens at H.O.P.E., as well as sponsoring the best homegrown tomato contest during the annual Tomato Fest.

Master Gardeners also are involved in educating younger generations, she said.

“We teach horticulture in area schools throughout the county, and we also oversee a horticulture contest that's part of the county livestock show each year,” she said.

To learn more about the Jan. 9-March 31 Master Gardener training, contact Cherokee County horticulturalist Kim Benton, 903-683-5416, or email kim.benton@ag.tamu.edu. Information also may be found on Facebook, at “Cherokee County Master Gardener Association.”

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