How to Become a Master Gardener: Everything You Need to Know

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Becoming a master gardener is a lot of work. Even after becoming a master gardener, you must volunteer a set number of hours each year and obtain continuing education credit to remain certified. No special knowledge is needed to become a master gardener. All that is required is a willingness to learn and a willingness to put in the necessary volunteer hours.

Extension Program Guidelines

Master gardeners are the volunteer core for the horticulture arm of each state's Cooperative Extension service. As such, they are considered Extension Master Gardeners (EMGs).

You can find out if your state and county has a master gardener program by going to the Extension website and looking up your state. It will direct you to the state master gardener organization, which has a list of all the county master gardener programs in the state.

Not all counties have master gardener programs. However, those that do adhere to the following guidelines, as stated on the Extension website:

  • The organization is affiliated with a university for the training and education of their volunteers.
  • The focus of these organizations is to train EMG volunteers to distribute information to the public.
  • The organization recommends research-based information to the public.
  • The organization has a certification program for their volunteers.
  • The organization has an educational focus rather than promoting commercial products or entities.

First Steps to Becoming a Master Gardener

Those interested in master gardener programs need to apply and interview in order to enter the program.

Application

The process of becoming a master gardener starts with an application to your local county Extension office.

  • Fees: Some counties ask you to pay an application fee to pay for the state mandated background check that all master gardeners go through. Other counties do not ask for a fee and do not perform the background check until you are accepted into the program.
  • Background check: However, all counties will perform a criminal background check at some point. This does not mean you cannot be a master gardener if you have a criminal background. It means that certain offenses will disqualify you, such as rape, being a child sex abuser, or having seriously assaulted or murdered someone.
  • Time frame: Some counties accept applications all the time, others have a specified time frame for applications. You will need to ask your county how they handle the application process.

Interview

After all the applications are in, applicants are interviewed to be sure they will be an asset to the Extension service. Some counties get more applicants than they can accept for each class, so they choose those with the most garden knowledge for their classes. Others take all who apply. It depends on how big the master gardener organization is and how many slots are available for that class.

Master Gardener Program Requirements

Once accepted into the program, students must meet certain class and testing requirements.

Class Requirements

Master gardeners must take a certain number of hours of classes on a variety of horticultural topics. The number of hours required varies by state, usually between 30 and 50 hours total.

Topics such as lawns, fruit and nut trees, vegetables, ornamental plants, entomology, the safe use of pesticides and herbicides, and virtually every other horticultural topic are covered during this training period. Specialists from the land grant university associated with the extension service in that state come and teach the classes. Missing more than one class is usually grounds for dismissal from the program.

The class does cost money. The cost may vary by state, generally ranging from $300 to $600, though in some states it can be more than that. Many states do have scholarship programs, so it's worth looking into those to see if you qualify.

Exit Test

At the conclusion of the class, students are given an exit test over the material that they have learned in the class. Different counties have different standards for passing the exit test, so you will have to consult your county for the passing grade for the test.

Certification Process

Students that successfully complete the class and exit test are considered interns before they become certified.

Intern Hours

Interns have one year to give a set number of hours of volunteer service to the Extension agency to become certified as master gardeners. Volunteer hours are accrued by answering consumer calls for horticulture information, participating in committees planning and executing educational programs for the community, and such things as garden tours. Interns usually have ample opportunities to acquire their hours of volunteer time.

How many hours you will have to complete will be set by your state Extension service, and will be included in any information about the program. It's usually around 50 hours in one year.

Maintaining Certification

Once an intern has given 50 hours of volunteer time, they are certified as master gardeners. The state standards mandate a master gardener must give a certain amount of volunteer time a year and attend a certain number of hours of continuing education training a year to remain certified.

Individual counties may have higher requirements for volunteer hours and continuing education hours. Some counties charge a membership fee that ranges from $5 to $30 a year, depending on the organization.

Being a Master Gardener

Being a master gardener is a rewarding endeavor. You have the opportunity to learn a great deal about horticulture and to help educate others in that field. If you enjoy gardening and dealing with people, being a master gardener may be for you.

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How to Become a Master Gardener: Everything You Need to Know