They Grow Gardeners, Don't They?

By Susan M. Cashin
Photography by Carole Topalian

In 1973, county extension agents in the state of Washington found themselves drowning in a sea of questions and cries for help from urban dwellers wanting to learn how to garden. To satisfy this demand, the state developed a curriculum and training program for a volunteer force called the “master gardeners.” Little did the agents know that their program would quickly take root in most land-grant colleges across the United States, as well as in several Canadian provinces.

The first master-gardener class in Texas was held in Montgomery County in 1979. Within a decade, the Texas Cooperative Extension Service (now called the Texas AgriLife Extension Service) had hired a full-time state coordinator, and, soon a statewide, nonprofit organization was established and christened the Texas Master Gardener Association. In 1991, the first master gardener class was taught in Austin, and by 1993 the Travis County Master Gardeners Association (TCMGA) was incorporated.

Today, the TCMGA is one of the most active and forward-thinking of the 115 Texas Master Gardener programs. During the 14-week fall training, program attendees—called “master gardener interns”—learn everything from botany to xeriscaping, with a heavy emphasis on environmental protection, sustainability and organic practice. To attain the master gardener certification, interns must perform at least 50 hours of volunteer services within a year of graduation (plant clinics, speaker’s bureau, school garden projects and so on).

When asked why one would want to become a master gardener, Manda Rash, the current president of the TCMGA, points to the aim of “making a difference.” “In the beginning, I was only thinking about what I could learn about Central Texas gardening,” she says. “Once I began to see what an impact the organization can have on the community, I was hooked!”

“The intensive course and the subsequent volunteering opportunities changed my life,” agrees past TCMGA president, Susan Decker. “Master gardeners help make a difference in the community by reconnecting children to nature, creating a clean environment, reducing the strain on our water supply, supporting wildlife and bringing the health benefits of gardening to those in the greatest need.”

Recently honored as one of the top master gardeners in the state, Patty Leander understands the importance of fostering horticultural stewardship and facilitating it through the program. During her training 20 years ago, she met George and Mary Stewart, avid gardeners then in their eighties and still going strong. “They possessed a lifetime of gardening knowledge which they graciously and generously shared with me and so many others,” recalls Leander. “I’ve gone from being a nervous, stammering public speaker with sweaty hands and a racing heart, to one who can’t wait for the next opportunity to talk about vegetable gardening! I owe all this to the support and encouragement I’ve received from my fellow master gardeners.”

Robert “Skip” Richter, director of the Travis Country AgriLife Extension office and well-known local garden celebrity, praises the TCMGA. “We began with a few dozen members and have grown to approximately 200,” he notes. And he’s excited about the future of the association. “I see the master gardeners making even greater contributions to the community by promoting environmentally sound gardening practices and helping underprivileged residents improve their lives thorough gardening and horticulture-related education programs.”

The TCMGA offers a myriad of fun, innovative and interesting community-based programs, most of them free to the public. Diagnosis and treatment of plant diseases, wise use of water, cultivation of cool-weather vegetables and plant photography are just a few of the topics scheduled for fall. For more information visit the TCMGA website at .