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Are master gardeners always this unhelpful?

This is less a rant than a whine. I went to a county fair this past weekend, and I was looking forward to learning which vegetable varieties the three master gardeners there had had success with. So I arrived on time for their "talk," which turned out to be a talk among themselves. When I finally got their (very grudging) attention, I asked for advice about which tomatoes would best tolerate a less sunny yard. "None of them," said master gardener #1, "you can't grow tomatoes without eight hours of sun." I said I did, so obviously you can - I was just looking to increase my yield. "Yeah, well, you need eight hours of sun for everything," said master gardener #2, "except maybe lettuce." I told her that I did very well with beans and peas, despite my insufficiently sunny yard. She shrugged and went back to gossiping with master gardener #1. Eventually master gardener #3 allowed that she liked Roma tomatoes, and I should add magnesium to the soil. All well and good, but I came away with the distinct impression that these ladies didn't know much, and what they did know, they were loath to share.

So what are the qualifications for becoming a master gardener, anyway? This was my first encounter with master gardeners, and I was, to say the least, unimpressed. Is my experience typical?

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  1. This program to my knowledge is run by the Cooperative Extension program under the auspices of a land grant university. You can probably find info on a website. No matter the training, it's still going to boil down to the personalities. I'm sorry you got a bum group. I am usually very pleased when I attend cooperative extension programs. I'm a long time 4-H volunteer and the same goes with that volunteer program. There's some terrific leaders and there's some not so great leaders.

    12 Replies
    1. re: dfrostnh

      As I suspected. One wonders why these women would volunteer their time if they find the task such an unpleasant chore. And what a contrast to all the enthusiastic 4-H kids showing off their rabbits and poultry.

      1. re: small h

        That is very sad. I am a Master Gardener in Canada (um...yeah) and am very passionate about it. I started up a gardening society because of my desire for others (and myself!) to learn from each other. I've done things like many talks and have taught several hypertufa courses - things like that. Oh, and planting in city parks and in front of medical facilities to brighten things up. :-)

        1. re: chefathome

          I was expecting someone like you, who would want to talk about what works and what doesn't, give advice, share anecdotes, etc. I'm sure there are lots of people like that in the area, and one of these days I will find them. Keep up your good work!

          1. re: small h

            sounds like you got people who have never grown in your conditions...
            google a bit, ask around -- find the best garden you can walk to. gardeners tend to be pretty quiet folk, but they'll talk if you ask.

            1. re: Chowrin

              It's interesting you bring this up, because the day before we went to the county fair, we wandered into an antique store near our place that we'd passed dozens of times and somehow never got around to visiting. I asked the owner what he was growing in the large garden out back. Not only did he give me a lengthy explanation of why he had chosen to grow certain vegetables. he even showed me the seed packets so I could note the correct spellings of the seed types.

              So that made me think the master gardeners would be even more amazing.

              1. re: Chowrin

                Amen, I'm the most introverted person you could imagine but get me going about gardening and I'll talk your ear off.

              2. re: small h

                If you're lucky, there's an active website that might be useful such as gardenweb.com. New England thread is pretty active. So is the vegetables one. I agree that specific information is really helpful. I'm having good luck with a particular summer squash (zucchini costato romanesque) in terms of production and insect resistance. Other varieties have flopped. I grow at least 12 kinds of tomatoes and their performance, even in full sun, vary considerably. You might try the tomato forum on gardenweb.com. I've grown tomatoes in a shady yard at our old house and most recently is a partly shady section at our current home. Sun really is an important ingredient but you are right, it's not impossible to grow in less than perfect sun conditions.

                1. re: dfrostnh

                  I've done some half-assed searches for a regional message board, but I haven't had much luck so far. I'll keep trying.

                2. re: small h

                  That is what I would hope as well. When you are passionate about something, it should translate. Same when I teach cooking classes. I have people call me after to thank me for my enthusiasm! A few who have hated lamb, for example, learned to love it because they tasted it cooked properly for the first itme. It is so much fun to share with others and to learn from those with different fields of expertise.

                  Good luck with finding classes - they should be fun and informative and make you want to return to other classes. Heck - I even take along treats I've made with my herbs for people to eat! That is going a bit far, I know. :-P

                3. re: chefathome

                  I'm about to try some hypertufa. Do you post on gardenweb?

                  1. re: Shrinkrap

                    No, I don't. Hypertufa is awesome - fun and it looks incredible. I have several containers. It is very easy as well. Good luck!

                    Will look into gardenweb. You've got me curious!

            2. You need to find a different group of master gardeners. Find out about other M.G.'s and workshops at your local County Extension. Also, find your nearest community garden and go talk to people there. We might not be the most knowledgeable, but I've never met a community gardener that isn't willing to discuss there experiences and helpful tips.

              1. I'm so sorry you had such a negative experience with those Master Gardeners. Here in Massachusetts we have a very active and passionate group of MGs who have completed 13 weeks of intense training in all things horticultural and love to share that knowledge with everyone who is interested. That's why we take the course in the first place. I became an MG in 1997 and since then have been been involved in all kinds of outreach programs like the fair you mentioned, flower shows, telephone hot line, etc. You can't imagine how much enjoyment we get by being able to answer questions and solve home gardeners problems. And, if we don't know an answer... we Look It UP!

                Your experience was atypical to say the least. Most MGs would have given you chapter and verse about shade gardening. You would have had more information than you knew what to do with, I assure you. Here's a link to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's FAQ regarding Master Gardeners... (the society sponsors the MG program although it's a separate entity now, and brings in professors of agronomy and horticulture from the Universities of Massachusetts, RI and Conn. )
                http://www.masshort.org/Master-Garden...

                As for your tomato questions please try phoning the university extension office in your state. They'll be able to help you choose the most viable tomato varieties for your location. FWIW I've grown all sorts of tomatoes in my mostly shady garden with no trouble at all rotating each year in only 2 areas. Those areas only get about 5 hours of sun each day.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Gio

                  Gio- yours is more like my experience than some of the other posters. I am an MG in Georgia, and everyone I volunteer with in our very active organization is dedicated, enthusiastic and happy to share knowledge and suggestions. I've put in over 200 volunteer hours already this year, and have a full schedule for the next few months working with children and disadvantaged teens, preparing for our spring classes, for our fall AG Heritage Days, writing newspaper and magazine articles, etc. As in any other organization, the OP may find some personalities more amiable than others, but it's worth it to contact the extension office and find someone who is more willing to do a little research for them.
                  I have to admit, I am lucky to live in a county with a group as great as it is. A nearby county is nothing like ours, and the MGs there are a little insulated garden club, not really interested in the volunteer work as much as the social aspect.
                  The mission of the Master Gardener Extension Volunteers is to disseminate horticultural information for the land grant university's Extension program, and overall, I think we do a pretty good job if it.

                2. I've had luck with cool weather crops in the shadier parts of my yard. Spinach, mustard, radish, beets (although the beets didn't get very large there's nothing wrong with baby beets either). I have a brussels sprout plant being shaded by a grape vine. It will be interesting to see how that goes. It only has pea-sized sprouts now. I also like to put plants that bolt in summer's heat into shadier spots too (basil, broccoli). They don't get as big as those with sun, but they produce.

                  I'm glad you posted about the disposition of some master gardeners. I've gotten that same attitude from 7 out of 8 of them. I thought it was me! I agree that it comes down to personality. It must not occur to them that participating in public events requires a certain amount of customer service, or tolerance for the public at least.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: LanaD

                    This is very unusual where I live where most MG's are very passionate about sharing what they know. In fact, it is rare to find one that does not bend over backwards to help! They are great salt-of-the-earth people who volunteer tons of hours because they WANT to.

                  2. Unfortunately, while I've so far mostly been in contact with Master Gardeners online (with a few face-to-face encounters), I've had experiences similar to yours - snobbery to the point of rudeness, & a seemingly decided attempt to make anyone asking questions feel like an idiot.

                    So now I don't bother with Master Gardeners anymore. There are far too many other resources available these days than having to deal with people who look down their noses at other gardeners simply because "they've" taken a series of Cooperative Extension courses.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Bacardi1

                      That is so sad. It is so difficult for me to imagine it. It's not as though MGs go to school for eons for this. Anyone could do it. Not sure what is with the attitudes and egos. The people who attend MG conferences that I go to are almost the opposite and very humble. Just regular people who love what they do. And generous - so many give so much of their time joyfully.

                      1. re: chefathome

                        Ok, I'm starting to feel bad about making you feel bad about bad master gardeners. So here is a link to an old thread, in which a very nice and helpful lady answers questions about indoor herb gardening. It should restore your faith (except for the parts where a rogue poster falls in love with the sound of her own voice and clutters things up with off-topic musings).

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/606792

                        But I'm also relieved to hear that the experience I had wasn't unique. In other words, I'm not crazy.

                    2. Oh, don't feel bad! I understand. For some reasons sometimes this does happen. I am also from a rural/small town area which can also make a difference. This experience *should* be atypical, but sadly it appears as though it is not. So many MGs I know would be surprised to hear about this. It would generate some interesting discussion! Oops - small h, I was intending to respond to your last comment.

                      1. Ah, I'm so bummed for your experience. We have a fab master gardener on our online sprouting group, he loves to help. And our city folks that I've interacted with are terrific. I second dfrostnh, gardenweb.com is a good place to get online advice from folks who love this stuff.

                        1. I'm guessing you get to be a "Master Gardener" by passing a test or doing x many hours of work?

                          Find some crusty old bastard who has been growing food like his daddy did and his daddy did before him and ask them.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: kengk

                            kengk,
                            The mission of the Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers is to disseminate information and research on residential horticulture to the public for each state's land grant universities (in my case, University of Georgia). As our state is heavily invested in farmland, the University can focus its resources on the farmer and issues concerning the farming community,
                            while the MG Volunteers educate the homeowners and residential gardeners.
                            Yes, we do have to pass a test, in fact two - a midterm and a final during and after the 40 to 70 hours of classes taught by university instructors and county agricultural agents. We have classes two days a week for three months in subjects such as botany, plant physiology, entomology, ornamental plants, vegetable and fruit gardening, landscape design, soil composition, water smart landscapes.. a total of 27 classes, and lots of studying at home. Once you've passed the tests, you must accumulate 50 hours of volunteer time to receive your badge and certificate as a Master Gardener. Each year thereafter, you must volunteer a minimum of 25 hours to keep your certification.
                            The volunteer time can be spent working on children's programs or presentations, public speaking for garden clubs or service organizations, working in the MG Demonstration Gardens or greenhouses, writing columns for the local newspapers or magazines, hosting seminars for the public on residential garden issues, working the MG plant sale (which is the fundraiser to provide grants to many local projects such as Eagle Scouts, school gardens, handicapped gardens or beautification projects in the county), and many, many other worthy projects.
                            We have a very active and engaged MG organization in our county, and many of those volunteers have been "growing food like their daddy did and his daddy did" for many years themselves. Some are small farmers, growing on the same land their daddy did. And still, in spite of all the knowledge (and folklore, in some cases) that daddy passed on to them, these people understand the value of research-based information and education, and the need of the public to have access to the universities' resources.
                            Upthread, you may have read the projects I have invested my time in this year. I am very proud of my organization, and of the exceptional people I have come to know, admire and learn from.

                            I think that anyone who has an unsatisfactory experience with a Master Gardener would have most likely had an unsatisfactory experience with that same person in any role they were representing. Becoming a Master Gardener doesn't make you any different than you already are. I'm sure that many of us CHers have been volunteers in organizations that have a few 'pills' to deal with. That doesn't come with the MG badge.

                            1. re: jmcarthur8

                              I would agree that any profession or vocation has good people and bad. I did not intend to malign certified "Master Gardeners". I definitely think there is a place for handed down knowledge and also for more science based knowledge.

                              FWIW, counting the time spent as my dad's field hand, I've been gardening for over 40 years and I still look stuff up on various extension websites and other resources. Hardly ever do anything without wishing I could still ask my dad what he thought.

                              1. re: kengk

                                (hey - you've been gardening 40 years? Wanna join our club?)

                                You sound like you'd be a great asset to the MG organization.

                          2. I'm sorry about your experience.

                            My dad worked on his dad's farm when he was a kid, so I had the benefit of what kengk suggested.

                            I haven't spoken (knowingly) with any MG's. I have had EXCELLENT experiences querying the various department folks at a local nursery near my house. They're unpretentious and don't try to get rid of me quickly or sell me stuff. Years ago, my dogwood was dying and I had no idea why (this is pre-internet). I brought a leaf into the garden store and by the time I left, I had a diagnosis, and the person even photocopied possible treatments from a book he had; I still have that sheet.

                            I've found that the willingness-to-help vibe (or lack thereof) is palable in the first 10 seconds of conversation. Just my experience.