So, what do we think of “Master Gardeners”?

So, what do we think of “Master Gardeners”?
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Recently there was a lively garden-writer discussion on Facebook that began with this question:  “I’m a member of several professional garden groups and a recurring theme that comes up is anti-master gardeners. Why?”

Boy-oh-boy, did people have answers.  One opined that Master Gardeners represent a “stale and stagnant status quo,” another had seen them selling known invasives in their area, but the main complaint against Master Gardeners was about their very name.

Bad Name

I totally agree with the commenters that “Master Gardener” is a misnomer and I weighed in to say that attending classes (where attendance wasn’t even required), completing a take-home test and then performing 40 volunteer hours does not make anyone a “master” at anything.  There were people in my class (in DC) who’d never put a plant in the ground in their lives, and after MG “training” and certification, still hadn’t.

That “master” in the name leads to problems like:

– People thinking it’s on the same level as “Master Carpenter,” a tittle that represents actual mastery.

– Apparently, it can go to people’s heads.  “Some MG’s take that title too seriously and are extremely pompous.”  “Extremely pompous about the mostly abstract info they have.”

– It makes people boring:  “They use the title of ‘Master Gardener’ as a badge of all-inclusive expertise. Plus they tend to be really really boring.”

– The name is often mistakenly assumed to indicate a higher level of knowledge and training than actual horticulturists!

– From yours truly, a complaint that America’s Master Gardener Jerry Baker is a known quack who’s made beaucoup bucks off that self-proclaimed title.  (Which I ranted about back in ’06.)

Better Name?

Garden writers seem to agree it’s time for renaming. “If they’d rename the program to something more honest, that made it clear that the level of education is meant for homeowners and not as a professional certification, I’d have fewer sore feelings about the program.”

“Horticultural Research Volunteer” was suggested as “something that allows the public to know that they are not BETTER THAN US.”

Taking Work from Garden Writers

Some complain of MG writing columns competing with paid (hopefully) garden writers.

And a related pocketbook complaint is that you can’t use your Master Gardener credential for commercial purposes.  “A pure interpretation of this means that you can’t put MG on your resume, on the cover of your book, on a byline or author bio for a magazine or newspaper article (for which you get paid), on your business card, and so on.”

Coming to their Defense

“We are not volunteer gardeners nor do we compete in any way with professional horticulturists or designers; we provide RESEARCH-BASED gardening information to the public. We are taught during our training that it isn’t necessary to have all the answers; it’s only necessary to know how to find them. ”

And several writers sang the praises for MG programs in their area.  (And I’m always happy to hear about MG programs that are nothing like the one in DC I’ve ranted about.)

 No Surprise: It Starts in Washington

Responding to a suggestion that the garden writer group rename the MG program, one writer answered that the name can only be changed at the national level (by the Department of Agriculture, presumably) and continued:  “I think the lack of consistency form place to place is one of the problems w/the program as a national institution.”  Others echoed this complaint about the lack of consistency across the country.

And we heard from Canadians about what the program can be:  “In Ontario, we’re required to take a horticulture certificate from one of two universities (three courses, usually taking two years of distance ed) and write a qualifying exam before being accepted into the program. Each year, we have a compulsory technical update, and monthly meetings, of which we must attend at least four, include one hour of education. Thirty hours of volunteer time annually (most do more; I did nearly double that last year) is essential to remain in the program. It’s a shame there’s so much anti-MG feeling.”

What do YOU think of Master Gardeners?  And can you suggest a better name?

Weigh in, and I’ll try to get a response from the USDA folks who have jurisdiction over the program, from the Extension Master Gardener bloggers and from the Garden Professors.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on March 1, 2013 at 9:09 am, in the category CRRRITIC, Ministry of Controversy.


    • Karla
    • 22nd October 2016

    I couldn’t agree more that I have seen more “mis-information” coming out of the Master Gardener program than I have from just about anywhere else–and that includes the internet blogosphere.

    • Frank Hyman
    • 13th November 2016

    I have a degree in horticulture and design as well as 20 years experience running my own garden design/plant/build business and two years of organic farming and before that trained as an integrated pest management (IPM) scout.

    • Beth Turlington
    • 15th November 2016

    I’m a Master Gardener, and what I’ve been taught is from horticulture professionals from our Land Grant University, which makes it research based. I also talk about the benefits of organics. Yes, a lot of MG’s take the title way too seriously, because they think far too much of themselves. When I talk to people I tell them MG title sounds a bit much, but that I love to garden and share what I know. As with all things, you will get opinions from a-z, we all have one, each is entitled to their own, just don’t cram your’s down my throat please.

    • admin
    • 15th November 2016

    why not call them “gardening assistance volunteers”? jon

    • monica
    • 15th November 2016

    My problem with MG program is it is supposed to help alleviate the expense of running a county “extension service” by having a “hotline” staffed with MG’s….well I called once and recieved no call back- you can only leave a message.
    My other problem with MG’s is that they are idiots. As a professional nurseryman (I know we have a bad rep sometimes too) we mostly consider them nin-cum-poops and bored housewives! They are no help to the gardening public at all. I know because I am in the public every day answering hard questions and finding the answers on the spot.
    Another problem I have with MG’s is they mistakingly think they know something! They actually think they have a title! It’s really just a joke on these poor people who have an interest in horticulture.

    • Kmac
    • 16th November 2016

    As a garden retailer in a semi-rural area (read, not much highly sophisticated inventory or demand for “fancy pants” goods) we are inundated several times a week with requests for cultural advice and identification of plant problems…as a trained MG myself (who is restricted from advertising this fact) I know the drill of how to refer folks to the local extension office, and for tougher problems either one of the regional specialists or the state pathology lab etc.
    However, when I do that, the majority of the customers give me the look that says, “are you kidding” and I find out they have tried to get an answer from our local MG’s thru the extension but they either were either given conflicting or useless/vague info or were ignored. So, they end up on my plate and as a good retailer, I do try to give good customer service w/o “giving the store” away, in the hopes of making a sale. But I am beginning to find that some customers are abusing my help in that they always ask and then never buy…so for those folks the “free” pipeline is shutting down.
    This spring I have again been asked to give a talk at the MG spring seminar. I do it as it is a great way to get our name out there marketing-wise, but it does require alot of prep time (handouts, Powerpoint).
    When I was in the landscape trade (designing/estimating), if a client dropped the info that she (I’ve only known 2 MG guys) was a MG it usually would set bells off: uh oh, here we go….and I’d have to get my MG “game face” on and also have to forewarn and appease the landscape job foreman as the MG’s could sometimes drive them a little nuts. And yes, we would add-in the PIA factor into the job cost to cover the extra time that would result in what at some instances could become a MG initiated Landscaping Spanish Inquisition.

    • monica
    • 16th November 2016

    Kmac, don’t give up on those people seeking free advice- it is our policy to treat them as any others in hopes they will come back and buy something at our store- heck they have already set foot in your store, and they must realize the value of your shop over say Home Depot or wherever they get cheap plants from. With repeat offenders or one-time obvious abuse (never seen them before, and they are very demanding of me to explain their problem etc etc) I usually try and steer them in the direction of add-on sales of fertilizer and natural pesticides to fix their problem. I think they feel a little guilty when I make them tell me where they got their plant- and I can use this to get a sale- ever so subtly… But your reputation as the person with some answers far outweighs any abuse suffered in the process.

    • Brian
    • 16th November 2016

    “My other problem with MG’s is that they are idiots. As a professional nurseryman (I know we have a bad rep sometimes too) we mostly consider them nin-cum-poops and bored housewives! They are no help to the gardening public at all. I know because I am in the public every day answering hard questions and finding the answers on the spot.
    Another problem I have with MG’s is they mistakingly think they know something! They actually think they have a title! It’s really just a joke on these poor people who have an interest in horticulture.

    • admin
    • 16th November 2016

    THANK YOU, BRIAN…….for sticking up for us:)

    • Andrea
    • 17th November 2016

    Brian, you took the words right out of my mouth and I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I worked at a nursery and garden center for ten years and I am a master gardener. I tried to be honest to customers when giving advice but there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m trying to make a sale. As a master gardener I don’t have to worry about making a sale and can be completely blunt. I would put my knowledge base up against most nursery owners, even Monica, brilliant though she may be 😉 None of the people in my MG class were professionals but they were all dedicated volunteers eager to learn as much about gardening as they could. We all had areas of special interest and learned as much from each other as from the wonderful extension agents that ran the program. I would also like to know what special skills it takes to be a garden writer or nursery professional………is there some kind of special certification for that?

    • T Deger
    • 17th November 2016

    As a Master Gardener in the Midwest, I am appalled at all the insults hurled our way! The group I attend class and volunteer with are passionate hands-on gardeners! We put in countless hours at garden related functions and work in public gardens, answer questions, help wherever we can. Many of us work full time at other jobs and fit this all in our spare time. We don’t expect thanks or accolades, just a little respect!

    • AnnT
    • 17th November 2016

    EXTREMELY WELL SAID!!! Thank you.

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