501 Life Magazine | Arkansas Master Gardeners: Program going strong in its 31st year
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Arkansas Master Gardeners: Program going strong in its 31st year

Garland County MGs demonstrate proper crape myrtle pruning in Hot Springs public spaces. When pruned properly, crape myrtles have an elegant shape that shows off both bright blooms and satiny bark. When topped repeatedly, “ crape murder” causes unsightly knobs and cause a witches’ broom of thinner, weaker branches.

by Jann Spann

Sometimes a person or a group can be such a vital force in a community that we forget that it once was just an idea that deserved a chance. Such is the case for Arkansas Master Gardeners, trained volunteers who help home gardeners in their communities throughout the state. 

As part of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, the Cooperative Extension Service provides educational programs and research-based information through its county offices. In a classroom and in the fields, the Extension Service is home base for the Arkansas Master Gardener program. 

The Arkansas Master Gardener program has evolved from a four-county program in 1988 to one with more than 50 counties now active. Thousands of volunteers have been trained in horticulture over the past three decades and are required to give back to their communities through their gardening talents. They have made a huge impact on the beautification of our state, as well as helping to disseminate gardening information to the public. 

For the first time since its inception, the state Master Gardener organization has a new leader. Last year, Berni Kurz took the mantle of consumer horticulturist after Janet Carson’s retirement. Berni comes into the job with decades of Extension Service experience, and he brings a few goals to the program.

Public and program education ranks at the top for the Master Gardener program, and Berni’s first goal is to update out-of-date consumer horticulture publications and also create new ones to support the current research-based recommended principles and practices for all Arkansas home gardeners. As part of the University of Arkansas system, the Extension Service has offices in all 75 counties as well as research centers located throughout the state.

To provide better outreach in its communities, the MG program now offers training in three methods: traditional classroom face to face, live video conferencing of all presenters to multiple training sites at one time, and a self-paced online training over a three-month period. This shift has attracted younger participants and those that hold down a full-time job.

Statewide, Master Gardener volunteers total 3,400 in 67 counties. The 2017 volunteer hours for project service and education hours total 170,301. In dollar terms, using an $19 per hour rate from the Independent Sector, this had an impact of $3.2 million last year.

People with horticultural skills, a willingness to learn and a desire to help others become Master Gardeners.  What started with volunteers answering phone requests for gardening questions has transformed to utilizing their leadership skills as well, producing a variety of interesting opportunities within a community.

The Master Gardener Program through the U of A Cooperative Extension Service is open to all people regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, religion or national origin. To learn how you can become involved in this program, contact your local county extension office or visit uaex.edu. Under the “Yard & Garden” tab, you’ll have a drop-down menu, and from there you’ll find a link to your county extension office where you can learn more about the Master Gardener program.

Master Gardeners take pleasure in pass-along plantings, items from the gardens of friends and family that evoke memories of special times and special people. That’s why most county programs offer a plant sale where you can also learn about plants, diseases, pests and get some expert advice.

Here are some upcoming events:

First Monday with Saline County MGs, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 1, Saline County Library, 1800 Smithers Dr., Benton.

Hot Spring County MG Plant Sale, 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 6, rain or shine, county fairground building, 1303 Collie, Malvern.

White County MG Plant Sale, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 13, Carmichael Community Center, 801 S. Elm St., Searcy.

Cleburne County MG Plants Galore & More Sale, 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 4.

Faulkner County MG Plants Sale, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 11, Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds, 2505 E Oak St., Conway.

Most Master Gardener plant sales provide the main revenue for the county program. In Faulkner County, the proceeds from this sale fund college scholarships that totaled more than $8,000 for students seeking agriculture related degrees. The remainder is used to purchase necessary supplies and equipment to manage the many projects that are undertaken.

So next time you visit your county library, courthouse or museum, look at those garden beds, because in most instances, the gardeners are your neighbors and friends who like to dig in the dirt. They would love for you to share their passion!