Janet Carson: A horticulture hero

by Jan Spann

When it comes to Arkansas garden advice, the person that comes to most folks’ minds is Janet Carson, the woman who has worked in state service for more than 33 years.

You may know her from a variety of magazine and newspaper columns or her past radio call-in program, and many of you may know her through the Arkansas Master Gardener program.

As the Arkansas MG program celebrates its 25th anniversary in October, I want to share the background of this program and the woman with a passion for plants and teaching others about them.

Carson graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in May 1980 and joined the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service one month later. (ACES, part of the University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture, has offices in all 75 counties.)

As the first full-time female agricultural agent in Arkansas, Carson’s early years quickly put her degree in urban horticulture and landscape design to work.

In her first year as a county agent, she hosted “Ask the Expert,” a one-hour call-in radio program that aired periodically on KARN. Four years later, Carson’s free-flowing question and answer program began airing every Saturday morning. In 1990, the show went statewide. “The first hour on KARN was local, and then the second hour went out on about 15 ARN stations,” said Carson. “The program went back to one hour in March 2006.”

The drought of 1980 also garnered Carson an invitation to be on television. Donna Axum, the former Miss America from Arkansas, had a live morning TV show called “Arkansas Today.” Carson went on the show to talk about the stress that the drought was causing on trees, shrubs and other plants. “When talking about what we were going to say, I was nervous, but when we went on, Donna asked the first question about ‘strees and trubs,’ which made me smile. Being on TV hasn’t bothered me since,” Carson said.

“For Your Garden,” a two-and-a-half minute spot, aired Saturdays on KARN-TV Channel 4 in Little Rock. By 1983 she was doing 5- to 6-minute spots each week, early in the morning.

From 1998 to 2006, Carson hosted “Today’s Garden,” a 30-minute television program, which featured tours of some of the state’s finest ornamental gardens. The program regularly aired on AETN and more than 30 other independent stations and cable outlets.

After exploring the Master Gardener program in 1986 at a Tulsa conference, Carson assembled a team to begin the process for an Arkansas Master Gardener program. Staff attrition was the impetus for starting in the Pulaski County office. “While the number of agents declined through retirement and transfers, the number of phone calls about horticulture didn’t,” Carson said. “We needed a volunteer base to help with the telephones.” (Washington State University Cooperative Extension founded the first Master Gardener program in 1973 in the greater Seattle area.)

“The pilot program started in four counties in 1988: Pulaski, Garland, Saline and Jefferson. In Pulaski County, we put ads in the paper and had 75 people apply for training. We selected 20 for the 40-hour training class. We told agents in the other counties they could bring up to 10 people interested in the program. Each brought from six to 10. We trained once a week for five weeks at the state 4-H Center.”

Then, as now, MGs are required to give back 40 hours of volunteer work the first year, and 20 hours a year thereafter. Projects include working in the county extension office, answering phones and talking to people who bring in plant material for which they are seeking answers. 

The most visible contributions of the MG programs are the landscape projects maintained by the volunteers on public property. Many of the gardens around public buildings, the State Capital, the Governor’s Mansion and county courthouses are maintained by Master Gardeners.

While the average MG trainee is a 55-year-old female, the youngest Master Gardener in Arkansas was a 12-year-old home-schooled student, and several teenagers have gone through the program along with their parents. To learn more about the Master Gardener program, go to http://www.arhomeandgarden.org/master_gardener.htm where you’ll find links to county MG programs.

Master Gardeners represent a diverse group of people from all walks of life. Many have made friends for a lifetime. For some, it’s a hobby. For others, horticulture has become a career. They have taken jobs at nurseries or started up their own landscaping businesses.

Carson’s current schedule is as hectic as it was when she first began. She traverses the state to speak at county workshops, MG plant sales and coordinate the many other duties of her job as the “First Lady of Arkansas horticulture.” She will average 25,000 miles a year to visit county programs, serve as a speaker for community and MG training and to oversee the MG state conference in the spring and a leadership conference in the fall.

Carson is viewed as an expert on the national MG scene as well. Arkansas hosted the International MG conference in 2007 to rave reviews. This year’s conference is an Alaskan cruise, for which the Arkansas team has coordinated speakers and excursions while the Washington state organization has handled the logistics. Another perk of being an Arkie MG are the annual international trips Carson leads to such memorable locations as Costa Rica, Ireland and Italy.

In her spare time, she loves to cook, read, and yes, garden. She and her husband Clay have been in a supper club for more than 20 years. During the early school years of her two children, Carson was a Scout leader, served on the PTA and was a room mom. Now adults, both live in the Little Rock area.

While all 50 states and the Canadian provinces have an MG program in place, I’m a bit prejudiced in saying that Arkansas’ program thrives by providing leadership through advanced training classes for MGs and community training at the local and state level. Wherever she lands, her first task is to take photos for her daily blog, In the Garden with Janet Carson, a blog about gardening in Arkansas: http://uofacesmg.wordpress.com. She’s currently featuring two mystery plants of the day to be identified the following day. She promises that the reader will learn at least 100 plants by the end of the contest.

Whether it has been training Master Gardeners, giving advice to weekend gardeners or lecturing plant lovers at the garden events, Janet Carson has spent a career teaching the how-to of horticulture. Her knowledge clearly defines her as an expert, and her passion for sharing her knowledge makes her accessible to the novice and the practiced gardener.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.