By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
Last year, hundreds of Georgians worked more than 170,000 hours for the University of Georgia and never drew a paycheck. But as Master Gardener volunteers, they never expected one.
Graduates of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' Master Gardener Program donate their time to help UGA Cooperative Extension county agents across the state.
Training, volunteer hours
To become Master Gardeners, the volunteers are first trained for 40 hours by UGA Extension specialists. Then after volunteering for at least 50 hours at their local Extension office, they become certified Master Gardeners.
The training is essential as they use their new expertise to help with community education projects. It also helps them answer questions from gardeners who either call or come into their county agent's office.
"Our Master Gardeners do everything from speaking to garden clubs to visiting home gardens to help consumers solve problems," said Marco Fonseca, a UGA Extension horticulturist. He coordinates the Georgia Master Gardener program. "Master Gardener volunteerism creates a far-reaching ripple effect across our state."
Helping individuals, communities
Fonseca says several Master Gardener groups take part in the Plant-A-Row for the Hungry program. They plant and tend vegetable gardens and donate their harvests to area food pantries.
"When you figure in the value of their volunteer hours, including their travel miles, Master Gardeners contributed $3.2 million last year," Fonseca said.
To honor these volunteers and their service to the state, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue declared March 18 Master Gardener Day in Georgia. The day honors more than 5,000 Georgians who have earned the title.
Georgia's Master Gardener program began in the spring of 1979. Butch Ferree, then head of the UGA Department of Horticulture, traveled to Washington state to learn about a popular new urban outreach program, Fonseca said.
That fall, Ferree began promoting the program in metro Atlanta. Under DeKalb County horticultural agent Newton Hogg, three agents in DeKalb and Fulton counties conducted the first Georgia Master Gardener program. The first class graduated 140 volunteers.
"We graduated over 100 people per year for the first 15 years," Fonseca said. "Since then, the program has exploded. Now we average 600 graduates each year."
There are 14 Master Gardener training classes across the state each year. To see if your county offers the program, call your local UGA Extension office at 1-800-ASKUGA1.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)