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Master Gardeners are trained volunteers

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Last year, 2,650 Georgians donated 194,000 hours of their time to help University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents. They answered gardeners' questions, taught classes and led community service projects.

These volunteers are all graduates of the Master Gardener program in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. And to honor their service to the state, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared March 17 Master Gardener Day in Georgia.

Planting gardens, answering calls

"Across the state, Master Gardeners will conduct special programs to celebrate the day," said Marco Fonseca, a UGA Extension horticulturist and coordinator of the program.

Some will plant trees or beautify public community centers, he said. Others will teach children about horticulture, conduct plant clinics at garden centers and help with gardening events.

Statewide, Georgia has 14 Master Gardener training classes each year. To see if your county offers the program, call the UGA Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

To become Master Gardeners, volunteers are trained for 40 hours by UGA Extension experts. Then, after volunteering for at least 50 hours at their local Extension office, they become certified Master Gardeners.

Knowledge is essential

"The training is essential as the volunteers use their new expertise to help with a variety of gardening-related projects," Fonseca said. "Without the training, they wouldn't be prepared to answer questions from gardeners who either call or come into their county agent's office."

In 2006, Georgia's Master Gardeners answered more than 90,000 phone calls and visited more than 3,500 home gardens.

"Our Master Gardeners do everything from presenting plant clinics to speaking to garden clubs and writing newspaper articles," he said. "Master Gardener volunteerism creates a far-reaching ripple effect across our state."

Several Master Gardener groups take part in the Plant-A-Row for the Hungry program, Fonseca said. They install landscaping at Habitat for Humanity homes, build community nature trails and design demonstration gardens.

When you figure in the value of their time and travel, he said, Georgia Master Gardeners donated nearly $4 million last year.

Historically affective

The Georgia Master Gardener program began in 1979. Butch Ferree, then head of UGA horticulture, went to Washington state to learn about the popular new urban outreach program.

That fall, Ferree promoted the program in metro Atlanta. Under DeKalb County agent Newton Hogg, three agents in DeKalb and Fulton counties led the first Georgia Master Gardener training. The first class graduated 140 volunteers.

"We graduated more than 100 people per year for the first 15 years," Fonseca said. "Now we average 500 graduates each year."

Over the years, he said, the program has grown from answering walk-in or phone questions in cities to a nationwide network of volunteers.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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