Last year, almost 3,500 people worked for the University of Georgia for 102,810 hours and never drew paychecks. They are all members of the Georgia Master Gardener Program's volunteer force.
The Master Gardener program is volunteer training for people who love gardening and community service.
An Ever-Growing Volunteer Force
"Our program trains volunteers who want to work in their county extension office assisting with horticulture projects," said Bob Westerfield, who manages Georgia's program with the help of part-time assistant Krissy Slagle.
Westerfield is an Extension Service consumer horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"The hidden motive to become a Master Gardener," he said, "shouldn't be to learn gardening information. You have to want to be a volunteer."
The international program originated in Washington State. "Along with Texas, Georgia is considered a leader in the Master Gardener program," Westerfield said.
How Do I Join?
To become a Master Gardener, you have to:
* Apply and be accepted.
* Complete three months of training.
* Volunteer for at least 50 hours within one year of the training.
"Most of our Master Gardeners either don't work outside the home or are retired," Westerfield said. "You have to have a flexible schedule."
Everything You Need to Know About Horticulture
The program costs around $75, which covers the textbook, visual and hands-on training and a 500-page manual. The training is taught by county agents, UGA extension specialists and greenhouse or nursery operators.
"We want good volunteers first. We can teach them horticulture skills," Westerfield said. "It actually helps us if they don't know a lot about gardening because we have to teach the university's research-based recommendations."
The course isn't just about planting flowers and vegetables. "It's about plant selection, design, pathology, nuisance wildlife -- the whole gamut," he said.
Why train volunteers so thoroughly?
"Many of our Master Gardeners represent the county agent when people call county offices," Westerfield said. "They have to know how to answer a consumer's question correctly."
Helping Agents in the Office and in the Community
Master Gardeners are often asked to answer phone calls and e-mails at county extension offices, especially in metro areas. "In Atlanta, county agents get 150 to 170 horticulture calls per day," Westerfield said. "They often need two or three Master Gardeners to answer calls so the agents can focus on their other responsibilities."
Master Gardeners work with county agents on community service projects, too, such as composting demonstrations, beautification programs and horticulture therapy gardens.
"In one county, our Master Gardeners visit a hospice center to provide horticulture therapy," he said. "They also work with the Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens to present 'Roots and Shoots,' an educational program for school children."
Whether they were writing articles for the newspaper, making presentations to civic clubs or presenting garden clinics, Georgia Master Gardeners made more than 220,000 contacts in 1999.
Westerfield says the volunteers are dedicated. "Some of our most active Master Gardeners are from the first class back in 1979 when the Georgia program began," he said. "They have continued to give at least 25 hours of their time each year to remain active volunteers."
The program also includes advanced training to provide updated and in-depth information.
115 County Programs and Growing
Even though the program is more than 20 years old, its popularity continues to grow. "We had 593 Master Gardeners join the program in 1999," Westerfield said. "Each new year seems to shatter the old record."
Of Georgia's 159 counties, 115 offer the Master Gardeners program. "The agents coordinate the programs and decide whether they need Master Gardeners in their counties," Westerfield said. "In the Atlanta area, the program is extremely competitive, with more people applying than openings each year. We really get the cream of the crop in the metro areas."
To apply to the Master Gardeners Program, contact your county extension office. To learn more about the Georgia program, check their Web site at www.ces.uga.edu/Agriculture/hortic ulture/horthome.htm.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)