Spring is ushering in green grass, blossoming flowers, and exciting new opportunities for cultivating your garden. The Master Gardener Volunteer Program at the UF/IFAS Extension Service in Orange County is an organization that serves gardening enthusiasts and novices alike.
Started in 1981 in Orange County, and located in Orlando, the master gardener program was begun in the 1970s at the University of Washington. Its purpose is to help community members with gardening questions and to train volunteers in assisting the county agent in delivering information to nearby residents about caring for their landscapes and plants in a Florida-friendly way.
“This program is a great way for those who are passionate about gardening to share their expertise with others through volunteering,” says Ed Thralls, program coordinator. “We had a good track record of reaching the rural community but not the urban community. We had more people to communicate with in the urban areas so we wanted to help them gain knowledge.”
The Orange County extension has been a part of the local government for over 100 years. “In fact, it was President Woodrow Wilson who signed it into law,” says Thralls. Depending on what the need is, volunteers can speak at the Extension Center, at libraries, give advice over the phone, and they even have a mobile clinic that travels around to Lowes, Home Depot, home owner’s associations and other public venues across the county. “I travel all over the place to teach classes. I also teach an evening class once a month at the Jessie Brock community center,” says Thralls.
Those who love gardening and want to share their expertise with others can contact the extension center to become a volunteer. A 70-hour training course must be completed, and in the first year, volunteers must return 75 hours of service before they are certified. Volunteers work through their local extension office to inform those in the community about gardening.
One commonly asked question addressed by the program is: How cold must it get before you need to cover your plants? Residents can learn about safe food handling, how to can, when and what to plant, environmental needs for vegetables, landscaping care, pest control, grass care and more.
“You can even bring a sample of your lawn and we’ll identify the pests. We can look for earth worms and test the soil’s acidity and look for diseases and insects,” says Thralls. Orange County master gardeners staff the plant clinic.
“Being part of the master gardener program gives volunteers the opportunity to deal directly with the public by providing them information and assistance with their gardening needs,” says Ed Paulson, chairman of the Advisory Committee for the master gardener program.
To help increase awareness in the community, an introduction to the program will be held at the Orange County/UF-IFAS Extension Center on April 29.