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Penn State’s Master Gardeners Volunteer Time & Expertise Through Sustainable Practices

Did you know that the beautiful gardens, conservatories, and grounds of Pennsylvania are, in part, thanks to Penn State’s Master Gardener Program?

Master Gardeners are spread throughout all 67 Pennsylvania counties and volunteer their time and horticulture expertise through research-based, sustainable practices. The program was adopted by Penn State Extension in 1982 and boasts more than 3,400 active volunteers.

While having a passion for plants is important, Master Gardeners jump through many hoops to gain the official title. Trainees must complete 40 hours of classroom training, score an 80% or higher on a final exam, and fulfill 50 hours of volunteer service. Recruitment, training, and volunteering are administered and completed at the county level. While the initial recruitment process is plentiful, Master Gardeners must also meet volunteer and education requirements each year to maintain certification.

While specific training varies, topics including botany, plant propagation, soil health and fertilizer management, composting, controlling pests safely, entomology, plant diseases, indoor plants, vegetables, lawn care, pruning, woody ornamentals, herbaceous plants, native plants, weeds, and invasives are taught during the classroom sessions.

The classes are designed for specific regions and gardening zones, so topics such as soil types are tailored to the area. Once volunteers become official Master Gardeners, they can go through advanced training, which can help them specialize in anything from entomology to “woody plants.”

Local outreach is one of the fundamental components of the program, and Master Gardeners serve their communities by answering questions, speaking to groups, writing gardening articles, gardening in demonstration gardens, and working with the youth.

Every day, Pennsylvania residents flood the group’s official Facebook page with questions about plant and insect identification, diseases, and best practices. Naturally, the Master Gardeners then respond to with their expert advice. Each county even has a designated hotline to answer any and all horticulture questions.

Another outreach program includes “Seed to Supper,” through which the Master Gardeners teach rookie, adult gardeners how to grow a portion of their own food on a limited budget. It is intended to increase food security through food literacy, resiliency, and connectivity. Participants attend six two-hour sessions for the course, and up to 92% of graduates of the program reported having a reduced food bill as a result of their garden.

Master Gardeners play a crucial role in leading research in the invasive spotted lanternfly, too. They are equipped to address infestation by promoting non-chemical management and safe, legal, and environmentally sound pesticides when appropriate.

Since 2012, the gardeners have conducted three main pollinator projects. Between 2018 and 2020, Master Gardeners in Lancaster, Lebanon, and York counties monitored 41 plants based on findings from the second project that indicated that certain plants were more attractive to butterflies.

Last year, the program switched much of its outreach training to a virtual format. Adult residents attended programs on houseplants and rain gardens, among others, which were hosted by the Master Gardeners. First-graders across Pennsylvania also received Poison Prevention Programming.

Up-to-date programming for each county can be found here. To learn more about applying to become a Master Gardener, check out these details.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a junior biology major from York, Pa and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She overuses the ~tilde~ and aspires to be no other than the great Guy Fieri. You can find Colleen filling up her gas tank at Rutter’s, the ~superior~ Pennsylvania gas station. Please direct any questions or concerns to [email protected] For the hijinks, always.

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