Louisiana Master Gardener Program Continues to Change and Grow

Linda Benedict  |  10/10/2016 6:35:36 PM

Linda Foster Benedict

Sixteen people showed up at 8:30 a.m. on July 7 at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens conference center for the first of 16 sessions of the new Louisiana Master Gardener class in East Baton Rouge Parish.

They were representative of a typical Master Gardener class offered across the state in 26 programs covering 58 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. Most were female, 12, and most were retired, 13. All professed a love of gardening and a desire to learn more.

“Gardening in Louisiana is different from anywhere else,” cautioned their teacher, Miles Brashier, an AgCenter extension agent and horticulture specialist. “There are two seasons – hot and hotter than hell.”

Brashier, who retired from the AgCenter as an extension agent in Pointe Coupee Parish in 2015, has been hired back a couple of days a week to help with the Master Gardener program. He assured the group that by going through this class, they would gain enough knowledge to not only be better gardeners themselves but be able to help others with their gardening questions and concerns.

One of the principal goals of the Master Gardener program is to build a cadre of highly skilled volunteers who can extend the reach of LSU AgCenter extension agents and specialists and help address the demand for horticulture information, Brashier said.

Currently, there are about 2,800 active Master Gardeners across the state. Since the nationwide program started in Louisiana nearly 22 years ago, about 3,500 Louisianians have been certified as Master Gardeners.

The training includes 45 hours of instruction on plants, soils, landscaping, and garden pest control. After the students pass a test and are certified as Master Gardeners, they are to commit to 40 hours of volunteer service during the year following the training, with an additional 20 hours per year from then on, Brashier said.

They also have to earn six hours of continuing credit each year to maintain their certification.

“We have one volunteer who has logged 10,000 hours of service,” said Skippy Berner, the president-elect of the East Baton Rouge Master Gardener Association, who also spoke to the group on opening day, adding that this person had been a Master Gardener for 20 years.

It’s easy to get the service hours, Brashier said, because of the popularity of gardening across the state. Master Gardener groups do a variety of projects:

– Put on plant clinics at fairs, garden shows and nurseries where people can get a diagnosis for problem plants.

– Conduct plant sales to raise money for scholarships and community projects.

– Work with teachers to plan school gardens.

– Answer questions called into LSU AgCenter parish extension offices.

– Give talks at garden clubs and libraries.

– Spearhead community garden and beautification projects.

Among the newest projects for the East Baton Rouge group is a children’s garden at Our Lady of the Lake hospital, Berner said. The group also has been asked by Louisiana’s First Lady, Donna Edwards, to help with the landscaping and gardens at the Governor’s Mansion.

Some Master Gardeners use their training as a springboard for other activities. For example, in the East Baton Rouge Parish class, Darrell Patterson, of Baton Rouge, a recent retiree from Dow Chemical, has bought a farm in Gloster, Mississippi, where he intends to raise fruit trees. Another class member, Bridget Plauchet, of Baton Rouge, wants to learn more about trees to help her husband with his tree-farming hobby.

Baton Rouge has one of the most dominant Master Gardener programs in the state, along with Lafayette, New Orleans, St. Tammany Parish and Shreveport. These programs sometimes have waiting lists of people wanting to get in. Classes have been capped at 35 to 40 people, although the average class size across the state is 15 to 20, according to Sara Shields, the regional horticulture agent in Pointe Coupee Parish, who took over as state coordinator for the program when Brashier retired.

Baton Rouge is also the oldest program in the state, getting its start in 1994, according to John D. Roy, a retired LSU AgCenter extension agent in East Baton Rouge Parish and now a volunteer with the program.

Roy said he had proposed the idea of adopting the Master Gardener program in Louisiana back in the late 1980s. The program had been spreading across the nation state by state since its founding in Washington state in 1972.

But Bob Souvestre, now retired, another extension agent in the parish, gets the credit for organizing the first official class, Roy said.

Now all 50 states have Master Gardener programs, and all are taught as part of the Cooperative Extension Service at land-grant universities, such as the LSU AgCenter. The mission to train volunteers is the same, although the particulars of each state program can vary, said Shields, a native Texan with a Ph.D. in horticulture from Auburn University in Alabama, who has worked for the AgCenter for nearly five years.

Louisiana is in the midst of major changes to the Master Gardener program, she said. The goals are to further expand the reach of the program and to stay ahead of environmental concerns associated with gardening and landscaping.

Though the program has always taught people to use as few chemicals as possible on their lawns and gardens, that’s even more of a push now.

“The tendency has been for people to overtreat,” Brashier said. “They may need to put 5 pounds of fertilizer on their yard. But the fertilizer comes in 10-pound bags, so they use all 10 pounds. But the grass only takes up 5 pounds, so the other 5 pounds runs off into the water system.”

To help broaden the base of knowledge among volunteers about environmental issues, Louisiana has started the Advanced Master Gardener class, with the first group of 71 graduating in May 2016.

This new group receives intensive training on water quality, conservation and pest management. To get into the class, each enrollee must already be certified as a Master Gardener and pass the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s pesticide applicator exam, which means they understand the proper and safe use of pesticides.

Many of the advanced lessons are online. And that’s another change – to offer more opportunities online for people to become Master Gardeners, so they can take the classes any time of day or night and anywhere they have access to a computer.

“This will attract more working people and younger people. Right now the average age of a Louisiana Master Gardener is 65 to 70, although the youngest is 15,” Shields said, adding that this young man went through the training when he was 13.

Another change is to allow people to go through the Master Gardener training but not have to do the volunteer service. They would receive a “home horticulture certificate,” Shields said.

“There are many people who want the training, but they just can’t commit to volunteer service,” Shields said.

The cost for this option has not been set yet, Shields said.

The cost to become a Master Gardener is $150 to cover materials, although some groups around the state charge more and use that money to cover other expenses associated with the class, such as lab materials and refreshments.

Shields said the handbook and policy manual used for the classes are being revised and will be available in 2017.

People interested in the Master Gardener program can contact their local LSU AgCenter parish extension office or send an email to Shields at LMGCoordinator@agcenter.lsu.edu. They can also find more information at www.LSUAgCenter.com.

Linda Foster Benedict is a professor and the associate director of LSU AgCenter Communications. She is also editor of Louisiana Agriculture magazine
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Members of the Master Gardener class in East Baton Rouge Parish are, left to right: Darrell Patterson, Sharon Davis, Helen Campbell, Andre Brock, extension agent in West Feliciana Parish, who taught the propagation lesson, and Linda Medine. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict

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Vicki Anderson, a member of the Master Gardener class in East Baton Rouge Parish, shows her completed tray of plants. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict

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Members of the Master Gardener class in East Baton Rouge Parish include seated, left to right: Nicole Chapman, Debi O’Neill, Sharon Davis, Dr. Rus Westfall, Andre Brock, an extension agent in West Feliciana Parish, and Cathy Richard; and standing left to right: Linda Medine, Darrell Patterson, Ken Bosso, Helen Campbell, Carol Adams, Sharon Davis, Nicholas Acosta, Miles Brashier, an extension agent who is teaching the class, and Randy LaBauve, a videographer with LSU AgCenter Communications.

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