Mountains & Minds Magazine:

Mastering the garden

October 12, 2011 -- by Melynda Harrison

Relaxing in their Belgrade, Mont., solarium, Sandi and Paul Joubert look past jasmine, passion fruit vines and a banana tree into their formal ornamental grass garden outside. Fluffy plumes of "Karl Forester," "Dallas Blue," "Little Midge" and 53 other species of ornamental grasses dance in the slight breeze. In all, the Jouberts have mail-ordered, planted and tended more than 7,000 grass plants. Each species is labeled with an engraved sign at the base, created in a special machine the couple bought just for that purpose.

The Jouberts have turned their blank slate of lawn into a formal garden that rivals that of a landscape arboretum. Thanks to the Master Gardener class offered through Montana State University Extension, the Jouberts, 2010 Outstanding Master Gardeners of the Year, have learned just what makes their garden grow, and they are just two of thousands of people the Master Gardener program has helped.

From which vegetables to plant when, to how to manage a sod lawn, to creating the perfect soil profile, the Montana Master Gardener program has influenced yards and gardens throughout the state. It's not just personal property that benefits; Master Gardener graduates volunteer to use their new skills educating and beautifying their communities. They tend community garden plots in Great Falls and donate the vegetable harvests to Meals on Wheels and the local food bank. They answer questions at the Bozeman Farmer's Market and design the landscape for the Bridger Fire Department. Master Gardeners work with women recently released from the Montana Women's Prison in Billings, teaching them life skills that will hopefully improve their lifestyles.

According to the 2009 Extension Master Gardener Survey, there are nearly 95,000 Master Gardenters nationally who have volunteered more than 5 million hours. But, it began as a tiny offshoot of a small national program with lots of room for growth.

The National Master Gardener Program was started by the Washington State Cooperative Extension in 1972 and is now one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country, according to Toby Day, MSU Extension horticulture associate specialist and Montana Master Gardener coordinator. The classes were a remedy to the enormous number of questions Extension agents were fielding from home gardeners.

Missoula County Extension agent Jerry Marks brought the program to Montana in 1974 after hearing a presentation by one of the people who started the national program in Seattle. Marks and Orville McCarver, the MSU horticulture specialist at the time, were inspired to start a Master Gardener program in Montana to help lessen the impact of horticulture questions on the Extension office.

"The Extension office was flooded with horticulture calls. We were looking for a way to handle those calls and to reach out to people in a different way," Marks said. "When you don't have any money, volunteers are how you do that."

Marks' first program ran every day for a week.

"I was amazed at the different ages and different kinds of people who came," Marks said. "It has always been people who are interested in landscaping and gardening, but now we also get a lot of people who are interested in native vegetation, the development of open space or looking to develop their career as landscapers or horticulturists."

The Master Gardener concept--in which a person takes specific training and commits to sharing that knowledge with others--took off across the country. By 1980, counties in 21 states, including Montana, had developed their own version of the Master Gardener program. In 1999 the Master Gardener Program was active in 48 states.

Bob Gough, known as "Dr. Bob," started the Rhode Island Master Gardener program in 1975 when he was a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island. When he came to MSU to teach in 1995, he took over the Montana Master Gardener program. While the Extension agents in Missoula were running a successful program, Gough said the state program was, "cobbled together and under no particular guidance--an orphan program that no one seemed to want."

Gough took the Master Gardener program on the road and did horticultural presentations around the state. In his 10-year tenure as Master Gardener coordinator, Extension horticulture specialist and full-time faculty member, he transformed it into a cohesive statewide program.

"I raised the level of learning from presentation of simple and elementary garden club talks to that of a horticulture 101 class, and the students responded," Gough said.

Now, six county agents, in addition to Day, teach the program. In counties where an agent doesn't have a horticulture background, they present a digital slide show recorded by Day, bringing the Master Gardener program to 29 Montana communities.

When the Jouberts took their first Master Gardener class in 2004, Gough was the instructor. They were doing a lot of landscaping in their yard, and the class "forced them to think outside of the box, like using Integrated Pest Management in the solarium," Paul said. They have since taken the class two other times and think they will sign up again and again.

"We've always been working in different parts of the yard," Sandi said. "You can't believe how much knowledge Dr. Bob and Toby have in their heads. We'll keep taking the class because we always pick up something new."

In 2006, Cheryl Moore-Gough, Extension horticulture specialist and Dr. Bob's wife, took over when Gough became an associate dean for the MSU College of Agriculture. She taught the Bozeman Master Gardener class for three years. Day took it over when she retired in 2009.

Starting in 2010, the Montana Master Gardener program morphed from one 12-week course to three levels of courses with progressively more rigor.

"When I taught that 12-week class, I saw two types of people in the room--the people who wanted to learn, at a basic level, how to take care of their property, and people who had already been gardening for several years," Day recalled.

Day found if he spoke to the beginners, the more advanced gardeners were bored. When he directed the lecture to the seasoned gardeners, the "newbies had a deer in the headlights look."

By teaching the basics in an eight-week, 16-hour, level I course, new gardeners learn how to garden right, how to save money and how to minimize the amount of pesticides they are using, according to Day. With the change in structure of the class, the number of Montanans taking the Master Gardener course almost tripled from fewer than 450 students to more than 1,200 in 2011.

Day attributes part of the increase
in participation to the growing local food movement.

"The big buzz word right now is 'Victory Gardens,'" Day said. "Whether you want to call it sustainability or local food movement, people are interested in growing their own food."

As part of their volunteer requirement, some Master Gardeners in Great Falls grow and harvest local foods for others. In 2010 and 2011, volunteers cared for specific plots in community gardens. That harvest was donated to River City Harvest, a local food bank.

Gardeners, such as the Jouberts, who want to dig deeper take the second and third level classes.

With progressive levels come more volunteer responsibilities. For the Jouberts, it was easy--they finished their required 20 hours in two weeks. They went on to spend 300 hours in the summer of 2010 putting in community gardens and planting 400 bulbs and many trees at their church. They answered questions every Saturday at the Extension booth during the farmers market in Bozeman.

"It was a real joy," Sandi said. "I was scared to death thinking 'I can't answer these questions,' but I learned a lot and gained confidence."

Day bumped up the volunteer commitment to meet the standards that neighboring states held for themselves. "We were not quite up to snuff compared to other states' programs."

Level I Montana Master Gardener students now spend 16 hours in class and volunteer 20 hours. Level II participants are required to complete Level I, spend 16 hours in the classroom and 30 hours volunteering. Level III is a three-day intensive training for those who have completed Level II. It starts with two weeks of preparation and wraps up with 40 hours of volunteer commitment.

"Toby has notched it up another level," said Paul Joubert. "I'm pretty proud because Montana has always been a follower state. Now we are a leader."

Even while exceeding their volunteer requirements, the Jouberts have focused their skills at home. This spring they bought a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse from a Helena nursery that closed. They have planted corn for popcorn, tomatoes for the food bank and jicama, one of Sandi's favorite vegetables as a child growing up in Arizona.

"Thanks to Extension, we are excited to try something new," Paul said. "Whether it fails or succeeds doesn't matter; it's all an experiment that we can use to offer up what we've learned to others." ■


In Memoriam

Dr. Bob Gough, "Dr. Bob," passed away Sept. 14, 2011 after a long battle with cancer. He will be greatly missed by the MSU community and gardeners everywhere.


© Montana State University