By Kassie Parisi
BALLSTON SPA — To combat the uncertainty that comes with weather patterns and planting seasons each year, the Cornell Cooperative Extension features a master gardener program focused on coaching students in all of gardening’s ups and downs.
The concept originated in Seattle over 40 years ago, and eventually went national and came to be affiliated with land grant university programs in all 50 states. The first master gardener program in New York State was conceived in 1975, according to Susan Beebe, coordinator of the Southern Saratoga Master Gardener program. Saratoga county’s first program was established in 1980.
Beebe has taught classes in the area for many years and started as a summer assistant with the master gardener program in 1979. Recently, she has had to take up teaching more classes due to the high costs of bringing in outside speakers.
The point of aster gardener programs, said Beebe, is to provide a community resource that will provide answers while also giving gardening enthusiasts an outlet for getting involved with communities. Far from being just a practical endeavor, those who receive their master gardener certificates work in local garden centers, and at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Ballston Spa. They also help with research, and teaching new students. Cornell’s Master Gardener program actively trains with other counties in the region.
“We have a wide range of individuals who are really interested,” Beebe said.“Each year, there’s always something new and fun and different.”
To obtain their master gardener certificate, students go through 14 weeks of training, and need to complete 70 hours of volunteering, along with a final exam. While many master gardener students are of or nearing retirement age or older, Beebe said that she has had a 16 year old student, as well as a 90 year old student.
Some volunteers work at gardening information booths during fairs, but many volunteers work in the office, manning the gardening hotline and answering walk in questions. Beebe said that because residents in upstate New York face so many different issues when it comes to planting, during the growing season, it’s not uncommon to have someone working the hotline and another person dealing with walks ins. The benefit of having people on hand to help immediately, said Beebe, makes handling usually time sensitive gardening issues much easier.
“We have been known to be backed up into the hall,” Beebe said. Last year, the master gardeners did in person PH testing for around 1700 different soil samples. During the off season, the volunteers focus on updating gardening literature.
Retention of students in the program has proved to be an issue, said Beebe. After a year passes, she said, the program might lose up to 50 percent of its former students.
“We don’t keep as many as we would like to keep,” Beebe said.“I would like to see more come back.”
The retention issues could stem from the rigorous application process, which, since the prospective gardeners will be representing Cornell University upon completion of the course, requires multiple interviews with Beebe and another certified gardener, as well as a background check. Some students also underestimate the intensity and time needed to complete the course. But Beebe values even those students who don’t complete the class, and said that they still serve as a “multiplier” for the program, and usually are able to take whatever information they did learn and use it to help their friends and families’ gardening efforts.
“It’s that persistence that you have as a gardener that makes you survive what you’re doing,” she said.