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Three years ago I was at a complete loss when it came to the grounds surrounding my home. What was I going to do with a huge yard overrun with weeds and invasive species? There wasn’t a single flowerbed, but there were two large crabapples with spotty leaves and burned-looking bark. Our fence line was populated with a tight row of buckthorn and invasive honeysuckle, and there was garlic mustard everywhere.

I learned this sad fact from an arborist we had hired to trim broken branches from the silver maple on our property. Determined to forge ahead and make something of the yard, I had him take out the diseased trees and the large buckthorn and honeysuckle bushes. After he finished, nothing remained but a few very old and overgrown lilacs, two peony plants, and a few bushes around the perimeter
of our lawn.

I was determined to turn my yard into something beautiful, but it was clear I needed help. Trial and error did little but show me how much I had to learn. As I began to investigate ways to acquire gardening expertise, people would mention advice from “master gardeners,” a title that conjured images of retired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and gloves tending gardens with lots and lots of rose bushes. I also thought of master gardener training as a kind of finishing school for skilled gardeners rather than a program that welcomed beginners.

I was wrong on both counts, as I learned from Mike Maddox MS’00, a CALS horticulture alumnus who directs the statewide Master Gardener Volunteer Program—a service of UW-Extension—from an office in the Department of Horticulture in Moore Hall. Master gardeners are, in fact, Master Gardener Volunteers—or MGVs for short—with the emphasis on “volunteer,” Maddox notes.

It’s a role that has become more salient over the years. “The volunteer requirement became a way for MGVs to assist and offset the barrage of gardening questions coming to Extension offices,” Maddox says. “We emphasize the volunteer aspect of ‘Master Gardener’ to distinguish it from a commercial endorsement, to differentiate it from a garden club—and to de-emphasize the expectation of the need to be an ‘expert’ on all subjects.”

So much for what MGVs are not. But what are they? “MGVs are a group of very passionate people who want to learn something about plants and then make a difference in their communities,” says Maddox. “The strength of our program is with our strong county presence throughout the state. The local, personal touch is what connects with our participants and communities.”

Here are some examples of MGV activities around the state last year, often conducted in partnership with UW-Extension and other organizations:

• MGVs in Rock County helped create community gardens in Beloit as a part of a neighborhood revitalization project. They also worked with inmates in tending a community garden next to the Rock County Jail in Janesville.
• Waupaca County MGVs partnered with a local school district to create a three-acre community garden to grow vegetables for food pantries and for use as an outdoor classroom.
• MGVs in Racine and Kenosha counties participated in Green Works, a program developed by UW-Extension, MGVs and community partners to teach green industry vocational skills to adults with developmental disabilities.
• La Crosse County MGVs directed a monthly after-school garden club that maintains a certified Monarch Way Station/Butterfly Garden at Evergreen Elementary School in Holmen.
• MGVs in Fond du Lac County implemented a Junior MGV program to teach low income children how to plant, care for, harvest and cook fresh produce.
• Adams Co. MGVs awarded $3,000 in scholarships to students majoring in horticulture-related fields.
• MGVs in Washington County grew vegetables at the Germantown Community Garden and donated more than 300 pounds of fresh produce to the Germantown Senior Center.

MGV projects are great and small, and taken as a whole they pack a wallop. Each MGV has to complete at least 24 volunteer hours a year to remain certified—and altogether Wisconsin MGVs contributed 194,046 volunteer hours in 2013. The value of that service for one year alone is worth more than $4.3 million (based on an estimated dollar value of volunteer time of $22.14 per hour, as calculated by the nonprofit Independent Sector).

Small wonder that researchers at the cutting edge of horticulture see MGVs as valuable ambassadors for their discipline. “The MGV program is one of the best examples we have of engaging Wisconsin citizens and communities in the art and science of horticulture,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, chair of the Department of Horticulture. “As a land grant institution, CALS has a particular focus on supporting and enhancing the agricultural enterprises of the state and a major role in public education. The MGV program fosters an incredibly positive learning environment in horticulture throughout Wisconsin, resulting not only in beautiful landscapes and improved local food production, but also in economic development and improved sustainability of our
communities.”

The statewide Wisconsin Master Gardener Association (WIMGA) was formed in 1992. Currently there are 53 active local organizations across the state. Since 1999, more than 15,000 people have completed MGV training in Wisconsin.

“The program is nothing less than the Wisconsin Idea in action,” notes Goldman. “In terms of our mission to serve the citizens of the state, the MGV program goes a long way in showing the value of a unique collaboration between UW-Extension, CALS and, specifically, the Department of Horticulture.”

This story was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Grow magazine. Please visit the Grow website to read the full story.