As I look about the Western New York community for those who contribute to making our world better I immediately think of the Master Gardeners of Erie County.
The national Master Gardener program was begun in 1972 in Seattle to address questions on home gardening sent to the Cooperative Extension of Washington State. This was so well received that programs were adopted in 48 states, the District of Columbia and four Canadian provinces.
How do you know a Master Gardener when you see one? When out to lunch, she gives advice to a worker at a local hamburger restaurant concerning the poinsettia which is losing its leaves. She gives advice on the Schefflera (umbrella plant) at the dentist's office and ends up taking it home to restore it to health. At the supermarket because she gives the history of the peppadew peppers to the lady who stocks the deli case. And in other people's homes she sticks her fingers in the soil of the nearest potted plant to check the roots when the host leaves the room to make coffee.
Locally, Master Gardeners are highly trained volunteers who offer their knowledge and time to interested groups or individual citizens. The last training class for new Master Gardeners was held in 2001. Since that time, Erie County funding has been drastically cut. Members of the class of 2001 were first interviewed for experience, willingness to learn and to share, and suitability for the program. Those selected attended 10 all-day classes. Topics covered included integrated pest management, soil, botany, lawns, wildlife, diseases, insects, growing vegetables, and herbs. The new volunteers took a written exam, and were expected to contribute a minimum of 50 hours of service in the following year.
Master Gardeners come from all walks of life but share in common a dedication and love of learning and sharing in all aspects of gardening. They are expected to maintain a yearly log of activities to submit to the county extension office, attend monthly meetings to keep their knowledge updated, and of course, donate time to the community. At present there are approximately 100 in Erie County, where the program is part of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.
Among their duties are making soil testing clinics available to the public; running the Fall Garden Faire, featuring speakers and vendors at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora; teaching spring garden classes in cooperation with Buffalo in Bloom at public venues such as the Buffalo Museum of Science; planting the garden beds in Niagara Square; maintaining the Master Gardener Hotline (652-5400, extension 137) for phone questions; and making available a Diagnostic Lab at the Cornell Cooperative, 21 South Grove Street, East Aurora for identification of insects, plants, and diseases ($5 fee).
Master Gardeners are also expected to educate the public to use integrated pest management techniques and to address environmental priorities such as the reduction of invasive species, water conservation, and minimization of the use of insecticides and non-organic fertilizers.
Our Master Gardeners do programs at schools, give talks for garden clubs and other interested groups, and are frequently involved in the public and private aspects of gardening. Make use of these experts, and support them by encouraging your Erie County legislators to restore full funding to the Master Gardener Program in Erie County. This will ensure a full time Cornell Cooperative educator and training for future Master Gardeners.