When the first signs of spring appear and the river valley bursts into color, a troop of volunteer gardeners will be ready to dig into community service. They are master gardeners, part of a statewide program of volunteers who receive extensive home horticulture training, then branch out to serve their communities.
The St. Croix Valley Master Gardeners Association (SCVMGA) began in 1997 with 38 members. Today, it has grown to more than 200. Diana Alfuth, the horticulture agent at the University of Wisconsin extension, has played a large role in this steady membership swell. For the past 15 years, she’s served as an educator and advisor to the SCVMGA, offering training classes to would-be master gardeners. During the 12-week, 36-hour program, Alfuth touches on everything from basic botany and soil science to plant diseases, insects and plant identification.
“This initial training gives gardeners a foundation, which they can continue to build upon for years to come,” Alfuth says. “Everybody starts with the basics, because even people who have been gardening for a long time may not be doing it correctly.”
In fact, dispelling common gardening myths is one of the instructor’s principle goals. Alfuth, who holds a master’s degree in horticulture, says she is often surprised by the superstitions and traditions that even the most veteran gardeners follow—such as beating a freshly planted tree with a garden hose, feeding tomato juice to dogs to prevent “dog spots” on the lawn, putting lime in the soil regardless of its pH level, or pouring salt into asparagus plots. She also contends that much of the information home gardeners find on the Internet is often too broad for this climate.
For these reasons and more, the SCVMGA volunteers are an essential public resource. Whether local gardeners are looking to grow their own food or improve their landscaping, they can rely on the association’s well-trained experts for unbiased, science-based information that ensures safe, sustainable and successful gardening.
In order to maintain their certification, master gardeners complete 24 hours of service and 10 hours of continuing education per year. The SCVMGA facilitates this by organizing a full range of community education and volunteer opportunities, such as local beautification projects or manning information booths at the farmers markets in River Falls and Hudson, Wis.
Thanks to the SCVMGA’s continuing education opportunities, even experienced members are continually learning about new products, plant varieties and gardening techniques. Carolyn Barrette, who serves as the SCVMGA program director, has been with the SCVMGA since 1998 and has logged more than 2,500 hours of volunteer service. “You are always learning something new whenever you talk to other gardeners,” she says.
Deb Pederstuen, SCVMGA membership director, mentions the course’s focus on phenology, which is “learn[ing] to read the signals in the landscape,” she says. Knowing how to synch your application of crabgrass killer with the blooming of lilacs is just one example of how this branch of knowledge can lead to more efficient and cost-effective garden care.