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Gardening Gone Online

Learn to be an expert gardener and community leader from home

Published online: May 05, 2023 Home And Garden
Viewed 1122 time(s)
Web Exclusive

By Kyle Pfannenstiel

When Cathy Dudley retired, she and her husband knew they wanted to get out of the city.

As they settled down in Ucon, Dudley looked to turn her passion for tending her perennial flowers into something more.

That’s why she enrolled in Bonneville County’s Master Gardener program, which refined her horticultural skills and connected her with a community of dedicated gardeners. These green thumbs were putting their expertise to use through conducting diagnostic clinics that help locals, maintaining community projects like the Idaho Falls Japanese Garden and performing other service work.

Now, after piloting an online program in 2020, Bonneville’s program has joined a handful of other county Master Gardener programs in the state in offering full online course work. In-person work is still required for community service aspects of certification, but the expanded online coursework is already proving itself worthwhile, saving instructors and classmates time on icy roads to classes, which run in the first few months of each year.

Though classes are closed for 2023, these community volunteers work year-round to help maintain community gardens, train in horticulture and help local gardeners answer technical questions, like identifying pests and diseases.

“Master Gardeners are people who love gardening and want to help others be successful,” said Ron Patterson, who directs the Master Gardener Program in Bonneville County. “In many Eastern Idaho counties, there isn’t the expertise or interested clientele volume to allow them to offer a Master Gardener program. These online courses let people from any Idaho county access the classes.”

UI Extension’s Master Gardener program’s statewide online offering expands the program into rural areas that previously lacked the staff to teach it.

Course requirements vary by county, but the minimum state requirement to earn a Master Gardener program certificate is 30 hours of classroom instruction and 30 hours of community volunteer work. The online classes cover the educational curriculum, but participants without access to a local program may still need to coordinate with their county Extension office on opportunities to log volunteer hours.

Master Gardeners must be recertified annually. Many counties wait a couple years between offering their own courses. In any given year, there are about a dozen counties not offering Master Gardener programs.

Patterson and Reed Findlay, a UI Extension educator serving Bingham and Bannock counties who specializes in crops and horticulture, collaborated on an online-only program and found the format to be convenient and conducive to welcoming participants in a few surrounding counties where the program wasn’t being offered.

“Some of these other counties that didn’t have a horticultural agent never had the Master Gardener program,” Findlay said. “Eventually we will do some in-person classes in the future, but it is such a big benefit right now to have access to Master Gardener classes in some of these counties that never historically had the program.”

Patterson and Findlay host some hands-on, in-person workshops, which aren’t mandatory to earn a program certificate but delve deeper into concepts such as pruning and grafting, on certain Saturdays.

The Bonneville Master Gardener program costs $180 at the start, but Patterson refunds most of the course fees for people who take the entire course and complete their 36 instruction hours and 40 volunteer hours required for the county program.

Retention has improved since offering all-online course work, doubling from 15 or more students each year to more than 30 students, Patterson said.

Dudley, an advanced Master Gardener in Bonneville County, volunteers in local projects in Bonneville County, such as the Japanese Garden, Water Festival and Earth Day celebrations, in addition to serving on the Master Gardener Advisory Board.

She also regularly helps gardeners in the diagnostic clinic, housed in the county Extension office, connects gardeners with expanded expertise at UI Extension’s Insect Identification Program, through which users can submit photos of insects for identification.

“Being a Master Gardener keeps me busy, especially in the summer times,” Dudley said, adding that her friends pepper her with questions.

The program brings comradery between dedicated gardeners, she said, and deliver on their desire to constantly learn new things.

Patterson and the program head in Twin Falls opened their 2023 online courses to participants from anywhere in the state, and plan to continue those offerings next year.

After piloting the program online in 2020 during the pandemic, Paterson saw so many benefits to remote instruction. Face-to-face connection is needed for some activities like hands-on training and volunteering, but he realized that much of the instruction could be done online, from the comfort of people’s homes — and without having to traverse the occasionally treacherous winter roads.

To join the ranks of Master Gardeners for 2024, register with Bonneville’s program beginning in the fall of 2023 until early January 2024. Twelve 3-hour classes are scheduled for January through April.

Classes are open to anyone in Idaho who wants to join, not just those in Bonneville County. But in the meantime, Master Gardeners will be available in its Idaho Falls office to help each Tuesday and Thursday from mid-May to mid-September.


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