In the fall, I took an online master gardener course through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. My goal was to learn how to grow flowers and vegetables here in the high desert, where years of previous efforts have failed.
According to the Washington State University website, “The Master Gardener (MG) program, which began as a response to a need for gardening and pest management information, has grown into a proactive partner with other agencies to address environmental and social issues covering topics such as integrated pest management, natural garden care, and low impact development, to name a few.
Launched in 1973, MG programs can now be found across the United States, as well as parts of Canada and South Korea. In 2018, there were over 86,000 MGs in this country alone, who volunteered over five million hours. It’s a big problem !
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If your horticulture attempts failed in this area after being successful in another part of the country, you haven’t lost your green thumb. Nature’s challenges are a bit more trying here. Our local soils are poor in nutrients and the sun is intense. Due to frosts as late as June and as early as October, the growing season is short. Spring’s near-single-digit humidity and frequent high winds have adverse dehydrating effects. And when the summer monsoons provide much-needed moisture to our parched land, it’s often in the form of heavy rains and hailstorms.
The class taught me practical ways to work with these challenges. Some of his valuable lessons include the best ways to amend the soil, effective planting techniques and protective measures, biological weed and pest control, drought resistant landscaping and composting. I also learned methods for creating environments that help specific plants thrive.
Now that I have completed the eLearning, I am busy with the required volunteer work, which provides me with important hands-on experience. (To become a Certified Master Gardener in Coconino County, a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer work is required within 12 months of course completion.)
Along with learning how to grow bountiful fruits, vegetables, and flowers in these harsh conditions, becoming a MG has other benefits. Gaining a sense of accomplishment is one of them. I am always in awe at the sight of a beautiful garden. And when a friend offers me tomatoes, peppers or zucchini from the vegetable garden, I feel great admiration and appreciation. Garden gifts are infused with the pride of a grower’s successful partnership with nature.
Making new friends is another benefit of becoming a MG. As we go through life, meeting new people whose company we enjoy can be difficult. Finding ways to spend time with others while sharing a common interest makes it easier. New friends and new experiences help expand our individual worlds, making them more interesting.
Finally, studies show that the feeling of belonging to a community improves our mental health and lengthens our life. And a contingent of master gardeners is not just any community; it is one whose members are passionate about working with the land and sharing information for the benefit of all. Volunteering at plant sales, garden shows and public gardens gives new MGs the opportunity to truly feel a sense of belonging.
Becoming a master gardener opened up a beautiful new world to me. This year I harvested vegetables for the first time since moving to northern Arizona over a decade ago. I’ve met longtime gardeners who are happy to share kindness and expert advice. And I feel that I am part of an extraordinary community. If you want to improve your local horticultural skills while building new relationships, I strongly encourage you to join the course starting this fall on August 29th.
For more information on the program as well as the application, visit: https://extension.arizona.edu/coconino-master-gardener.
Lisa Miller is a writer, cook, gardener, and outdoor enthusiast who has lived in northern Arizona since 2010. Most nights, she can be found preparing delicious plant-based meals while listening to great music. She shares her thoughts and research on how human health is connected to nature, as well as occasional vegan recipes at https://microofthemacro.com/.
If you have a gardening question, email [email protected] or call the Master Gardener hotline at 928-773-6115 and leave a message. A Master Gardener will answer you.