Learn and Give Back: The Master Gardener Program at the University of Saskatchewan

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Sarah Williams
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

As “pandemic fatigue” seems to drag on, we are looking for the positive to brighten up our world. In the world of prairie gardening, look no further than Saskatchewan’s Master Gardener Program, which trains home gardeners to volunteer effectively in their communities: from giving good advice to getting their hands dirty doing for others what they enjoy most (ie gardening).

The original Master Gardener program began at Washington State University Cooperative Extension in 1973. From there it spread throughout the United States and most of Canada. Launched in 1989, Saskatchewan’s Master Gardener program has been in existence for over thirty years and is operated by the University of Saskatchewan’s Gardening at USask program. Additionally, Manitoba residents can also learn online with USask and get certified through the Manitoba Master Gardener Association.

The USask Master Gardener training provides beginners and experienced gardeners with a “best practices” approach to pesticide-free gardening on the Canadian Prairies; one who recognizes that there are many ways to garden successfully, but some are more practical and efficient than others. You do not need to certify to take these courses. All courses are accessible to everyone; many students only take one or two courses that target their particular interests or to “get their feet wet” before committing to certification.

What motivates people to seek Master Gardener certification? Among the reasons given by the master gardeners themselves: to learn more about gardening through documentary resources and seminars; personal satisfaction; become more adept at helping others; meet people with similar interests; and developing a gardening business or employment opportunities.

Certification has two components: horticultural training and volunteer service. Participants study at their own pace (usually 6-24 months), complete their courses (which include many self-tests along the way). And when they feel ready, they take an open-book, multiple-choice exam based on the practice questions used throughout the course.

Originally, horticulture workshops were held in Saskatoon and in communities across the province. Due to COVID, they are now offered exclusively online in an “on-demand, self-paced” format that includes video lessons, self-tests, written support, and access to an instructor for questions. These workshops consist of the following elements:
• Gardening Fundamentals is the most comprehensive course, covering the basics of gardening, botany and soil health.
• Botanical Latin focuses on the practical application of plant classification and naming systems.
• Identifying trees and shrubs helps participants recognize common prairie trees and shrubs.
• Insects in Your Yard and Garden explains the essential role of insects in a healthy ecosystem, how to recognize which ones may be living in your garden, and when to be concerned.
• Plant Diagnostics for Home Gardeners analyzes and diagnoses plant problems in an approach that goes beyond the observation of insects and diseases.
• Common Plant Disorders covers the wide range of causes of plant disorders and their impact on plants while focusing on how to garden more sustainably.
• Common Plant Diseases involves how to identify common diseases, their life cycles, prevention and control.
• Safe Use of Pesticides and Alternatives explains when and how to use pesticides safely in the home as well as techniques for avoiding pesticide use. Although the USask program is pesticide-free, it is a required course because pesticide use remains common. Master gardeners need to understand common practices in order to provide appropriate advice.
• Communications teaches Master Gardeners how to be effective communicators and therefore more effective volunteers within their communities.

Students wishing to certify receive a total of 64 hours of instruction.

Master gardeners in training must complete 40 hours of volunteer community service. This can be done where the student lives or virtually. Students can create a volunteering situation tailored to their needs. This can take many forms: building backstage gardens at events like Gardenscape, setting up plant learning stations for school visits, writing projects through Gardening at USask, presenting gardening seminars for groups community; horticulture projects in nursing homes; school or youth group projects; writing gardening articles; or the landscaping or maintenance of local parks or hospital grounds.

Once fully certified, the Master Gardener certification can be renewed every two years.
To maintain Master Gardener status, participants then volunteer a minimum of 20 hours per year and take six hours of classes every two years.

To learn more about the Gardening at USask’s Master Gardener program, visit their website at www.gardening.usask.ca

Sara Williams has authored and co-authored numerous books, including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and, with Bob Bors, the recent Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to give workshops on a wide range of prairie gardening topics.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; [email protected]). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events.

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