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Master Gardeners answer gardening question at the Linwood Farmers Market.

Question: What is involved in being a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener and how do I become one? Can I join if I am a new gardener with little or no experience?

Answer: The Master Gardener Program is a public service program that provides university training to volunteers for the purpose of enabling them to serve their communities through horticulture. In our area, the program is managed by Rutgers University and administered through the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in Mays Landing. Cape May County residents are also welcome to apply and attend the program in Atlantic County.

The first Master Gardener program was started in Washington state in 1972. The extension agent was overwhelmed by the volume of requests for information about gardening coming into his office. He came up with the idea of providing specialized training in horticulture to gardeners in exchange for a commitment to spend a specified number of hours doing volunteer community outreach work. The state universities were sought out to plan a training program for volunteers and a format that would provide information to the public.

Forty-seven years later, Master Gardener programs have spread to all 50 states and several Canadian provinces. Master gardeners have undertaken a wide variety of projects including the Master Gardener Helpline, coordinating environmental and planting projects, demonstration gardens, work with school groups, newsletters, radio, television and newspaper activities.

Master Gardeners of Atlantic County present educational programs at schools, libraries and non-profit organizations throughout the year. They are also involved in many area projects: implementing a demonstration garden at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office in Mays Landing, building sensory and vegetable gardens at area schools, assisting schools with starting Junior Master Gardener programs, ongoing therapeutic gardening programs at the Seashore Gardens Living Center Alzheimer’s Sensory Trail and Healing Garden, a native garden at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, gardens at four of the Atlantic County Library branches, and several other projects across the county. The Master Gardeners also have a large Community Environmental Education Day in May that includes a vegetable, perennial and native plant sale in May available to all county residents. Master Gardeners present programs throughout the day on gardening topics along with representative from the Rutgers Environmental Stewards, Master Composters and 4-H.

Anyone with an interest in gardening and a commitment to volunteer service can become a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener. No formal education or experience is required, just a love of gardening and desire to share your knowledge with the community. To become a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener, one must complete a 20 week academic classwork and Helpline training. Classes are taught by Rutgers faculty, staff and local experts on topics including soil classification and fertility, plant propagation, insect identification, landscape design, native plants, weed identification, plant pathology, lawn establishment, pesticides and safety, vegetable production, arboriculture, small fruit production, floriculture and tours of local vegetable and flower farms and vineyards. As part of the requirement to become certified, students must contribute 70 hours of volunteer time to Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County or related programs in their first year and 25 hours annually thereafter along with continuing education requirements.

There is a fee for the class to cover materials and program costs. Applications are now being accepted for the Atlantic County program beginning January 7, 2020. Classes are held on Tuesday mornings at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office in Mays Landing. For more information on the Master Gardener Program, you can contact your local extension office. Atlantic County residents can contact 609-625-0056. Cape May County Residents can call 609-465-5115, ext.3607. Cape May County residents are welcome in the Atlantic County program.

Do you have a gardening related question you would like answered here? Please forward your questions to Belinda Chester, Master Gardener Program coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Office, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. You can also submit questions at Rutgers-atlantic.org/garden or email them to currents@catamaran.com; please include “garden question” in the subject line.

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