By Gerald Hay
Master gardeners could just as easily be called master researchers, master educators or master question-answerers. They are all of that.
They are avid gardening volunteers trained in the Extension Master Gardener (EMG) program through the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office in Olathe. In return for their designation and intensive education, they are required to spend a certain number of volunteer hours on projects in the county.
Master gardeners maintain public gardens, provide lectures and classes, participate in horticulture experiments, answer questions and, in general, work to keep the vegetation growing.
According to Dennis Patton, horticulture agent at the extension office, master gardeners come from all walks of life, but their common bond is a love of gardening, volunteering, friendships and sharing information throughout the community.
“EMGs receive a basic training in the disciplines of horticulture. They then volunteer in projects to help extension promote its educational mission,” he said. Johnson County currently has approximately 450 master gardeners, including Gayle Faulkner.
“The best part of being a master gardener is the opportunity to meet people and make friends with others who also love the great adventure of gardening. We come from all perspectives and learn so much from each other,” she said.
“With the ongoing education by the program and the opportunity to travel (pre-COVID) to great gardens around the country, we are constantly expanding our horizons.”
Her Overland Park home is part of the upcoming garden tour. As a professional artist and a master gardener for 11 years, Faulkner’s tour stop features her “Artful Garden.” The May 21-22 event also showcases four other gardens, two each in Overland Park and Leawood and a fifth in Stilwell. Note: Visitors need to wear face masks and social distance while in the private gardens.
In April, scores of master gardeners were busy in “garden sweeps” at the five locations, raking, bagging leaves, weeding and preparing the sites as flowers and plants were just making their spring appearance.
Brian Basel, also of Overland Park, likes being a master gardener for the opportunity to volunteer in an organization that serves the public and to learn more about plants and gardening. He enjoys helping others with gardening questions and problems.
“I enjoy planting new plants I haven’t grown before and dividing perennials to produce more plants for my garden or to give away. I also like weeding and cleaning up my gardens so that they are pleasing to look at throughout the year,” he said.
“Gardening is like many things in that there is always something you can learn and so many different types of gardening to experience.”
Basel is starting his seventh year as a master gardener. He is a co-chair of the EMG gardening team at Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead in Overland Park and a bed captain for the EMG’s Ornamental Natives garden at West Flanders Park in Shawnee.
Master gardeners also tend to a horticulture therapy project with Evergreen Community Living in Olathe and maintain the Monet Garden attraction at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
They also assist with several community gardens, including those at the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, Shawnee Town, Wassmer Park in Prairie Village, and Wilderness Science Center at Blue Valley Middle School in Overland Park.
The EMG program continually seeks volunteers with interests in horticulture and gardening with various expertise and backgrounds.
A Johnson County Extension Master Gardener for 10 years, Bonnie Duma of Lenexa serves as co-chair for the garden tour. Her gardening roots began in childhood at the family farm near Belleville, in north-central Kansas.
“A green thumb is not required, but coming from a farming background, my appreciation for nature has been revived as a master gardener. Regardless of your experience or background, the program is designed to teach at any level through education-based training,” she said.
Faulkner agreed. “I think all you need is the desire to garden, whether your soil is a small pot or a plot of ground. Educate yourself by research through online options, magazines, the nursery or just talking with friends. And always remember that right plant…right place is the key to success,” she said.
The EMG program annually requires at least 40 hours of volunteer work to retain certification. Active participation requires a minimum of 30 hours in volunteer projects and 10 hours of EMG advanced training each year.
Although master gardeners do dig in the dirt, they are primarily about education, including staffing a year-round Gardening Hotline at 913-715-7050. They provide a dial-up or email ([email protected]) help desk to answer lawn and garden questions.
Hotline volunteers can answer often-asked questions without hesitation; more complicated questions require advice and information provided based on research from Kansas State University and other experts.
The EMG program also uses volunteers in a speaker’s bureau to provide presentations on a broad range of topics. Many master gardeners are retired and put in many volunteer hours. “We do tend to have more retired people in the program as they have the time to volunteer,” Patton said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, training for 2020 went online and for the first time ever, EMGs from across Kansas were trained together through Zoom. Volunteer activity was down last year with master gardeners providing 29,285 volunteer hours of service. In 2019, the volunteer hours totaled 48,582.
Applications for the EMG Class of 2022 will start in late May and close July 15. Enrollment is limited to 30 applicants.
Training sessions start in early September and run through selected dates on Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon through mid-December. Class fee is $125 to cover the cost of materials, trainer’s fees, meals and other expenses.
More information is available by calling 913-715-7000 or visiting johnson.k-state.edu/lawn-garden/extension-master-gardeners.
The "Artful Garden" of Gayle Faulkner, center in top photo, is on the upcoming tour. She is shown by Brian Basel and Bonnie Duma. All three also are master gardeners. Linda Truitt, middle photo, and Gloria Garrett, bottom photo, joined 18 other master gardeners in a "garden sweep" in preparing for the May 21-22 Garden Tour.
Gerald Hay is the editor of The Best Times.