Who’s a Master Gardener?

A class was advertised in the community newspaper that my husband just happened to read in December. He thought I should sign up. The last time he thought I should sign up for something I spent a year jumping off the top of telephone poles, climbing the Alpine Tower, hiking through the mountains, and paddling the cold whitewaters of the Nantahala Gorge. I no longer take these “you should…” suggestions lightly.

I sent off my request to join the class nonetheless, and was immediately met with a questionnaire: “What are your top three areas of gardening interest? (anything I can get to grow?), Other Horticultural Training you’ve received? (None) Gardening groups in which you are currently active? Gardening magazines you currently receive?” (None, and none) I must have managed a suitable answer to every question after all, and the next email announced, “Welcome to the Extension Master Gardener Program!” There were 20 future EMG volunteers enrolled. The first day of class was last Tuesday.

Everyone was invited to stand up and introduce themselves when class began. One man had been gardening for more than 30 years. A lady discovered dahlias last year, grew them in her garden, and won three first-place prizes at the County Fair! Everyone spoke of the challenges of gardening in the mucky clay that dominates our area versus the sandy or loamy soils of their previous gardens in other parts of the country. I finally volunteered to speak, and all I could think to say in the presence of these experienced gardeners is that I just really enjoy playing in the dirt. I could have mentioned that my husband and I had planted over 300 plants and 40 trees this past summer (we planted one more tree a couple of weeks ago), or that I live next door to one of the most special native gardens in the city. But my mind went blank, and no one seemed to mind anyway.

Most of our first class was spent discussing the bigger part of the EMG volunteer’s commitment, which is surprisingly not the 50 some odd hours of training we’ll complete between now and April, but the 40 hours of volunteer service we’re obliged to perform before the end of December. There’s community gardens to help out with and a booth to man at the County Fair, newsletters to write, questions to answer from the general public, wreath making workshops at Christmas, garden tours, and a plant sale. There’s even an opportunity to participate in a workday at the Corneille Bryan Native Garden next door to my house. It will hardly feel like work. But first, we’ll learn everything there is to know about gardening.

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook is 728 pages covering twenty-one different topics from soil and composting to propagation, diagnostics and wildlife. When the instructor introduced our first topic he emphasized that “Dirt is what you bring inside on the bottom of your shoes. Soil is what’s in the garden.” And away we go.

Our first homework assignment involved selecting two sections of our own gardens to submit to soil sampling. We would dig seven or eight holes from each site, take a sampling of soil from each hole, mix it all together in a plastic container, and transfer the combined soil to a small box that would be shipped off to Raleigh for analysis. The most challenging part of the exercise, our instructor warned, was to give each section of your garden a name you could remember. My husband came up with the idea of right field, left field, center field and home plate, and so I collected samples from right field and home plate. Apparently, we’ll be reviewing the soil content of our gardens on a Tuesday at some point in the future.

Botany is the subject of next week’s class, and I have made some fascinating discoveries in my assigned reading. For example, some flowers have landing platforms that match the body parts of the animals that perform the pollination, the bitterness in cucumbers and lettuce is caused by high temperatures, and it’s actually the stems on the dark side of a plant that elongate making it appear the plant is growing toward the light.

Plants are amazing, and I’ll be learning just how amazing every Tuesday now through April. Maybe they won’t mind if I go back to playing in the dirt when class ends.