Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE - Master gardeners from Santa Fe and Los Alamos will host New Mexico's first statewide conference of master gardeners Sept. 15-16.
The goal of conference organizers is to encourage graduates of New Mexico State University's Master Gardener Program–who are dispersed among 11 different counties–to pull together into local master gardener associations, said Ray Olson, founding president and current secretary of the Santa Fe Master Gardener Association.
The event will give master gardeners a new, recurring forum to share their experiences and ideas, since conference organizers hope to convert the meeting into an annual event, Olson said. The conference will also feature advanced gardening workshops.
"We want to get the creative juices flowing among master gardeners and learn from one another by coming together to share what we're all doing around the state," Olson said.
The Master Gardener Program, directed by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, has trained a volunteer corps of experienced gardeners knowledgeable about home gardening issues in New Mexico. The volunteers assist county Extension agents in educating the public and answering gardening questions.
"The public interest and demands in gardening exceed the capacity of Extension's staff and resources, so we developed a volunteer corps to help ease the workload of Extension agents," said Curtis Smith, Extension horticulture specialist and statewide master gardener coordinator.
The program began in Bernalillo County in 1981. Since then, it has spread to 10 other counties: San Juan, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Sandoval, Valencia, Otero, Lea, Doña Ana, Taos and Chaves.
Nearly 2,500 New Mexicans have been certified as master gardeners, but only about 350 of the program's graduates are now actively working with Extension offices, Smith said. In most counties, they manage local gardening hotlines, and they run information booths at growers markets and other public places. They give special lectures on gardening issues, teach courses and even make home visits to answer questions and analyze problems when Extension agents are unavailable.
Most master gardeners donate 100 to 200 hours of volunteer time each year. Some give as much as 500 hours of time annually, meaning that statewide, the volunteers are donating 35,000 to 70,000 hours annually. Smith conservatively estimates that master gardeners contribute between $350,000 and $700,000 per year in volunteer time.
However, given the large number of master gardeners around the state, in some counties managing the volunteer program is as time-consuming for Extension agents as responding to inquiries from home gardeners. To ease the administrative burden, master gardeners in four counties– Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Bernalillo and Sandoval–have pulled together into local master gardener associations.
"It's too much for the county agent to handle all the administrative tasks, and that, in turn, interferes with many of the program's goals, such as taking workload off the agent and efficiently responding to public inquiries and needs," Olson said. "That's why we formed our association in Santa Fe, and we hope to encourage many more counties to form local associations as well.
"Most of the first day of the master gardeners conference will be devoted to the benefits and logistics of organizing local associations.
"We'll review the organizational business of starting up and running an association," Olson said. "We'll discuss such issues as bylaws, rules, courses, fees, internships and projects–all the nuts-and-bolts stuff of organizing a master gardeners association. We'll also elect officers for the coming year, to continue the conference as an annual event."
The meeting will include a series of workshops and presentations, including a keynote address by Lauren Springer, a horticulturist who specializes in southwestern flora.
Workshops will include plant and weed identification, plant propagation methods, integrated pest management in drought, post-burn landscapes, tree-grafting techniques, selection and care of deciduous trees for the home, ornamental grasses, rock and desert gardens, and controlling invasive weeds.
Registration for the conference at the Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos costs $15. Interested master gardeners should call Ray Olson at (505) 466-1202 or e-mail him at Nanrayols@aol.com.
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