Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
ALBUQUERQUE - New Mexico State University is looking for a few good plant lovers to join its army of master gardeners in Bernalillo County.
Gardeners interested in improving their skills and giving back to the community can attend a 13-week master gardener training program beginning Jan. 10 at the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service office at 1510 Menaul NW in Albuquerque.
"Albuquerque is a big city and people have a lot of gardening questions," said Extension horticulture agent Joran Viers. "Master gardeners provide an invaluable service. The classes teach them enough basic horticulture to resolve simple gardening questions, or alternatively enough knowledge of available resources to help people find the answers they need."
The Master Gardener Program, which Extension launched in Bernalillo County in 1981, has grown rapidly in recent years. The number of trained volunteers doubled from 350 in 2002 to 700 this year, and gardeners are now active in 14 counties, said Curtis Smith, an Extension horticulture specialist who coordinates the program statewide.
"Burgeoning public interest and demands in gardening exceed the capacity of Extension's staff and resources, so we developed this volunteer corps to ease the workload of Extension agents," Smith said. "With trained volunteers, we can satisfy a lot more community needs in both rural and urban areas."
Master gardeners manage local gardening hot lines in most counties. They run information booths at growers' markets and other public places, give gardening lessons, teach short courses and frequently make home visits to answer questions and analyze problems, Smith said.
About 200 volunteers are active in Bernalillo County, Viers said. They operate a seven-day-per-week hotline from February to October, provide information at public libraries, do show-and-tell workshops for Albuquerque fourth- and fifth-graders and offer hands-on gardening classes for youth in after-school and summer programs.
"There's a vast array of volunteer opportunities for participants, from working with children in garden settings to helping plant gardens at group homes for people with disabilities," Viers said.
To become master gardeners, participants must attend the training.
"It covers basic natural science, such as climate and weather, soils, botany, plant pathology and entomology," Viers said. "It also covers landscape design and principles, plant selection and care, turf and vegetable gardening, shrubs, trees, weeds, pruning and much more. It's a broad curriculum that's entertaining and educational."
Course graduates must commit to working at least 40 hours each year as volunteers to earn the title of master gardener.
"The course is for people who want to be master gardeners," Viers said. "People who are just interested in the classes can attend if there's room, but we're looking for people who will do the volunteer work after graduation."
John L. Jenkins, volunteer coordinator for the Bernalillo County program, said the course teaches gardeners how to succeed with New Mexico's arid climate and alkaline soils. "It's great training for everybody, whether you're a veteran gardener or not."
Vice-coordinator Jo Anderson said the best way to learn about gardening is by being a master gardener. "The learning never ends, and this way we can give something back to our community."
Program secretary Karen Ruesch-Vila said it's also a great way to meet people with similar interests. "We all learn a lot from one another."
The course costs $60 for participants who go on to become master gardeners, and $100 for all others, Viers said.
For more information about the Bernalillo County training program, call Viers at (505) 243-1386. For information about master gardener programs in other counties, call the county Extension office.
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