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What is a Master Gardener and Can I Become One?

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By Rebecca Miller Cripps

Ever been curious about the Master Gardener program? Want to know why some things grow well in some parts of your yard and not so well in other parts? Want to know what to plant in your yard that takes little care? Have you moved into the foothill area and found that all of those beautiful flowers that you had in the Bay Area just languish here?

Consider becoming a Master Gardener. Presently there are over 50 people in Tuolumne County who are available to help answer gardening questions for residents and to assist in diagnosing their backyard gardening problems. As a Master Gardener, you are entitled to a discount on University of California Publications and will meet some great people who, like you, are interested in gardening.

Master Gardeners are volunteer employees of the University of California who provide research-based scientific advice about home horticulture to the community. We answer questions, diagnose plant problems, and give horticulture assistance to the public. Our assistance is offered by telephone, personal visits, plant clinics, demonstrations, talks, and mass media. Advice can cover vegetable gardening, trees, shrubs, soils, lawns, diseases, insects, and related topics.

In order to certify Master Gardener candidates, the University of California provides 50 hours of training. Classes are taught by experts—both faculty and field specialists—in subjects such as botany for gardeners, integrated pest management for both vertebrate and invertebrate pests, fruit tree care, and vegetable gardening. Master Gardener trainees will learn soil testing and how to determine soil moisture content by feel (called “ribboning”). We´ll discuss composting methods and play with drip irrigation system components.

Classes will offer weed identification, local noxious weeds and methods of control. The County Director and Farm Advisor in our neighboring Mariposa County, Karen Robb, an entomologist by education and experience, will teach insect identification and “how to live with ‘em,” while controlling the garden damage they may cause.

There will be sessions on California native plants and wildflowers, and how to garden with Mediterranean-adapted, low-water-requiring xeriscape plants. We´ll talk about firescaping, how to landscape and care for your native trees and shrubs in a way that will provide greater wildfire protection.

Training will be held on Thursday mornings, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., starting in late January, continuing through April. Local counties—Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, and sometimes El Dorado—collaborate to provide training. This year, it´s Tuolumne County´s turn and the training has returned to Sonora. At this time, the tentative site for training will be the Elks Lodge in Sonora.

For the first time in Tuolumne County, we will be offering an evening training for those unable to attend the morning classes. The evening sessions will be held on Thursday nights in the Farm Advisor´s office at 52 North Washington Street in Sonora.

After training is complete, each prospective Master Gardener must pass a comprehensive written test. The exam is open book and take home. There´s lots of help available from already-certified Master Gardeners, so don´t let the idea of a test scare you!

Each Master Gardener trainee must contribute 50 hours to community projects by the end of the next fiscal year after training is completed. Some of the Master Gardener projects from which to choose include the annual Garden Tour, a demonstration garden located at the Cassina High “Dome” in Sonora, a booth at the spring Home and Garden Show, various community demonstration landscape plots, an information booth at the Sonora Farmers´ Market, and many others.

Once an application is received, an informal interview will be scheduled. The interview helps the candidate assess whether a 50-hour training and 50-hour volunteer contribution is realistic for them. During the interview, you also get to meet some of the great people involved in the Master Gardener program.

There is a training cost of $150 which covers a “stack” of outstanding reference books, all available to you at the Master Gardener discount of 40% off list price. Additional materials will also include identification field guides and a hand lens for doing close-up identification work.

If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardener, contact the Master Gardener office at 533-5696 or e-mail for an application. Applications are being accepted through November 10.

And speaking of the Garden Tour: Master Gardeners are soliciting nominations for yards and gardens to be included in the next annual Spring Garden Tour, being held on May 21, 2006. If you know of an awesome garden (including your own) that showcases good foothill gardening practices, let us know. You can contact the Master Gardener office at 533-5696 or send an e-mail to

See you in the garden.

Rebecca Miller-Cripps is the Tuolumne County Master Gardener program coordinator and received her Master Gardener training in 2004.