Rosemary Funk of Lafayette has been a Master Gardener since 2000, when she retired and decided it was time to start doing something in the yard.
"It’s like going to college all over again," she said of the 40 hours of instruction she took in the LSU AgCenter volunteer training program. Funk, who volunteers her new gardening skills with Habitat for Humanity and at Lafayette Community Hospital, said she enjoys "meeting people and getting new ideas."
The Louisiana Master Gardener program is an LSU AgCenter service and educational activity that teaches volunteers how to help Louisiana home gardeners do a better job. The trained volunteers provide unbiased, researched-based educational assistance in consumer horticulture for the gardening public.
Robert Usher of Luling, a Master Gardener for three years, said he became one because "it sounded like something I wanted to get involved in."
The retiree said he has made a lot of friends as a member of the River Region Master Gardeners, a group of about 40 people from St. James, St. John and St. Charles parishes. Among their activities, the group works with heirloom plants at the Vintage Garden at Destrehan Plantation.
Colleen Scott of Independence discovered the program nearly six years ago when she joined the first Master Gardener class in Tangipahoa Parish. Scott is from a farm background, "but it’s different in the South," said the Pennsylvania native who has lived in Louisiana since 1982.
When she first moved to Louisiana, she had a hard time gardening in the new climate.
"Master Gardeners was exactly the thing I needed," she said.
Scott said she uses her Master Gardener skills with 4-H clubs, local garden clubs, nursing homes, community gardens and "pocket gardens" in local towns.
Louisiana boasts more than 1,500 active master gardeners who have completed at least the required 40 hours of intensive, practical horticultural training. Their "fee" for this education is to donate at least 40 hours of service to their communities.
"Many do far more than 40 hours," said Bob Souvestre, LSU AgCenter horticulture specialist and coordinator of the statewide program.
The Louisiana Master Gardener program started in Baton Rouge in 1994 and was adopted statewide in 1997. The program is offered in 20 parishes, with volunteer participation in 40 parishes.
Wendy Miller of Ponchatoula moved there from LaPlace but is still active in the River Region group. "I wanted to be a master at something," she said, explaining why she first became a master gardener. She calls Master Gardeners "a wonderful resource."
Master Gardeners share their knowledge many ways, including answering horticulture-related telephones calls at the parish AgCenter office, speaking to garden and civic clubs, working with youth or senior groups and participating in community events.
After the first year, Master Gardeners are required to volunteer at least 20 hours and attend 6 hours of approved continuing education programming to maintain the title of Louisiana Master Gardener.
"You’re closer to God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth," said Vivian Neely of Baton Rouge, who became a Master Gardener in 2002. She said she enjoys volunteering and helping make her city more attractive. Neely volunteers at the LSU AgCenter’s Burden Center.
"The only place I felt very peaceful was at Windrush Garden," she said of a difficult period in her life. She helps at Windrush Garden, part of the Burden Center – planting, trimming and maintaining the garden.
The Louisiana Master Gardener program is part of a larger, national program that began in Washington State in the 1970s. Master Gardeners are all-volunteer organizations sanctioned by land-grant institutions in each state and function as an extension of the college or university.
The parent organization in Louisiana is the LSU AgCenter. People who have the desire, commitment and time to learn and want to put their knowledge and skills to work through volunteer service may apply for admission to the Master Gardener program. Information is available through AgCenter offices in each parish.
(This article was published in the spring 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)