Individuals training to become Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer educators met at the University of Delaware campus in Newark on Monday, Sept. 21, for their first, in-person, statewide meeting as part of Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener training program, an intensive 16-week course designed to prepare candidates for the volunteer phase of the program. Training is provided by Cooperative Extension specialists and agents from UD and Delaware State University (DSU), green industry experts and experienced Master Gardeners. While the courses previously had been taught separately in all three Delaware counties, this statewide approach is designed to promote collaboration and camaraderie among staff and trainees throughout the state. Classes will take place throughout Delaware, with Zoom distance learning technology allowing for video conferencing. “Ideally, it would all be face to face but that can’t happen if we’re all doing it at the same time. However, no more than one-third of the training is done via distance learning,” said Tracy Wootten, extension agent in horticulture. Valann Budischak, extension agent and statewide Master Gardener training coordinator, said, “We decided to incorporate distance learning with Zoom, where the instructor is present in one location and teaches not only to that group of Master Gardeners but a distance group of Master Gardeners as well. The instructor rotates counties.” The training program includes formal lectures, discussion sessions, tours, workshops and problem-solving sessions. Topics covered include plant identification, soils and plant nutrition, integrated pest management, and home landscaping and maintenance, among others. Participants meet twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1-4 p.m. until Nov. 23, when they graduate. Upon completion of the training program, Master Gardeners are expected to donate a minimum of 40 hours of their time to Cooperative Extension. Volunteer time is spent solving problems, educating and advising the gardening public of Delaware. Master Gardeners’ outreach efforts include home gardener workshops and presentations, youth education, answering calls put into the garden help line, plant diagnostic services and demonstration gardens. The program is run cooperatively with DSU, with Megan Pleasanton, extension educator at DSU, working with the UD extension agents. “Master Gardener training and the volunteer participation that follows is absolutely essential to the success of our Extension horticulture program in Delaware,” said Carrie Murphy, program leader and extension agent. “We couldn’t have the impact and reach that we do without our incredible Master Gardener volunteers.” Budischak said that while the class is a statewide initiative, the educators are aware that the different counties have different needs. “We still want to preserve each county’s individuality. Sussex County will cover more information on herbs and propagation, whereas New Castle County will delve deeper into urban agriculture, which wouldn’t be as predominant in Kent and Sussex. So while we want to make sure that we’re all learning the same things in the same way, we need to preserve their individuality,” said Budischak. Wootten said that approach stems mostly from wanting the participants to be trained on the particular questions they are most likely to get when they staff their county garden hotlines, a table at an outreach event, or interact with community members in the county office. The statewide initiative has benefited the Cooperative Extension educators, as well. “It’s been a great learning experience for us; it’s forced us to look at the curriculum and other aspects of the program to provide consistency. We hope that each of our programs will be enhanced because of it,” said Budischak. Wootten said a feature of the Master Gardener classes is that each one is unique and that the classmates all form bonds with one another. “My first class was 2003 and the members of that class, the Kent and Sussex class, they still get together once a month for lunch. And each class is different. They have their own little flavor and then they get integrated into the whole program,” said Wootten. For more information on Master Gardener services visit the Master Gardener website. Article by Adam Thomas Photos by Wenbo Fan This article can also be viewed on UDaily.