As a child of 10 in Indiana, my Dad taught me how to dig up a small backyard garden and plant some tomatoes and corn. There was nothing he liked better than to sink his false teeth into the first red, ripe, juicy tomato of the season and munch away on fresh corn on the cob. In Indiana you poked the seeds in the ground, added water and they grew. It was easy
Then I moved to New Mexico. Did you know that tomatoes do not like the soil or the water or the heat of Albuquerque? They looked pathetic. I had never really studied gardening, so I really did not understand what the heck was going on, but I did start reading everything I could.
In the course of my investigations I discovered that the Department of Agriculture (DOA) doesn’t just focus on farms and ranches, they also have a program that is aimed at backyard gardening in urban, suburban or rural environments. They call it the Master Gardener (MG) program and it is offered through their County Extension offices in each state.
Not every county offers the program , but in those that do the county extension agent in association with a group of members sets up classes covering a wide range of information related to gardening. In Albuquerque the classes are held for 10 weeks, 4 hours at a stretch, on Tuesday mornings beginning in January, when there is little one can do in the garden.
Interns learn about general topics such as Basic Soil Structure, and topics focused on the local area such as The Soils of Albuquerque. (This is where I learned that what I was trying to grow my tomatoes in was in actuality decomposed granite). The classes are taught by experts in each field – usually professors from your state’s agricultural university, or the county agents themselves.
Other topics included Plant Pathology, Entomology, Urban Forestry, Microclimates, and Pesticide Safety. Once you get through those, there are some classes that discuss the basics of different kinds of plants, highlighting the ones that work well in the local area. Roses love New Mexico, so do certain kinds of trees and shrubs. We are taught what are the predominate weeds, and which weeds can become vectors for propagating plant diseases.
To create a good vegetable garden, including tomatoes and corn, you have to compost, compost, compost! Regardless of what the seed packages say, tomatoes and several other veggies prefer partial shade to full sun, though the corn doesn’t care as long as it has water and compost. The Albuquerque garden is about 5,000 feet closer to the sun than in Indiana. The solar radiation is stronger here, so a little protection is appreciated by plants (and people!).
Fruit and nuts also need some extra help. Pecans, raspberries and blackberries love the New Mexico soils, but blueberries are and will always be an exercise in frustration. Apples, Pears, Peaches, etc will grow here, but are happier in the northern mountains where they do not bloom too early.
There are even classes in Turf selection and management for those who want a spot of grass in the yard. In the Xeriscape class we learn that you can have a lovely garden, you just need to use good judgement when it comes to your plant selections, and include some water saving options such as drip irrigation.
The program does not end with the classes. To become an official Master Gardener you have to volunteer your time helping others in your area who are experiencing difficulties in their yards. Each county across the nation has different requirements, but here in Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), we are required to spend at least 20 hours a year manning the garden hotlines, plus another 20 hours doing other approved volunteer work.
The Albuquerque Master Gardeners set up tables at local libraries and farmer’s markets, teach kids in the classrooms and through creating school gardens, work with ARCA to make lovely gardens in their group homes, and set up exhibits at the State Fair. Some of them go to people’s houses to offer advice in landscaping.
The county extension agent uses the MG program as a filter. Most of the agents are overwhelmed with calls, especially in larger communities. Any questions that the Master Gardeners cannot answer or resolve are put through to the county agent.
The hotline and other volunteer duties truly expand your understanding of gardening, and you can end up fielding some really strange questions. Do you know what is the most common problem in gardens in Albuquerque? Overwatering. People think that since it is a high desert climate, that a little water may be good, but more is better. As a result, a lot of them drown their new planted trees.
Some people will bring tree limbs or leaves into the office itself to ask what is wrong with their plant. One young man brought in one blade of grass and asked me what variety it was. Yeah Right. Fortunately he also brought some digital photos of the grass and the area it was planted in, so I could diagnose why he was having problems growing turf.
At the end of the season, after all the volunteer hours have been fulfilled, the intern earns the right to be called a Master Gardener. Here in Albuquerque they are given a certificate, a shirt and a nice plastic Master Gardener nametag, which they are encouraged to wear at all MG events.
To keep the title, MG’s are required to volunteer at least 40 hours per year and take 6 of the classes that are held annually. Each person must spend 20 hours on the hotline, which is manned from March through September and is the most important aspect of the program.
To find out if you have access to a Master Gardener program in your area, contact your county agricultural extention offices. You could also Google “Master Gardeners” and your state. Our local website is www.abqmastergardeners.org.