The end of April is fast approaching and the pressure is on for Canadians to get their homework done. While for many that means the chore of tax preparation, for the green thumbs among us, that means garden preparation — the joy of sowing seeds and finalizing garden designs. This past weekend I was able to tune out the grumble of the Taxman, and instead, I responded to the call of the Master Gardeners. Off I went, garden plans and photos in hand, to the Ottawa Home and Garden Show.
The Master Gardeners are a talented bunch of horticulturalists who volunteer advice to home gardeners on just about anything sprouting or hatching in their yards. They can tell you which are the best veggies to grow in your climate zone, which Daylilies to plant in the garden (and which should be left in the ditch), what to do about creepy crawlies and invasive weeds, or how to care for a particularly tricky plant.
What makes them so masterful? Master Gardeners in Ottawa have to meet qualifications and take university courses, either from the University of Guelph, or from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, then do a minimum of 30 hours of volunteer work a year to help home gardeners with their gardening questions. These are dedicated folks.
According to their website, “Many members come to us with a formal background and training in the field of horticulture while many others bring extensive practical gardening experience and the knowledge that they have picked up from reading and talking to their neighbours.”
The concept developed in 1972 at Washington State University to address an overwhelming number of requests for gardening information. The idea spread to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in 1985. Supported by OMAFRA and the Ontario Horticultural Society, the program expanded through Ontario. Experienced gardeners were recruited by local horticultural societies and received training from the University of Guelph.
In 1996, OMAFRA announced it would no longer be able to fund the Master Gardener program and in 1998 the Master Gardeners of Ontario was formally incorporated. Master Gardeners are now in four provinces and all 50 U.S. states
The Coordinator of Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton, Mary Ann Van Berlo, tells me what the organization offers her is an opportunity to help others, and still follow her passion, “constantly learning and sharing”. The most common question she gets, she says, “relates to whatever pest is in season.”
Van Berlo says that becoming a Master Gardener appeals to the newly retired, but gardening is ageless, and she has observed an interest in organic gardening at all ages, especially since the introduction of a ban on cosmetic pesticides. “The pesticide ban,” she says, “just means you must lower your expectations. Many people are learning, for instance, that wild flowers can bring in pollinators or beneficial insects to aid the garden.” She says it’s all about balance.
You can find the Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton on the web at http://www.mgottawa.mgoi.ca/ or through their Telephone Help Line: 613-236-0034. (Wednesday and Thursday 1 – 3 p.m. (all year) and Saturdays 7 – 8 pm (April to September only). You can also find them at booths set up at local farmers markets.
Of particular interest to me is their email help line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Ann Van Berlo tells me clients often use the service to send them photos of weeds to identify.
Mine could keep them busy for some time to come.