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CWC Master Gardeners program thriving after loss of funding

"People thought we were going to shrivel away and die, but that didn't happen," said JoAnn Weaver, president of the Crow Wing County Master Gardeners.

Since 1977, volunteer gardening experts have spread their knowledge around Minnesota in hopes of promoting plant biodiversity, research-based horticulture principles and the consumption of locally grown foods. These volunteers are part of the University of Minnesota Extension's Master Gardener program - a program that almost saw the demise of its Crow Wing County branch in 2016 after the county decided to stop funding it.

"From that point on, we've been strictly volunteer," Weaver said, adding that the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd agreed to take on the master gardeners as a partner program, meaning members have meetings there and set up a phone help line.

Weaver is one of the 52 master gardeners who serves Crow Wing County by teaching classes and workshops, answering home horticulture questions via phone, speaking to gardening clubs and other groups, educating youth and partaking in various other activities throughout the county.

She does it because of a passion for helping people and furthering her own knowledge through the presentations she gives.

"I love to learn," Weaver said. "That's one of the things about putting a presentation together. I love the research that goes into it. ... I think that's what I would miss the most if I weren't a master gardener is doing research with a purpose. The purpose can be your own general knowledge, but it's also nice to share that."

In 2017, Crow Wing County master gardener volunteers spent 4,754 hours preparing, teaching and serving the community, which translates to more than $131,000 in time, per the independent sector value of a volunteer hour in Minnesota.

Master gardeners come from all walks of life, Weaver said.

"Let's face it, not everybody's comfortable standing up in front of a room, but that doesn't mean you can't be a master gardener. It simply means maybe your talent lies in the direction of doing one-on-one problem-solving," she said. "People want solutions to problems, and so if you have the ability to make sure that what you're offering is research-based, you're pretty solid on your information and you have the ability to communicate that ... then you can be a master gardener."

Becoming a master gardener

All master gardeners follow the same procedures to enter the program. Those who want to start must submit an application, go through an interview, pass a background check and then pay a fee if they are accepted. The next step is completing the core course, which applicants can do online or in person at the Minnesota Arboretum in Chanhassen.

"Depending on how fast they work, it may take several months; it may take no time at all," Weaver said of the core course.

Those who complete the course then become interns for a year, during which they have to give 50 volunteer hours to the program. After the first year, interns are promoted to active member status, and from that point on, they are required to give 25 volunteer hours and five educational hours a year.

Volunteer hours can take many forms, like those mentioned above, along with monthly educational programs at the Brainerd Public Library and Good Samaritan Society, the "Ask a Master Gardener" booth at the Crow Wing County Fair, a yearly plant sale at the Northland Arboretum and perhaps the year's biggest event, the Ready, Set, Grow Garden Expo.

The 2018 expo, held in March at Central Lakes College, hosted 250 participants who paid a small fee to come, an agenda with 19 different horticulture topics and a silent auction. The expo is one of two ways the master gardeners fund their group.

The other manner is the speaker's bureau, where garden clubs and other groups hire master gardeners to give presentations at meetings and events, with the money earned going back to the master gardeners organization. Sometimes volunteers will speak for free if groups don't have the means to pay them.

Master gardeners give back

The money the master gardeners earn throughout the year funds different projects, including two $500 scholarships to the CLC horticulture program and three grants for horticulture projects in the community, usually around $500 each.

This year, two of those grants went to fund projects at the Northland Arboretum, while the other went to help with the solarium planned for the new Crosslake Community School facility. Each grant application has to be written by a master gardener, Weaver said.

"They're all horticultural related and all master gardener-driven," she said. "And they don't get the money until the work is done. They have to show that they did indeed do (it), and they have to write a report or give a report at one of our meetings."

The group also awards two partial scholarships each year for new master gardener members who may not be able to afford the full price of the required core course.

Regardless of personal background, the master gardeners program is open to anyone who wants to give back to the community through horticulture.

"Gardening and horticulture, there's a whole world out there that's fun, and it gives back," Weaver said. "There's one saying - and I put it at the end of some of my presentations - 'Are all gardeners nice, or does gardening make people nice?'"

Anyone who wants help with a gardening or horticulture question can call the group's helpline at 218-454-4769 and leave a message. A master gardener will respond within a few days.

To become a master gardener, call the number or email 454grow@crowwingmastergardeners.org. For more information, visit crowwingmastergardeners.org.