Q What is a Clemson Extension Master Gardener? How can I get involved in the program?

A: The Master Gardener program was developed in 1972 by Washington State Cooperative Extension agents David Gibby and Arlen Davison. The agents were faced with a problem – increased interest in home gardening had left the office swamped with calls from clients who needed advice.

The idea was formed to train a group of highly motivated volunteers who could assist Cooperative Extension staff in helping the community with their gardening.

The Master Gardener program was implemented in Charleston in 1981 and quickly expanded throughout the state. Today, the tri-counties have one of the largest, most knowledgeable groups of active Master Gardener volunteers delivering research-based information to area gardeners.

Becoming an MGThe first step on the road to becoming a Master Gardener is completion of the 12-week training course. The course focuses on low-impact, sustainable horticulture practices. Students investigate the use of native plants, composting, rainwater harvesting and integrated pest management as part of their training. Above all, students learn how to research and solve problems using up to date, scientific information.

Classes are taught by Clemson Extension agents, local experts and Master Gardeners and are held at North Charleston City Hall with field trips to Cypress Gardens and other garden sites.

Jan Litton, a Master Gardener from the class of 1998, has helped train and mentor students every year since completing the course herself. “Students are always amazed at how much they learn, how much there is to learn and how much fun they have in the process,” she says.

InternAfter successfully completing the classroom portion of the program, participants receive the title Master Gardener Intern. Interns complete 40 hours of volunteer service to finish the program and become certified Master Gardeners.

During the initial internship period, participants are required to volunteer in their county extension office answering phone calls and assisting walk-in clients. Duties include dispensing gardening advice and identifying common weeds, diseases and insects. With the help of more experienced mentors, interns put their classroom lessons into a real world context.

Mike Dixon, a Master Gardener since 1996, has become a Monday afternoon institution in the Charleston County Extension office. His hands-on teaching style and depth of knowledge make him a favorite mentor for new interns.

“It's all about sharing knowledge with the public,” Dixon says. “I love passing along information that I've learned through the Master Gardener program. Training interns and working with clients is a rewarding experience.”

Continued serviceMany MGs go beyond the initial 40 hours of volunteer service, often volunteering thousands of hours to the community through the years.

There are so many ways MGs help the community, including hosting “Ask A Master Gardener” tables at local garden centers, the Charleston and Mount Pleasant farmer's markets as well as festivals and events. Volunteers provide lectures and workshops for civic groups, garden clubs, churches and schools. Demonstration gardens are an important way that Master Gardeners educate the public.

The Urban Research & Demonstration Garden, located on Savannah Highway at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center, is one example. A group of MGs meet weekly to maintain a series of themed beds that showcase annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables. The Carolina Yard at the Charleston Exchange Park features a permanent sustainable display garden with evolving themes to educate and inspire visitors at the fair.

“The (Tri-County Master Gardener) association is a great way for the three counties to come together to organize events, celebrate our accomplishments and support Clemson Extension,” says Carolyn Acuff, the group's president. The group is a charitable organization that supports the Extension-based program.

The TCMGA focuses on educating the public through events such as the annual Carolina Yard Gardening School, Magnolia Gardens' Autumn on the Ashley, the Coastal Carolina Fair and the Fall Home & Garden Show.

The bottom line is, if you have a desire to learn about gardening and are willing to share your knowledge with others, the South Carolina Master Gardener program may be for you. The next Master Gardener Training Course will begin Sept. 27. Read more and fill out an application online at www.clemson.edu/extension/mg/counties/tri_county/howtobecomeamg.html.

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.