What Do Master Gardeners Do?

What Do Master Gardeners Do?

  • By Melissa King
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  • January 2021-Vol7 No.1
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I imagine that many of you are familiar with the term “Master Gardener,” but if asked what that’s all about, you might come up short. For example, a common misconception is that we take care of private homeowners’ gardens free of charge. Let’s take a walk through the landscape of Master Gardening to find out more.

What’s the Master Gardener Program?

Master Gardeners are volunteers who provide research-based horticultural education, guidance, and resources in their local communities.  As in most states, Virginia’s Master Gardeners are an arm of the Extension Service, the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE),  and we assist the VCE in achieving its primary goal: sharing with the public the vast scientific expertise of Virginia’s two land-grant agricultural universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. VCE is dedicated to Virginians working together in their communities, homes, and businesses.     

Data from 2019 demonstrate the power of collective activity among Extension Master Gardeners (EMGs) in our state. Virginia’s 4,800 EMGs made 611,485 contacts with the public and contributed 413,804 volunteer hours. The total economic value of that service was equivalent to $11.3 million.

Group clean-up at Morven Farm

Nearly all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, offer Extension Master Gardener programs that include intensive training through state land-grant universities. In 1972, as the nation’s population continued to migrate away from agricultural regions and toward urban and suburban areas, the Master Gardener program was created to meet ever-increasing requests for information and support from enthusiastic home gardeners. To learn more about the history of the Master Gardening, read about Dr. David Gibby, the father of the Extension Master Gardener program.

In our area, Piedmont Master Gardeners (PMG), a group of 156 volunteers and 24 interns from the 2020 class, serve residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The local extension office and headquarters for PMG is located at 460 Stagecoach Road in the County Office Building at 5th Street Extension, where a coordinator and several staff members administer the program.

Who are Master Gardeners?

A Master Gardener answers questions from a garden newbie at the Annual PMG Plant Sale.

Extension Master Gardeners are volunteer educators who share knowledge and expertise with the public to promote sustainable landscape management. In the process, they increase public awareness and understanding related to healthy soil, integrated pest management, native plants, water quality, and invasive species. EMGs receive specialized training to prepare them for service as community leaders with in-depth horticultural knowledge of vegetable gardening, ornamental plants, trees and shrubs, turf management, and landscape design.

You might be surprised to discover that your PMG friends represent a variety of backgrounds and professions. This diverse group includes people of all ages, from twenty-somethings to people who have experienced eight or more decades of life. Although everyone resides in Albemarle County now, many of us have lived in different parts of the United States prior to settling here. With regard to professional careers, Piedmont Master Gardeners hail from various vocations: nurses, doctors, medical researchers, attorneys, educators, engineers, artists, designers, accountants, professors, builders, landscape architects, counselors, psychologists, physical therapists, nutritionists, musicians, software engineers, and more.

What brings us together is a shared passion for horticulture and the natural world. The common thread is that each one of us is committed to growing public appreciation for plant life, scientific understanding of how to cultivate plants, and responsibility for a safe and healthy natural environment.

Poster entered in a children’s contest about climate change, sponsored by the Piedmont Master Gardeners in September, 2019

What do Master Gardeners do?

If you are wondering what Master Gardeners actually do, our myriad activities remind me of an artist’s palette with many colors and hues. At the present time, PMGs are engaged with more than 15 different projects in the community. Every project has an educational focus, and all public outreach is designed to incorporate at least one of the following goals:

  • Environmental Horticulture– understanding and utilizing sustainable landscape management practices
  • Youth Gardening– developing horticultural awareness and gardening skills among children and youth
  • Landscape Value– appreciating the economic and aesthetic benefits of good landscape design
  • Food and Nutrition– developing interest in nutrition and home food production, starting in the garden
  • Quality of Life– experiencing positive outcomes from landscape management and home gardening on physical and emotional health

Here’s a quick look at our current projects and how they serve the community:

Appreciate in-depth information? If you’re reading this article, you know about The Garden Shed. It was conceived by Master Gardeners eager to share the latest horticultural research with our gardening neighbors.  Each article is the product of extensive research by a local Master Gardener.  If you haven’t already done so, be sure to sign up online to get every issue. You can even search the archives of past issues to find information pertinent to your specific interests or concerns.

Master Gardener Help Desk at City Market

Have a question about plants? Reach out to the Horticulture Help Desk with questions about plant care, garden management, insect pests, plant diseases, or landscaping.  EMGs respond promptly to email and telephone requests.  Prior to the pandemic, it was also possible to make an in-person visit to the Help Desk, and we hope that option will once again be available soon.   You will also find a mobile Help Desk staffed with PMG volunteers at certain community events, such as the Charlottesville City Market and the Albemarle County Fair. Stop by for a friendly conversation to grow your own knowledge. albemarlevcehelpdesk@gmail.com (434.872.4580)

Want to connect and learn more? The PMG Facebook page has a section called “Ask a Master Gardener,” where you can find quick answers to common gardening questions, as well as colorful photos for reference. You might discover that someone else has posed the same questions you have.

A Master Gardener shows how it’s done at a Garden Basics Class.

Want a short course? Garden Basics classes are popular two-hour workshops that provide practical information about seasonal gardening topics, such as how to prune shrubs or get started with composting. To participate, you should sign up in advance on the Upcoming Events page online.

Panel of experts discuss impact of climate change on horticulture at PMG’s 30th anniversary event.

Enjoy evening presentations? PMG’s monthly meetings usually include a continuing education presentation by a visiting expert on horticulture-related topics.  Prior to the pandemic, these informative talks were free and open to the public, but are now conducted virtually via Zoom.  We hope that it won’t be long before these monthly meetings are again live and open to the public.

Our very popular Spring Lecture Series kicks off the gardening season with four evening presentations by well-known guest speakers.  This spring, the lectures  — some featuring nationally renowned experts — will be presented via Zoom. Visit the Events section of the PMG website for official announcements, but mark your calendar now.  The virtual lectures are scheduled for March  4, 11, 18 and 25.

Need a knowledgeable speaker for a group? Share your needs and inquire about a particular topic, so that the PMG Speakers Bureau can match your request with someone from our team of PMG experts.

As part of the Healthy Virginia Lawns program, Master Gardeners measure a homeowner’s yard so that the right amount of amendments can be recommended.

Looking to improve your lawn? The Healthy Virginia Lawns Program includes a homeowner site visit by Master Gardeners who take soil samples, assess conditions, and measure the size of the residential lawn. Following soil analysis at the Virginia Tech lab, the homeowner receives a detailed nutrient management plan and recommended best practices to maintain healthy turfgrass without harming the environment. To take advantage of this program, download the HVL application here.

Are you an educator with gardening ideas? School Garden Grants are available to K-12 teachers who would like financial support for horticulture projects in local schools. Visit the PMG website for grant guidelines and an application form.



What about working with children?

A Master Gardener explains composting basics at Clark Elementary.

Making salads with greens the children harvest from their gardens is a highlight of the Garden Club season.

PMG volunteers lead after-school gardening programs at two local elementary schools, Clark and Jackson-Via, in partnership with City Schoolyard Garden/Cultivate Charlottesville.  These after-school Garden Clubs meet weekly, and the children work alongside their Master Gardener mentors in planting vegetable seeds and transplants, watering, weeding, and caring for them until harvest.

Children learn about insects from a Master Gardener at Jackson-Via Elementary.


Master Gardeners guide children planting a dogwood tree at Jackson-Via Elementary.










Master Gardeners creating a new demonstration garden at Martha Jefferson Hospital


Like seeing the results of great gardening? The Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital is pleased to have an attractive demonstration garden for patients and visitors to enjoy — and learn from — near the outdoor amphitheater. You can see the garden’s beginnings in the photo at right; the beautiful result of all that work is visible in the photo below. PMG volunteers make regular visits for gardening upkeep and maintenance.

The PMG Demonstration Garden at Martha Jefferson Hospital

Love touring beautiful gardens? From April to September Master Gardeners partner with local garden clubs to arrange for public tours of private gardens. Volunteers serve as docents for “Through the Garden Gate,” enlightening visitors with details about how these beautiful gardens were created.

Master Gardeners hosting a Garden Gate Tour

Like to learn at fairs and festivals? Look for our educational exhibits about environmental horticulture, including activities for children, at the Albemarle County Fair, Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, and other local events — once the pandemic subsides.

The PMG Annual Plant Sale offers plants of all types nurtured by Master Gardeners, and at great prices, too.

Master Gardeners assist buyers in finding the just-right plant at the annual plant sale.

Want new additions for your garden? Don’t miss our annual spring plant sale to get great deals on healthy plants nurtured by Master Gardeners. Watch for announcements about the date and time each year.  We hope it won’t have to be canceled in 2021, as was necessary in 2020, due to the pandemic.

Intrigued with historic plants? PMG’s Monticello Garden Ambassadors complement the services of Monticello’s docents, sharing rich background about the ornamental plans and vegetable gardens with visitors at Thomas Jefferson’s historic property.

Love natural surroundings? Quarry Gardens at Schuyler is a 40-acre natural area and botanical garden of native plants nestled into six abandoned soapstone quarries, where PMG volunteers help with upkeep. They also lead informative tours on nature trails for school groups, clubs, and the public from April to November. Check the website to arrange for a visit.

Garden to Go project, spring 2020

Eager to help others during the pandemic? In partnership with the Bread and Roses Community Kitchen and Garden Group, several PMG volunteers prepared “Gardens to Go” for families who received supplemental food supplies in 2020. Fabric grow pots with soil, seedlings, and seeds were distributed to these families, so that children could watch edible plants grow. The mature vegetables were intended as a source of good nutrition, as well as learning, for these families.


How do you become a Master Gardener?

Learning together in EMG training class

If you are passionate about horticulture and believe in the power of education, consider joining our team. The initial step is to complete an application. The first 25 qualified applicants will be accepted for the next year’s training class, which includes 55 hours of instruction on topics such as, soil, water quality, entomology, plant pathology, landscape site analysis, and more.

Master Gardener trainees practice pruning skills.

Trainees also complete 50 volunteer service hours before being certified as Extension Master Gardeners. To keep certification current, EMGs complete at least 8 hours of continuing education and 20 hours of volunteer service annually. For more details, visit this webpage.

Later, individual EMGs can expand upon their expertise with additional specialized training to become Advanced Extension Master Gardeners in the following areas: Tree Stewards, Landcare Stewards, Water Stewards, and Master Naturalists. In the Master Gardening world, we embrace perpetual learning!


Mission and Strategic Goals

PMG’s mission is to engage local communities through programs and resources that (a) support best practices for research-based horticulture and (b) encourage environmental sustainability. In 2020, we reflected on our accomplishments, considered current trends and community needs, and developed a strategic plan to guide future efforts. Going forward, PMG activities will target support in these areas:

  • Environmentally-responsible horticulture, with emphasis on food security issues and outreach to underserved groups through new and existing projects.
  • Partnerships and project collaboration with other like-minded organizations for public service.
  • Growth of the organization, with emphasis on diversity, engagement, and retention.

The Piedmont Master Gardeners strive to be an exemplary organization equipped with the appropriate skills and tools to achieve our mission. If you have ideas or thoughts for how we can best serve the public, we welcome your feedback.

Looking ahead, whenever it’s possible for people to safely congregate again, we hope to see you at some of this year’s Master Gardener events. And, to everyone reading this article, we hope you will act on the suggestions in this brochure from our 30th anniversary celebration to be a steward of the environment.


Like the note says . . .

Heartfelt message from a child





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