Valerie Sesler has worked with countless volunteers over the years, but there’s something special about the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners. “The Master Gardeners are the most dedicated group of volunteers I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
The Penn State Extension Master Gardener program trains adult volunteers in research-based and sustainable horticultural practices. After completing the training, Master Gardeners help Extension better serve the public by answering questions; speaking to groups; writing columns and articles for newsletters, websites and news media outlets; maintaining demonstration gardens; assisting in Penn State pollinator research; and participating in many other projects.
As an area coordinator, Valerie supports the program in 12 counties in southwest Pennsylvania. She explained that Master Gardeners teach topics they are passionate about and believe the public may find interesting and useful.
They consider what they would like to learn as home gardeners and focus on those areas. Webinars covering a wide range of topics – tomato grafting, rain barrels, herb gardens, beekeeping, small-space gardening, deer-resistant native plants and so on – are available on the Penn State Extension website (extension.psu.edu).
Some webinars will take place in the coming weeks or months and will occur live, while other webinars are recorded and available on demand. The program also offers a monthly newsletter called “Home Garden News” with links to articles on seasonal topics and the latest information on classes, workshops, publications, videos, and online and in-person events.
“This is a great way for people to stay informed,” Valerie said.
The newsletter covers topics such as vegetable, herb and fruit production; garden and landscape maintenance practices; pest and disease identification and management; Master Gardener volunteer training; and other relevant information. Gardeners can subscribe to this newsletter on the Penn State Extension website.
“One of my most unforgettable experiences with the program was the Victory Garden webinar series we organized during the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak,” Valerie said.
The series attracted more than 10,000 attendees from across the U.S. and Canada. The 10-part series covered all aspects of gardening, from constructing garden beds to selecting vegetables. The recorded sessions are available in both English and Spanish.
“This series made us realize that we could have a more extensive impact beyond Pennsylvania by educating and empowering people to cultivate home vegetable gardens,” Valerie said.
Master Gardeners support their communities in a variety of ways. County programs offer free garden hotlines to assist home gardeners with science-based gardening solutions.
In 2022, the program donated nearly 23,000 pounds of produce from Master Gardener demonstration gardens. To raise awareness and provide the latest research-based information about the spotted lanternfly, volunteers delivered 121 webinars and in-person presentations on the topic.
In total, Master Gardeners reported more than 197,000 volunteer hours in 2022, valued at $5.9 million. A comprehensive gardening program called “Seed to Supper” is aimed at helping novice, adult gardeners learn how to successfully grow a portion of their own food on a limited budget.
“Seed to Supper offers more than just garden education and improved access to healthy foods,” Valerie said. “It provides learners with transformative experiences that increase individual and community food security by fostering food literacy, resiliency, community connectivity and supportive social networks.”
This joint effort between local food banks or similar organizations and the Master Gardener program is offered free of charge to qualifying adults. Master Gardeners assist with research projects as well.
For instance, the lab of Margarita López-Uribe, associate professor of entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, partnered with the Master Gardener program to develop an educational project for Master Gardeners to leverage their knowledge and interest in pollinator natural history and create the first long-term bee monitoring program for the state of Pennsylvania.
Another research project called “Grow-Save-Repeat” was designed to provide Master Gardeners with resources and knowledge to educate home gardeners on seed saving and home plant breeding.
The Master Gardeners collaborated with Sarah Dohle, assistant professor of plant science at Delaware Valley University, to teach gardeners that saving seeds from their vegetable garden can prevent shortages and promote local crop diversity. Master Gardeners also lead in-person workshops throughout the state. Gardeners can find a workshop near them on the Penn State Extension website.
Those interested in joining the Master Gardener program can find more information about the 2024 basic training class, which will begin in October, on the Penn State Extension website. Additional counties may add events to the list, so readers should check the webpage for updates.
The Penn State Master Gardener volunteer program supports the outreach mission of Penn State Extension by utilizing unbiased, research-based information to educate communities and the public on best practices in sustainable horticulture and environmental stewardship.
PHOTO CAP: Valerie Sesler