Polk Master Gardeners: Keeping the Friendly in Florida Landscaping
By Meredith Jean Morris
On a quiet stretch of U.S. Highway 17, just south of Bartow, is the headquarters for the Polk County Master Gardeners program. The offices are located in a red brick building surrounded by vibrant gardens boasting a variety of Florida-friendly plants, each labeled with identifying information. Even more remarkable than the gardens is the fact that the program’s members have extensive knowledge about each and every plant surrounding the building, and they strive to share their vast gardening education with the residents of Central Florida.
As a part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the mission of the Master Gardeners is to assist the UF Extension Agents in providing research-based horticultural education to Florida residents.
“Our purpose is to assist in educational outreach to the community,” says David Shibles, the residential horticulture agent with the UF/IFAS Polk County Cooperative Extension Service. “Anyone can use the service. I think that’s what surprises people the most.”
First founded in 1973 in the state of Washington, the Florida Master Gardener program got its start in 1979.
“Basically, the extension agent (in Washington) was overwhelmed and needed a way to deal with all of the questions (from Florida residents) about armadillos, citrus trees, turf, bugs and more,” Shibles says. So, the Florida Master Gardeners Program was created.
While the Master Gardeners serve a variety of purposes in the community, one of their roles is to staff the Master Gardener Plant Clinic to answer homeowners’ gardening questions received by the UF/IFAS Extension Polk County.
“We receive a few thousand calls a year,” says Dave Dodson, the 2016 president elect. “The calls are really seasonal. We get a lot of calls in the spring and summer. Very busy is about 15 calls a day. When the northerners come down, they’ll give us a call and say, ‘My palm or pine is not doing well. What do I do?’ Those are the kinds of questions we can answer for them.”
The Master Gardeners also answer the questions of the folks who drive to the extension office with samples of their plants, soils, or garden pests.
“People can come in any time,” Shibles says. “We also answer a few thousand emails.”
However, the tasks of the Master Gardeners are not limited to the brick building on U.S. 17.
“The other side is we go out,” says 2014 president Brenda Joyce. “ We take our information to the public at farmers’ markets, garden shows and other community events. We enjoy reaching out versus just letting people always come to us.”
The Master Gardeners also serve as neighborhood consultants for gardening matters and maintain and expand the Florida Friendly Landscaping demonstration gardens in Polk County. They also provide speakers to garden clubs, schools and other community groups.
Beginning in 1992, in Polk County, the Master Gardener program included members from all backgrounds.
“We have people with a lot of experience in gardening, and some with not much at all before the training,” Shibles says of the Polk group’s 120 members. “We have Ph.D.s, teachers, nurses — people from every background.”
Dodson, the upcoming president, is a former member of the U.S. Military.
“I have a home in Lakeland, and I was looking for the classes in gardening,” said the 2012 Master Gardening program graduate. “I saw an advertisement in the newspaper, and thought it was something I wanted to do.”
Ralone Green, coordinates speakers for the program, and has been a Master Gardener in three states.
“I completed classes in 2000, in Tennessee, and then became affiliated with the program in New Jersey,” Green says. “In 2007, I moved to Florida and joined here. I took the course in Memphis because I was frustrated with gardening. I had gardened in clay in Missouri, but it was different in Tennessee. I loved just how much there was to learn.”
Green also says she enjoys the volunteering aspect of the program.
“I love communicating with the public — that’s the ex-teacher in me,” she says, laughing. “I just like giving out the information. I want to give you information so you can make good decisions in your gardening. “
The Master Gardener training program costs $140 and is a 75-hour course. It includes 60 hours of formal classroom work, as well as hands-on activities in subjects such as basic botany, horticulture, entomology and related topics. The additional 15 hours are spent working in the demonstration garden at the extension office. The certification is valid for one year, and certification is maintained by volunteering a minimum of 50 hours, and obtaining 10 hours of continuing education each year.
The Master Gardener training is offered one time a year, from September to December.
For details about the program, visit the Master Gardener program online here or call 863-519-1041.