Become a Master Gardener

If you would rather garden than do anything else, you're not alone. Gardening is now considered the number one outdoor activity in the U.S. And, if your love for gardening keeps you always searching for that unusual plant or the best way to plant your vegetable garden or that garden tour filled with enough good ideas to turn your home garden into a fantastic show place, maybe it's time you started thinking about becoming a Master Gardener.

The Master Gardener program is designed to use the services of trained volunteers who have horticultural knowledge and a willingness to share that knowledge with other county residents. Master Gardeners answer gardening questions that come into the Extension Office, work at plant clinics, design programs related to gardening, conduct garden tours, create and maintain gardens, work at county fairs and plant clinics, work with community garden projects, help educate children about gardening, and participate in many other exciting projects. All of these activities are very rewarding, and the feeling of accomplishment they receive through the service they are providing is very gratifying.

Perhaps you may be put off by the term Master Gardener. You will not be the first. Many active Master Gardeners admit to a certain hesitancy when considering volunteering because the title designates a degree of expertise in the field of gardening that most feel they do not possess. Actually, all you primarily need to join this service organization is a love of gardening. The expertise comes from the training provided by the program, from the information available at the Extension Office, and from the knowledge shared by other Master Gardeners.

Master Gardeners receive a minimum of 30 hours of instruction. Along with an orientation, volunteers are given core training in plant science, plant propagation, soil science, plant pathology, entomology, communication skills, and integrated pest management. These subjects, covered in the first part of this manual, represent 20 hours of training. The core section gives the Master Gardener trainee the basic horticultural knowledge necessary to assist extension staff effectively. The remaining 10 hours of training are in specific gardening topics like pruning techniques, composting, house plants, vegetable culture, herbs, tree and small fruit culture, lawns, and landscape design. This allows the Master Gardener to specialize in an area of particular personal interest. Specific gardening topics are covered in the second section of this manual.

After training is completed, the volunteers are ready for action. Each new Master Gardener provides the county extension office with 50 hours of horticulture-related volunteer work for the 30 hours of instruction. Penn State Master Gardeners:

  • answer gardening questions
  • assist county extension office staff
  • conduct garden tours
  • conduct school gardening programs
  • coordinate Master Gardener programs
  • create and maintain demonstration gardens
  • design and maintain community and school landscapes
  • develop visual aids for presenting extension programs
  • diagnose plant specimens
  • garden with the elderly and handicapped
  • make home gardening visits
  • organize Master Gardener graduation picnics
  • photograph Master Gardener activities
  • plan and complete community beautification projects
  • present lectures or demonstrations to groups interested in horticulture
  • produce a newsletter
  • staff county and state exhibits
  • volunteer as 4-H leaders
  • work at county fairs and plant clinics
  • work in trial gardens at research stations
  • work on special events

After a trainee has satisfactorily completed the formal training and 50 hours of volunteer service, he or she is awarded a Penn State Master Gardener certificate. To maintain the title, Certified Master Gardener, a volunteer is required to attend a minimum of 8 hours of update (advanced) training per year and serve a minimum of 20 hours volunteer time per year. When an individual ceases active participation, his or her designation as a Master Gardener becomes void.

The title "Penn State Master Gardener" is to be used only by individuals trained and certified to assist Penn State Cooperative Extension, and the title is valid only when the volunteer is participating in the Penn State Master Gardener program.

The training and experience that a volunteer gains by participating in the program is valuable, and may rightfully be given as qualifications when the volunteer seeks employment. Once employed and while serving as a paid employee, or if self-employed, Master Gardeners should not display credentials or give the appearance of being a Master Gardener at their place of business (unless the place of business is specifically designated as a Master Gardener Clinic by the county extension agent). Master Gardeners must not use their title in any form of advertisement. Implying Penn State Cooperative Extension's endorsement of any product or place of business is improper. The Master Gardener program is a public service that provides unbiased information, and the title Master Gardener is to be used only when a person is doing unpaid volunteer work for this program.

By every measure the Master Gardener program has been highly successful, with benefits for everyone involved. The public benefits by being able to talk with knowledgeable gardeners face to face and to receive information from people who are not interested in promoting particular products. The Master Gardeners benefit from the feeling of accomplishment that comes through the service. In addition, the professional training Master Gardeners receive motivates many to learn more about gardening. Cooperative Extension benefits because Master Gardeners free extension agents to pursue other work and enable extension to reach a greater number of gardeners at a low cost (Deschner, 1981).

If you are interested in learning more about our program, please call Mary Ann Ryan at (717) 334-6271 ext. 319 or e-mail at for more information.

To become a Frederick County Master Gardener visit their website at or call 694-1594.  To become a Carroll County Master Gardener call Steve Allgeier at (410) 386-2760 or via e-mail at 

Read other articles by Mary Ann Ryan