Learning and Giving Back: The University of Saskatchewan Master Gardener Program

Sara Williams
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

As “pandemic fatigue” seems to drag on and on, we look for the positive to brighten our world. In the world of prairie gardening, look no farther than Saskatchewan’s Master Gardener Program which trains home gardeners to effectively volunteer within their communities: from providing good advice to getting their hands dirty doing for others what they love best (i.e. gardening).

The original Master Gardener program began at the Washington State University Cooperative Extension in 1973. From there it expanded to across the USA and most of Canada. Initiated in 1989, the Saskatchewan’s Master Gardener Program is over thirty years old and is managed through the University of Saskatchewan’s Gardening at USask program. In addition, Manitoba residents can also learn online with USask and certify through the Manitoba Master Gardener Association.

USask Master Gardener training provides new and experienced gardeners with a “best practices” approach to pesticide-free gardening on the Canadian Prairies; one that recognizes that there are many ways to garden successfully but some are more practical and effective than others. You don’t have to certify to take these classes though. All classes are available to everyone; many students take only one or two courses that target their special interests or to “get their feet wet” before committing to certification.

What motivates people to seek Master Gardener certification? Among the reasons given by the Master Gardeners themselves: learning more about gardening through the resource materials and seminars; personal satisfaction; becoming better able to help others; meeting people with similar interests; and developing a gardening business or employment opportunities.

Certification has two components: horticultural training and volunteer service. Participants study at their own pace (usually 6-24 months), complete their classes (which include many self-tests along the way). And when they feel they are ready, they write an open-book multiple choice exam based on the practice questions used throughout the course.

The horticulture workshops were originally given in Saskatoon and communities throughout the province. Because of COVID, they are now offered exclusively on-line on an “on-demand, take at your own pace” format that includes video lessons, self-tests, written support, and access to an instructor for questions. These workshops consist of the following:
• Gardening Fundamentals is the most comprehensive class, covering basic gardening, botany and soil health.
• Botanical Latin focuses on the practical application of plant classification and naming systems.
• Tree and Shrub Identification helps participants recognize the common trees and shrubs of the Prairies.
• Insects in your Yard and Garden explains the critical role of insects in a healthy ecosystem, how to recognize those that may live in your garden, and when to be concerned.
• Plant Diagnostics for Home Gardeners analyzes and diagnoses plant problems in an approach that goes beyond looking at only insects and diseases. 
• Common Plant Disorders covers the wide spectrum of causes of plant disorders and how these impact plants while focusing on how to garden more sustainably.
• Common Plant Diseases involves how to identify common diseases, their life cycles, prevention and control.
• Safe Use of Pesticides and Alternatives discuses when and how to use home pesticides safely as well as techniques to avoid pesticide use. Although the USask program is pesticide-free, this is a required course as pesticide use remains common. Master Gardeners need an understanding of common practices in order to provide appropriate advice.
• Communications teaches Master Gardeners how to be effective communicators and thus more effective volunteers within their communities.

Students seeking to certify receive a total of 64 hours of education.

Master Gardeners in Training must complete 40 hours of volunteer community service. This can be done where the student lives or virtually. Students can create a volunteer situation that is suited to their needs. This can take many forms: behind the scenes building gardens at events like Gardenscape, setting up plant learning stations for school tours, writing projects through Gardening at USask, presenting gardening seminars for community groups; horticulture projects in care homes; school or youth group projects; writing gardening articles; or landscaping or caring for local parks or hospital grounds.

Once fully certified, Master Gardener certification may be renewed every two years.
To maintain Master Gardener status, participants subsequently volunteer a minimum of 20 hours a year and take six hours of classes every two years.

To learn more about Gardening at USask’s Master Gardener program, check out their website at www.gardening.usask.ca

Sara Williams is the author and coauthor of many books including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and, with Bob Bors, the recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to give workshops on a wide range of gardening topics throughout the prairies.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events.