Comparing Master Gardener Experiences

January 18, 2011 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

After completing the Colorado Master Gardener program in the winter of 2010 at the Colorado State University Extension office in Gunnison, I enrolled in the Virginia Master Gardener program, held in Newport News, the following fall. This repeat experience provided an opportunity to observe the best elements of both programs and perhaps offer suggestions for improving the learning experience for future students.

Both programs offered the same basic knowledge essential for becoming a Master Gardener volunteer. But each gave greater emphasis to some subject areas than others. Of course, some of the differences stem from the vastly different environmental conditions of the two states. The dry, thin, cold air of the Upper Gunnison Valley gives rise to conditions that are a world away from the mild and often steamy humidity of the Chesapeake Bay. And the vast array of plants that thrive at sea level in Zone 7 seemed almost overwhelming to someone who was initially schooled in the narrow range of species that can survive the month or so of frost-free days at 9,000 feet in Crested Butte!

The most striking difference between the two programs lay in the way the lessons were organized. Gunnison condensed a week’s material into a single day, broken by a lunch hour. This schedule had its advantages, perhaps making it easier for working people to fit the program into their work schedules. But it made for a pretty exhausting day, incorporating a lot of material into a single session. The Virginia program split sessions into two mornings a week. Most of the students lived close to the classroom, and a good number were retirees with less demanding schedules than Gunnison’s mostly younger, employed students. The downside of this arrangement was that a few students had two days a week of driving to cope with, for me two hours each way. All things considered, I preferred Colorado’s schedule.

Another difference lay in the way the classes were taught. Colorado’s vast spaces made distance learning essential, while the location of the Virginia program, close to the cities of Norfolk and Newport News, made it possible to have live teachers present at each class. Many of these, as in Colorado, were current college professors, but a few were retired professionals and landscape designers. Having instructors in the classroom made it easier to ask questions and have lively exchanges between students and teachers – and eliminated the inevitable computer glitches that occasionally interrupted the learning experience in Colorado.

There were a lot more students in our class in Virginia – about 60 from several communities in the Tidewater region. That made for a lot of questions and a more lively but chaotic classroom than our small class of about 12 in Gunnison. Of course, there were many more students taking the course in Colorado, but the electronic teaching method necessarily limited communication among the participating extension offices.

Because of the location and the season, we had six to eight field trips in Virginia, which broke up classroom time and enabled students to get some first-hand experience that was necessarily lacking in Colorado’s winter session. We visited several nurseries and heard much advice from growers about species and growing conditions in Tidewater Virginia. One valuable visit with an instructor to a park in Williamsburg enabled students to practice pruning techniques on shrubs and small trees.

While the subject matter was similar, the two programs placed special emphasis on different subject areas. Memorable from the Colorado program were the emphasis on methods for diagnosing plant pests and diseases, a fascinating class in Salida on entomology that gave me a whole new fondness for bugs and Jon’s helpful support in finding ways to satisfy our volunteer hours. I won’t begin the volunteer phase in Virginia until this spring, so I can’t yet compare the two experiences, but I did notice in class a greater emphasis placed on sustainable gardening – composting (no bears), organic cultivation techniques, raising worms, and of course preference for native plants and lawn reduction.

The importance of water conservation received much attention in both programs, though for slightly different reasons. Careful use of water through correct irrigation techniques and plant selection was emphasized in Colorado, reflecting the problem of drought in much of the state, while water conservation is essential in the Tidewater region because the adjacent Chesapeake Bay is badly polluted by stormwater and agricultural runoff. An entire class on the principles of landscape design was much appreciated by the Virginia students.
Finally, the Virginia program ended with a real graduation ceremony, complete with lunch, door prizes and certificates, paid for by the students. It was hardly necessary, but a fun way to end the program.

Mary Ellis, Colorado (and Virginia) Master Gardener
Crested Butte

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Entry filed under: Gunnison County Master Gardener Program.

The Lowdown on Composting In Gunnison County (How to Make the Most of A Rotten Deal) Proper Techniques for Pruning Branches on Trees

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