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Master Gardeners help communities blossom
JACKSON – After 20 years in Mississippi, the Master Gardener program is stronger than ever and still making its mark on the state.
Lelia Kelly, state Master Gardener coordinator with the Mississippi State University Extension Service since 2002, said she recognized the program had great potential and set out to help county Extension offices better reach the audience she knew was out there.
“In terms of popularity of Extension programs nationwide, the Master Gardener program is second only to 4-H,” Kelly said.
The Master Gardener volunteer program offers training in consumer horticulture in exchange for service hours returned to the community.
By streamlining the training curriculum, building a management guide for county offices and getting county-level leaders involved in the state association, Mississippi’s Master Gardener program has realized huge growth among members and garnered wide recognition.
“Our Mississippi training curriculum for the program is recognized regionally and nationally for excellence and is being emulated by several other states,” Kelly said.
The program’s participation has grown from 773 members in 2004 to 1,545 members in 2011. Master Gardener volunteer hours statewide were valued at $1,091,537 in 2011 alone, based on the national average of the value of volunteer time.
“To put it another way, that is equivalent to nearly 25 full-time positions with the Extension Service,” Kelly said.
All that manpower has an enormous impact on Mississippi communities, said Brookhaven Parks and Recreation Director Terry Reid.
“The Master Gardeners are an invaluable resource to my department and to the city,” said Reid, who manages four city parks and two sports complexes encompassing 76 acres. “Anything I need, that’s who I call. They tell me what to plant, where to plant and how to plant it. I’ve learned to rely on their knowledge.
“I don’t have a lot of money to spend on beautification,” Reid said. “So their ability to find discounted or free landscaping materials has helped me out and been a benefit to the city. They don’t mind working, either. They help throughout the entire process, from planning to upkeep.”
Shirley Estes, Brookhaven alderperson and Lincoln County Master Gardener, said the efforts to keep the city landscaped improve economic development.
“Having attractive landscaping is a good indication of a community’s attitude toward quality of life,” she said. “When industry or individuals consider moving into a city, they look at every aspect that will influence their employees and themselves, and beautification is one of those things.”
Lincoln County Extension Director Rebecca Bates started the state’s first Master Gardener program in Rankin, Hinds and Madison counties in the early 1990s. She now has a group of 20 Master Gardeners.
“They’re a small group, but they are dedicated to the goal and mission of the program. They help me reach out into the community,” Bates said. “Their horticulture efforts in the county and city are certainly outstanding and really show that they care about their community.”
Master Gardener volunteer efforts include educational programs for students and the public, fundraising for and upkeep of the Easthaven Cemetery, and various beautification efforts for the city and county.
“They are willing to help me with anything, whether it’s a gardening program or the farmers’ market,” Bates said. “They are a great asset to me and to the Extension Service.”
The program’s popularity can be attributed partly to the fact that it brings service-oriented people together for the greater good.
“The secret to the success of this program is it combines great educational opportunities for people to learn with the gratifying and rewarding opportunities for sharing their knowledge through service to others,” Kelly said. “People love the fellowship with like-minded individuals.”
The commitment and dedication of Master Gardeners all over the state is an asset to their communities, Kelly said.
“Master Gardeners do more than just horticultural training,” she said. “They write grants, create Powerpoint presentations and act as outstanding ambassadors for the Extension Service when interacting with city and state government officials. They are active in their communities and are dedicated to promoting good gardening practices and improving the quality of life of all Mississippians.”
For more information about the Master Gardener program, contact the local Extension office.