When Master Gardeners Break the Rule and say they’re Master Gardeners

When Master Gardeners Break the Rule and say they’re Master Gardeners

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Master Gardener Clinic at a local Farmers Market

Not long ago we had a lively discussions here (145 comments!) in answer to the question:  What do we think of Master Gardeners?”  Much of the criticism of the MG program was focused on the name, and several commenters opined that “Extension Volunteer” would be more accurate and cause less resentment from others in the gardening world.

Well, we have a follow-up!  I received an email complaining about two Illinois Master Gardeners identifying themselves as such on the Directory of Garden Coaches.  Here’s the email:

I am the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Coordinator. I was just referred to the Garden Coaches website and I noticed that several of the Illinois coaches list that they are Master Gardeners. This is in direct conflict with our mission at the University and I am requesting that you remove those designations from your website for Debbie Notaro and Linda Tyson. I will contact them individually but as creator of the site you should be aware that all states have similar policies and Master Gardeners are not allowed to use their title in any form of commercial advertisement ( see below). I have read your garden rants about Master Gardeners and disputing those ideas are not the reason for my email. I am just hoping that you will be caring enough to respect the Cooperative Extension Service and the land grant universities and have these titles removed. I am certainly in favor of these folks marketing their skills and making a living- but NOT by using the title of Master Gardener.

From our policies:

“A Master Gardener should not display credentials or give the appearance of being a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener at a place of business unless that place is conducting an authorized University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener activity. It is improper to imply that University of Illinois Extension endorses any product or place of business. Master Gardeners must not use their title in any form of commercial advertisement. The Master Gardener program is a public service program established to provide unbiased information, and the title “Master Gardener” is to be used only when conducting unpaid volunteer work in the program.”

Please consider my request which is made in good faith.

Regards, Monica

Dear Monica, I DO take the request in good faith, but as to whether I’m “caring enough” to have the titles removed?  It’s complicated.

1.  I did indeed co-initiate the Coaching Directory (with Jean Ann Van Krevelen) and am listed as “founder” but I’m not responsible for anything written on it by individual coaches.  It was Jean Ann’s suggestion to use a website program that allows coaches to have control of their individual entries, and that’s enabled us to be hands-off.  Thankfully.

2.  Anyway, I’m not sure I support the rule prohibiting use of the term MG on a bio seeking work.  What’s the purpose, exactly?  To avoid the appearance that the university endorses some product or other?  Like when the garden manager at my local Lowes told me how great the Scotts multi-step stream pollution lawn fertilization program is and to drive home his endorsement, told me he’s a Master Gardener?  Yeah, that’s bad.  On the other hand, what harm does it do when garden coaches inform prospective clients that they’re Master Gardeners?

3.  Seems to me the problem here is that misnomer of a term.  I doubt that the Lowes manager would have claimed status as an Extension Volunteer in order to bolster his endorsement of Scotts.

But let’s hear from the two offending garden coaches, found  here on the Illinois garden coach page.  Linda Tyson wrote:

Personally, Susan, I think this rule s*cks. What are we some kind of secret society or something? Yes, Monica contacted me, and I removed the MG reference, sent her an email to let her know it was gone. I think it’s ridiculous that we aren’t ‘allowed’ to mention our work with Extension in our professional credentials and I think the argument about the University having some involuntary ‘endorsement’ of us by simply stating we volunteer our time as Master Gardeners (essentially what my reference to being a MG stated,) is ridiculous as well. They lose a lot of good volunteers over this (to me) silly rule. I’m not big on rules to begin with, and this one is take it or leave it. If you don’t bow to it, you’re out. I don’t agree, but if/when I decide to leave I’d prefer it to be on my terms, so I took the MG reference out. Now it just says I volunteer my time without saying with what organization. (I plant flowers for the CIA. Shhhh . . . it’s top secret.)

I’ll add one more thing – I don’t understand how they can be concerned about any sort of endorsement. Makes about as much sense as a university telling people not to include where they went to school on their resumes for fear of the public thinking that constitutes an endorsement. MG experience is valid experience and should not have to be kept secret.

And from Debbie Notaro:

Susan, While I would think that the University of Illinois would have better things to do and more important issues at hand to complete their mission, I will say this.

I am a former master gardener of an extension. I earned my certification from the University of California, when I lived in California from 2001-2005. I have over 1,000 service hours on my record. I chaired the first Contra Costa County wide Garden Walk, which raised thousands of dollars for the extension and U of C published 3 papers I wrote on their website. They still use the model of the garden walk and in fact mentioned me in their newsletter last year for the record number of service hours I had volunteered. I am very proud of my time served with the Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County and have many fond memories of the gardeners I worked with there. [Lots of praise for Extension services deleted for brevity.]

Just as you would use a degree in Horticulture from any university in the country as a part of your biography; the master gardener program is an educational advantage to gardeners who take the time and effort to complete classes, pass exams, and complete their certification by answering the hotline questions and volunteering their time for a certain amount of hours per year. This designation or qualification does not miraculously disappear when you leave the extension any more than your degree would after you graduate college.

While I am not an active member of the extension service here in Kane County Illinois, I still do everything I can to educate the public and private clients about gardening. [Examples omitted for brevity.]

In more recent years I’ve earned certifications as a Horticulturist and Landscape Designer and achieved much beyond the master gardener program educational requirements itself. I am still most proud of earning that designation. It is a portion of who I am and what I believe in. It is how I approach clients and the general public when speaking or writing. The term master gardener denotes an experienced and educated gardener who has attained more knowledge than the average person about gardening. I would liken it to a carpenter or plumber… most people can do simple repairs, but call a certified and educated carpenter or plumber, who also by the way carry a designation of master, when they have an issue beyond the average homeowners expertise.

The university systems have a worthy program. I am a huge fan and supporter. However, the term master gardener to my knowledge is not trademarked or copyrighted. I would think that the extension services would be proud of members’ current and former affiliation with the university program… it seems that is not so at least in Illinois.

All of the ‘master gardeners’ I have known in my life across the country, whether affiliated with a university or not, have through their own effort and practice mastered the art of gardening through education and experience.

My experience with the master gardener program in California is as much a part of my education as my certifications following it. It will remain on my resume. It is part of who I am and what I’ve done to accomplish life goals for myself.

So readers, what do YOU think of the rule and the enforcement thereof?

Posted by

Susan Harris
on April 19, 2013 at 8:27 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Taking Your Gardening Dollar.

17 Comments
    • trey
    • 14th February 2015

    If you sign up to be a Master Gardener you also sign up to abide by their rules (which is why I am not a Master Gardener).

    • Dave
    • 12th December 2015

    I agree with Trey’s comment. I’m a Master Gardener and went through our program. I do volunteer work in our community but do not publicize myself as a Master Gardener. Or I try not to. Sometimes its impossible to avoid. People ask questions and once they know they know. I disagree with the rule but since I agreed to abide by it that’s the deal.

    • admin
    • 19th May 2016

    Degreed in horticulture & engineering HGTV listed me, of their own accord, as a landscape architect in show credits on their website. I had no idea they did it. Nor did I give them such information.

    • Linda B Secrist
    • 2nd October 2016

    as a Master Gardener coordinator when introducing the program to new trainees, i emphase that we are volunteer educators in home horticulture under our state landgrant university and that when signing the policy statement the individual is agreeing to abide by those items. WE do not know all the answers but we know where to find the researched information. Have been with the program 15+ years and i learn something every day and i love that

    • Don Shor
    • 9th October 2016

    Extension Volunteers would be more accurate and lead to less confusion among the public.

    • Frank Hyman
    • 4th November 2016

    Wow. I’m a journeyman carpenter ( 23 years experience) and a journeyman stone mason (16 years experience). I make much of my living in client’s gardens from those two trades, but I’m nowhere near ready to describe myself as a ‘master’ at either trade. More, I have a degree in horticulture, have managed an organic farm, been trained by the extension as an IPM scout (more intense than MG training), have a backyard nursery, have run a gardening business for 21 years, write and speak about gardening extensively and I Might Not object if someone described me as a “master gardener.” Maybe.

    • Frank Hyman
    • 6th November 2016

    As a graduate of a land grant university (NCSU) and in the interest of accuracy and transparency in marketing, I ask the extension folks to change the name to “Extension Volunteers.”

    • MsKYprepper
    • 9th November 2016

    I agree with the comment that if you agreed to abide by their rules then you must do that. Things get complicated however, when a person completes a Master Gardener program which did not have that rule (CA) – and then move into an area where the Master Gardener program does have the rule (IL).

    • admin
    • 11th November 2016

    While I tend to agree that the automatic appellation of “Master” after finishing a few basic courses is a bit silly — to to mention inaccurate, it seems to me that the extension services have essentially “broken the contract” as soon as they started charging hefty fees for the initial and subsequent course materials and training.

    • Practical Parsimony
    • 11th November 2016

    This was my thought when I read the article. When I was talking to a Master Gardener at a booth, she told me all about the program and gave me a brochure. After paying about $150 and 100 hrs volunteering, I would have been given a certificate stating I was a Master Gardener. I have two BAs and an MA. I am allowed to use my titles because I paid for the classes and completed the requirements. I would never pay to be a Master Gardener, attend classes, take tests, volunteer and then not be allowed to use the title. I do not recall if that last bit is effect in the state of Alabama. if so, I will not pay money for their program.

    • Jan Phipps
    • 12th November 2016

    Who gets to decide how master gardeners should use their credentials? Garden bloggers or a council of individuals chosen to oversee the program? I vote for the council. If one is unhappy with the rules, get on the council and see what can be done to change them. Isn’t that the democratic way? Until then, please adhere to what you signed on for.

    • Norm
    • 14th November 2016

    For gosh sakes ‘chill’ everyone and get back to the garden. There are no rules. Not like it’s rocket surgery.

    • Marlisa Keyes
    • 15th November 2016

    I have Master Gardener training, but I too would not describe myself as a master at gardening. I took the course because although I grew up in a gardening family, the knowledge I had was limited and I wanted to know more.
    Frankly, I find the rule is not only tedious, but it can and often does cause problems with what should be an enjoyable relationship between university employees and volunteers.
    The rule is designed to protect a university from lawsuits. Period. It does not acknowledge the time and training the volunteers put in to attain this status — if it did, the university would find a better way to address this relationship, rather than using an outmoded rule that hurts more than it helps.

    • Cenepk10
    • 15th November 2016

    Wow ! Who knew that constituted a Master Gardener ! I figured 30 years of garden making made one a Master ! Such pretension has no place in my lovely garden !

    • greg draiss
    • 15th November 2016

    Shows the arrogance that has pervaded many Master Gardeners. A bus load on tour stopped in to our garden center one Saturday afternoon. WE LOVE TOURS and sharing garden knowledge with others.

    • Monish
    • 15th November 2016

    I have found that the horticultural as a whole is such a big subject- think of all it encompasses- that there are many levels of knowledge, and many levels of ignorance. It is inevitable that someone will actually think they are a “Master” with a ten week course- when they are just beginners that have made a serious effort to reach out and be taught by someone. The program is set up to be for people who have free time on their hands (think bored house-wife) not your average professional who is working very hard to make ends meet. It would be nice if you could actually get some answers out of their “hotline” so we could refer people there to help out with the constant questions. It is weird to call them masters, but most people do not realize they are not- even my Mom who is a pretty masterful gardener thinks highly of the title (mostly because she does not know what it actually is). It is only someone who has had to deal with these “Masters” one on one in a professional setting that the holes in their knowledge become evident. In the nursery trade- where we answer tough questions all day long- we are skeptical of the Masters and their program- mostly because we can’t get a solid answer out of most of them! The public (mostly ignorant) thinks this is a great honor to be called “Master” and take it at face value never investigating what it really is. I think I will have to become one (in my sleep) so I can be on level with what the public thinks! You can bet I will never throw such a silly title around!!

    • Laurie
    • 15th November 2016

    I have years of experience in the horticultural field as well as a degree. I also volunteer as a Master Gardener. I don’t use my Master Gardener title for commercial purposes, although occasionally others do when they introduce me. The primary reason I don’t is the title comes with a lot of baggage. A lot of people think the title is pretentious. I do include it my bio and resume just as I include my experience as a school board member, library volunteer, and other volunteer activities in the community if aplicable. I’ve volunteered hundreds and hundreds of hours for the program, writing articles and answering questions from the public. It also keeps me up to date with current research, and I have included practical aspects of the research in my work as well as for the program. The Master Gardeners is a good organization and I feel it needs more volunteers with a strong horticultural and commercial background and that’s why I volunteered. The program isn’t meant to be used as a degree or certificate program for career advancement. I don’t volunteer for the title but to give back to my local community.

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