Vegas Verdes: Ask a Master Gardener

Published on March 2020 in the Las Vegas Optic.

Many of us have suffered consternation when we’ve embarked on a grand plan to, let us say, grow tomatoes (because the tomatoes available in the supermarket are so, well, awful), and then realized we don’t know much about growing anything. Who do we ask? Where do we go for information? One answer is certainly your county cooperative extension agent who will direct you to a Master Gardener.

The first Master Gardener Program was established in the neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, in 1973. The area was experiencing a high demand for gardening advice and the county agent needed assistance. Since then, it has spread to all 50 states and all Canadian provinces. The program is coordinated by the cooperative extension service of land grant universities in the 50 states. Its official designation is Extension Master Gardeners. At the local level, the county cooperative extension agent is the person in charge.

The program is one of education and volunteer service. Participants need not be experienced gardeners, in fact most are not. They are enthusiasts, almost always people who want to garden on some level. They may be town residents or small farmers, they may be young or old (or somewhere in between), they may be weekend gardeners or serious practitioners of the horticultural sciences. What they have in common is a desire to learn and understand the art and science of gardening.

New Mexico county Master Gardener organizations offer a course of 14 to16, 3 ½ hour class sessions covering such topics as fundamentals of plant science and soil science, weather and climate, weed science, integrated pest management, trees and shrubs to list but a few.

Classes are taught by experts in the various fields. The fee for the whole 14 session package this year in San Miguel County is just $150 and worth it. Finishing the course does not endow you with an extraordinarily green thumb, or enable you to rattle off the Latin names and characteristics of all the weeds in your yard. It does leave you aware of the depth and breadth of horticultural science and the skills to know where to look or who to ask for answers to the many questions that will arise.

The San Miguel Extension Master Gardeners (SMEMG) program is young. It offered its first course of classes in February, 2019 and will schedule a new course of classes every year. The initial response was quite satisfactory and its 2020 classes are now underway. After completing the course, each new Master Gardener in the county agrees to 20 hours of volunteer service and 10 hours of continuing education annually.

Opportunities for the SMEMG to make their newly acquired knowledge available to the community are many. Seed to Supper is a free, six session course on vegetable growing for beginners due to start in April. It is taught by SMEMG at two locations in Las Vegas.

The SMEMG is helping with this project. In cooperation with the City of Las Vegas Tree Advisory Board, and Tierra y Montes Soil Conservation Service, the SMEMG will participate in a city-wide street tree inventory. The SMEMG has been assisting the efforts of New Mexico State University to implement a farm incubator project using 2 acres of Memorial Middle School grounds. The aim of the project is to encourage individuals and families to develop their own land for fruit and vegetable growing. This will add to the community supply of fruits and vegetables and reduce food insecurity.

The SMEMG operates the “Ask a Master Gardener” information booth in both
locations of the Las Vegas Farmers’ Market (May to October). The SMEMG is to
design and implement a landscaping project for the Gallinas River Park Collaborative in the area surrounding the kiosk on the east side of the river at Bridge Street. It will feature native and other drought tolerant plants – mostly trees and shrubs – and perhaps include a few well-placed boulders. Planting is expected to begin this spring.

It is hoped and expected that Master Gardener activities will spread and diversify even further in the future. Here are a few possibilities. A horticultural education program coordinated by Dr. Peter Skelton of NMSU already operates at Sierra Vista Elementary School. The SMEMG would like to assist and help expand the program. A Master Gardener hot-line is seen as a good way to be easily accessible to the answer seeking public. Using the beds built for the Farm incubation project at Memorial Middle School, the SMEMG wants to instruct and inspire those who would like to establish a community garden in Las Vegas.

Yvonne Tallent is president of the SMEMG. Individuals interested in signing up for the next course of classes (February 2021) or for information about current activities can e-mail her at ytallent@gmail.com or call John Martinez, county agent, at the San Miguel Extension Office, 505-545-1497, or find San Miguel Extension Master Gardeners on Facebook.

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