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Master Gardener program welcomes new members

The NC State Extension Master Gardener program has trained people to serve as volunteer educators of science-based horticultural knowledge since 1979. In 2012, the Cleveland County Cooperative Extension office began offering Master Gardener classes and formed the Extension Master GardenerSM Association of Cleveland County.

"Being a part of the Extension Master Gardener of Cleveland County has been a rewarding experience for me for the past 11 years," said Judy Hawkins, who currently serves as president of the local group. "The benefits of being part of our local group are many, and include being with others who share similar interests, having access to scientific resources through the NC State Extension and NC Cooperative Extension programs, and providing horticulture assistance to the citizens of Cleveland County."

The name "master gardener" might be intimidating for those unfamiliar with thegroup. People think that if a group has the word "master" in its name it must require extensive knowledge of the subject before you can join. In reality, the opposite is true. Member Tonie Turner said that was what she thought when she first learned about the group. "I thought they would all know so much more than me, but once I went through the class and got to know the other members, I realized that everyone is learning, and they help one another." She also said that many members enjoy a particular topic and choose to become more knowledgeable about it so they can share that knowledge with others.

For Turner, joining the group led to a new-found passion for helping preserve monarch butterflies, which are considered a vulnerable species. It is a project she's been able to share with her great-granddaughter. "She helped me plant milkweed. It's the plant monarchs lay their eggs on, and it feeds the larvae when they hatch. The first year, we found eggs on our plants. I was able to share with her the experience of watching the cycle monarchs go through until the butterfly emerges."

Tuner's experience led her to a new passion. For Hawkins, the group has helped her return to her roots. "I grew up on a dairy farm in Rowan County. We had a large vegetable garden and my mother loved 'her flowers," said Hawkins. "Until retirement, I always yearned to get back to some of my roots around plants." The Master Gardener group has given Hawkins that opportunity.

The master gardener group is open to anyone with an interest in gardening and volunteerism. Interested citizens have the opportunity to enroll in the course each fall. Coursework is completed virtually with one in-person meeting each week. "The course is designed to help you succeed," said Turner. "They want you to learn and become a member."

Once the coursework is completed, new members are paired with a mentor who helps them develop meaningful connections within the group and learn the skills necessary to be successful in their volunteer role.

New members must complete 40 volunteer hours by the end of their first year to be certified. There are multiple opportunities and a variety of ways to earn those volunteer hours. New members can help with community education events, work at the master gardener booth at the Foothills Farmers' Market in Shelby or the Kings Mountain Farmers' Market, work on the group's display at the Cleveland County Fair, and help with the group's annual plant sale, among other opportunities.

The annual plant sale is the group's major fundraiser. Members propagate and raise a large variety of vegetable and ornamental plants to offer for sale. In addition, the sale features the "Garden Shed" where customers may find things like birdhouses, dish gardens, walking sticks, gardening books, and other treasures.

Proceeds from the plant sale support the group's educational and volunteer activities, plus this year they plan to award $1000 scholarships to two high school seniors in Cleveland County.

The group has a goal to increase its involvement with Cleveland County Schools and help local students learn more about horticulture. Last fall, the group began a bulb project by visiting North Shelby School and Bethware Elementary School. After an educational talk on planting and growing daffodils, the students helped plant 400 bulbs at each school. This spring teachers at each school reported that students were excited to see their work come to fruition as the flowers grew and began to bloom. This fall, the group plans to visit two more schools to educate and plant daffodils.

Other activities help members continue their education. The group meets monthly to learn about various topics or work on projects. They also take field trips to places like Stone Falls Farm in Iron Station, and Milkweed Meadows in Fruitland, North Carolina.

Julie Flowers, Area Consumer Horticulture Agent Gaston and Cleveland County, NC Cooperative Extension, coordinates the Extension Master Gardner group in Cleveland County. "Extension Master Gardener volunteers are valuable assets to the NC Cooperative Extension," said Flowers. "They expand our reach into the community with much-needed garden-related, resource-based information. Working with them is, by far, the most rewarding thing I do."

For more information on joining the Extension Master Gardner of Cleveland County group, contact Julie Flowers at 704-482-4365 or Julie_Flowers@NCSU.edu.

This year's plant sale is the group's 10th annual. Find plants, garden creations, gifts, and other treasures. The sale is Saturday, May 11, 2024, 8:00 - 11:00 a.m. at the Cooperative Extension Office Auditorium, 130 South Post Road, Shelby.

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