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In the Beginning

Before Maryland had its Master Gardener program, there was the Bay Gardener

Back in the mid-1970s, I was the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service’s specialist in ornamental horticulture, providing technical assistance to nursery, greenhouse, Christmas tree and landscape contracting industries.
    Only five counties had horticultural agents at the time, and when interest in home horticulture took off, I was overwhelmed with questions from home gardeners from the 24 counties without horticultural agents. My repeated requests to the dean and vice president of the University of Maryland for assistance earned me only a smile and praise for doing a good job. Agricultural administrators back then considered home horticulture a passing fad. Their interests were dairy, livestock or poultry. As I became increasingly frustrated with this attitude, my favorite comment became Unless it has horns, tits or feathers, it doesn’t mean a damn thing around here.
    During those frustrating years, I developed many slide-tape series on horticultural topics to mail to counties for extension agents to use in helping and educating home gardeners. Many times I conducted telephone conferences to answer questions after the series were shown. This practice helped considerably in reducing travel time, and most of the agents purchased copies of these slide-tape series for use in their counties.
    In 1978, Dr. Craig Oliver, a horticulturist from the University of Pennsylvania, became the new Maryland Cooperative Extension director. The day after he took charge, I marched into his office with an idea I expected to tickle his interest. I had heard of Master Gardener Programs in Chester County, New Jersey, and on Long Island in New York. When I told him that these programs recruited volunteers to help county agents with horticulture needs, he immediately allocated funds for me to take two horticultural agents of my choosing and make a three-day visit to observe and ask questions.
    It so happened that New Jersey’s Master Gardener Program was managed by a former colleague of mine from the University of New Hampshire. Not only did we get the royal tour, we also got collected reprints of their training materials. The trip to Long Island was equally productive.
    Back at College Park, I prepared a report that I presented to Oliver on Friday of that same week. The following Monday he called me to his office and gave the green light to initiate the program with limited funds.
    With the four existing horticultural agents in Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, we organized training programs and recruited volunteers. Working mostly evening and weekends, I prepared the first training manual and lectures for the workshops.
    From the beginning, it was exciting to see these volunteers gain knowledge and grow eager to share it with others.
    I have stayed with the Master Gardener Program for 30 years, conducting workshops, training lectures and helping at plant clinics. To this day, I still present training lectures and conduct pruning workshops.
    Next to the 4-H Program, the Master Gardener Program has been the most successful self-sustaining volunteer program the Maryland Cooperative Extension service has ever had. I am very proud of master gardeners because they are dedicated not only to their work but also to helping fellow gardeners.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at frgouin@erols.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.