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Cornell Cooperative Extension's Master Gardeners program unites plants, people, and communities

Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) in Canandaigua is offering its biennial Master Gardener (MG) training for Ontario County from September 3 through November 19. This program is geared toward individuals with basic gardening experience eager to learn more. Registered participants will expand their knowledge on lawn care, soils, fertilizing, fruit and vegetable gardening, botany, ticks, structural pests, and more. Once certified, Master Gardeners are required to share their horticultural training through community service.

CCE’s senior resource educator Russ Welser coordinates the program, and when he screens potential MG candidates, Welser says the most vital criterion is a willingness to volunteer. Welser estimates that Ontario County Master Gardeners developed and taught forty-five CCE educational classes for the general public, reaching more than 4,659 people of all ages, in 2018.

The CCE Master Gardener program is based on a 1972 initiative originating from two Washington State University Extension associations (WSUE). Rapid urban growth and a surge of horticultural interest from home gardeners had swamped Tacoma and Seattle-based WSUE staff with calls, visits, and questions. To help meet the information demand, the Master Gardener program was established to train amateur gardeners in return for a commitment to share their new learnings with others in the community. MG volunteers augmented the resources of these Extension offices and extended its public outreach capabilities exponentially. Over time, this successful local program attracted well-deserved national attention, and the concept grew.

Just like Washington State University, Cornell University in Ithaca is a federal land-grant institution. Thanks to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, designated land-grant universities in every US state receive federal support to offer research-based agriculture and home economics education beyond their campuses through Cooperative Extensions.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is a dynamic educational system by which valuable and practical research at the university is shared with New York State citizens through its local associations. All New York State counties have a Cornell Cooperative Extension association and many—but not all—offer a Master Gardener Program. “Of all our programs, Master Gardeners is the most variable across the state,” says Christopher Watkins, the state director of Cornell Cooperative Extension. All fourteen Finger Lakes’ CCE county associations have a MG program, and each office has its own curriculum, requirements, and fees.

CCE-Ontario County, based in Canandaigua, began MG training in 1982. Its biennial fall course consists of sixty hours of instruction, and typical enrollment is

about thirty individuals. Participants pay $150 to cover material costs, speaker fees, and refreshments. The training is open to Ontario County residents but welcomes participants from other nearby counties depending on space. Regardless of residency, 100 hours of volunteer service must be performed in Ontario County over a two-year period.

CCE-Monroe County offers biennial winter training. Their next session runs from January to February of 2021. Because of higher demand, this association only accepts Monroe County residents. Each class is also about thirty people, and after completing the course work, Master Gardeners must volunteer for fifty hours in the first year and thirty hours per year after that. Monroe County course fees in 2019 were $225.

Debbie McWilliams of Canandaigua is a retired primary school teacher who went through the CCE-Ontario County MG program in 2017. “I enjoyed the course; I thought it was very informative,” says McWilliams. “I met many great instructors and made many new friends.”

To help fulfill her volunteer hours, McWilliams developed “Gardening is for Kids,” a summer series at Wood Library, teaching basic hands-on gardening skills. “I love teaching children; they are like little sponges; they soak up everything,” she says. Some of the topics McWilliams covered were composting, soils, worms’ role in a garden, and pollinators.

Master Gardeners also teach many of the learning stations set up during CCE-Ontario County’s Annual Conservation Field Days held at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills in September. This annual field trip, in its thirty-fifth year, is tailored to sixth-grade classes who cycle through sixteen different conservation topics. About 450 students participate in this free program offered to all Ontario County middle schools. Last year, McWilliams teamed up with Sandra Eckhert (another MG volunteer from Canandaigua) to co-present “Bats & the Environment.”

All Master Gardener trainees present a topic of their choice during the last class of each biennial training series. Some presentations evolve into future adult education programs. Recent classes developed and taught by volunteers cover composting, African violets, garden art, and herbs. Many offerings are free or require a nominal fee for materials. MG volunteers also host an annual plant sale to generate scholarship funds for Finger Lakes Community College and 4H Camp Bristol Hills.

Cornell Cooperative Extension connects people with information about commercial and consumer agriculture, nutrition and health, youth and families, finances, energy efficiency, economic and community development, and sustainable natural resources. The Master Gardeners program significantly increases programming and outreach. These knowledgeable volunteers play a vital role for each local Finger Lakes area CCE association.


To learn more about Cornell Cooperative Extension and locate your local association, visit and click on “Local Offices.” Visit for information about the role and reach of land-grant universities.


Nancy E. McCarthy is a freelance writer reporting on a wide range of topics for print publications, websites, and corporate clients. McCarthy, also a certified exercise instructor and community volunteer, lives in Canandaigua with her family and two magnificent Newfoundland dogs.
Contact her at [email protected].

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