Master Gardener Clinic at a local Farmers Market

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?