Nov 16 2015Share

Master Gardener: It’s A Tough Title To Earn

By Kathleen Ferris

"Master" seems like a grand title for a gardener, doesn't it? It's not an easy title to earn and requires serious volunteer work. But if you love plants and are committed to finding a way to help your community overcome future water shortages, this may be your path.

There is only one place a person can earn the title: University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension. Master Gardener candidates must attend 17 weekly classes and pass a cumulative final exam.

The course is based on UA’s latest research into all things green and growing in your community. That includes herb gardens and vegetable gardens, indoor plants and desert landscape plants, fruit trees and shade trees. Master Gardeners learn about basic botany and plant pathology, landscape design and irrigation, soils and composting. They learn how to prune and propagate plants and trees, how to diagnose plant damage, identify pests and use pesticides properly.

Maricopa County’s Master Gardener program began in 1980. Master Gardeners immediately went to work spreading the word about the wide variety of low-water-use plants and trees available for landscapes. Master Gardener volunteers began using AMWUA’s early publication “Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert” (now also a mobile-friendly website) to help homeowners save water and visualize a beautiful yard that included more drought-tolerant plants and trees and less grass.

In 2003, Master Gardener Press published “Earth-Friendly Desert Gardening” to help Sonoran Desert residents grow and care for their desert-adapted landscapes.

Maricopa County Cooperative Extension offers the Master Gardener course for 65 students twice a year. There are always more applicants than openings.  Just to get into the course requires an application, an interview, $275 for tuition (yes, scholarships are available), and a commitment to 20 hours of volunteer work during the course. New Master Gardeners also commit to an additional 30 hours of volunteer work during the year immediately following their classroom work.

To maintain the title, Master Gardeners attend 12 hours of continuing education a year and contribute 25 hours of volunteer work. There are about 500 certified Master Gardeners volunteering throughout Maricopa County. (There is now a program available for any person who once took the Master Gardener course and who wants to re-certify.)


Ten years ago, most Master Gardeners were retirees with time to study and commit to volunteer work. Today, classes draw a more diverse crowd, including candidates in their 20s and young parents.

Maricopa County counts any work that educates the public about plants as volunteer hours. Many Master Gardeners prefer to volunteer with the Maricopa County Extension Program. These volunteers can choose from a variety of jobs.

  • Mentor candidates just entering their studies. Mentors stay with a group of new Master Gardeners for a year to help each member find an area of expertise that fits their interest and volunteer work that fits their schedule.
  •  Answer questions for people seeking guidance from the Cooperative Extension Help Desk. (The most common questions are about watering and irrigation systems and care of lawns and citrus trees.)
  • Organize Cooperative Extension events, such as garden tours and plant and tree clinics, and work the Cooperative Extension booths at garden shows and community festivals.
  • Join the speaker’s bureau and share their expertise with organizations and clubs.

You’ll also find Master Gardeners volunteering in school and community gardens, at the Desert Botanical Garden and city demonstration gardens.

Maricopa County’s next Master Gardener training begins January 12. Are you ready to claim the title?

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

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