Why I am not a master gardener…
Ok folks, we need to have a chat about what does, and doesn’t, qualify as a professional certification in the Horticulture industry. Why do we need to have this conversation? Because homeowners keep asking us professionals whether or not we’re master gardeners to decide if we are qualified or not. No, I’m not a master gardener. The answer will always be “No”. Why? Because “master gardener” is not a professional designation or certification. This topic always incites controversy, but the bottom line is master gardeners are not the same as horticulture professionals.
I know lots of great master gardeners. I've given many talks for them and always enjoy them. Most are super nice people that want to give back to their community. I recently gave a couple of talks at the Louisiana State Master Gardener's Conference and I'm a bit bummed I didn't get to kick back and drink some wine with that crowd! They were a great group of people who were all passionate about gardening. That's what being a master gardener is all about: You’re an amateur hobbyist gardener (many are new gardeners) who wants to volunteer to spread gardening knowledge and passion in your community. You’re there to support the Extension agency at the educational institution it's attached to, and the professional horticulture community… not replace it. Professionals such as myself teach classes to master gardeners to help them improve their knowledge, so when they do volunteer in the community, they have a good handle on the basics and new trends. But expecting a professional horticulturist to be a master gardener before you hire them simply doesn't make any sense.
So what do master gardeners do? Master gardener programs are volunteer programs affiliated with a State Cooperative Extension Service office and a land-grant university that educate the public on gardening and horticultural issues. Typically master gardeners answer home owner questions via phone, speak at public events and participate in community gardening programs. How do you become a master gardener? Once in a program provided by your local extension service, you go through about 50 hours of introductory horticulture training, and you then must do about 50 hours of volunteer work annually to maintain the designation. Sure, there are many dedicated master gardeners who put in a lot of valuable time in their communities. But, it should be obvious that this basic level of training should not be compared to the years spent attaining advanced degrees and working professionally in the industry. Yet, it happens often.
Please know that the title “master gardener” is not supposed to be used in any professional capacity or to sell any sort of horticulture service or product. It’s not to be on a business card or ad for a business. Doing so violates master gardener program protocols. So if you’re looking to hire a horticulture professional to design your landscape or diagnose plant issues, you should be looking for professional credentials, not a master gardener designation. If you’re looking for help with your community or school garden, then master gardener volunteers are the perfect resource. There is a big difference in those two needs. One requires an experienced professional and the other a dedicated volunteer.
Now, I’ve known a couple of master gardeners that loved horticulture so much that they wanted to make it their profession: So they went on to seek professional degrees in the field and professional certifications in order to make that shift. If you're a master gardener that wants to become a professional landscape designer, that's the route you should take. Join an accredited professional training or degree program and work towards your new career. Or, join a professional company and work with them to aquire professional hands on experience. Assuming that your master gardener designation is enough to grant you professional status not only distorts the main purpose of the master gardener program and its mission of community volunteerism, but it also damages the horticulture industry and customer perception of value. Don't understand why? Talk to just about any green industry pro and they'll break it down for you.
So when you’re looking to hire a green industry professional, what credentials should you be looking for? Well, there are a number of them, depending on which green industry field the professional is a part of. There’s a big difference between a Horticulturist and a Landscape Architect. I myself am a degreed and certified professional horticulturist…but you’ll never hear me call myself a landscape designer or landscape architect. Apples and oranges folks! You’ll want to ask about what degrees the professional holds as well as certifications from industry organizations such as ASHS (American Society for Horticulture Science), ISA (International Society of Arboriculture, CLARB (council of Landscape Architecture Registration Boards, APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers), State Nursery & Landscape Associations (Such as TNLA) and others. You can read more about different green industry professions and their associated certifications in THIS article.