What is the difference between a professional horticulturist and a master gardener?

This is a topic that comes up often in my industry and my personal professional activities that, for everyone's sake, I feel needs clarification. What exactly does, or doesn’t, qualify as a professional certification in the Horticulture industry? Professional horticulturists, such as myself, are often asked by residential clients whether or not we are "master gardeners" to decide if we are qualified or not. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a backwards situation, due to a misunderstanding by the public of what master gardener programs actually are. This topic always incites controversy, but the bottom line is master gardeners are not the same as horticulture professionals. So, no, I'm not a master gardener because it's not a professional credential or certification - it's a volunteer outreach program for amateur gardeners who want to get more involved in gardening and their communities.

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 gardening training (for perspective here, that's about the equivalent of one of my continuing education courses), 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 equated to the years spent attaining degrees, advanced degrees and working professionally in the industry (on top of intensive hands on experience). Even professional certificates don't substitute or equate to degrees, so claiming master gardener training is an equivalent educational professional credential or qualification is simply not genuine.

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 rules. Volunteers are supposed to use this designation only when performing activities that meet program protocols and represent the particular university's outreach efforts. I'm fully aware this rubs a lot of master gardeners the wrong way. But like it or not, this is not the purpose or intent of the master gardener volunteer program and it's not structured to prepare volunteers for professional work. If you want to be an industry professional and provide services, then you should seek out an educational program that is structured for that purpose. And you're going to need a LOT more hands on experience than working in just your own yard or in a volunteer garden. I also realize that many master gardeners who may develop professional aspirates after their master gardener training feel they should be able to use it in lieu of more advanced training, education, and experience. But I guess I would have to say here, that doing my own taxes for years doesn't make me a tax expert qualified to sell tax preparation services. And taking a continuing education course in investing at SMU doesn't make me qualified to sell investment advice.

So if your "garden designer" hands you a card with on the title "master gardener" on it, you need to ask more questions. If you’re looking to hire a horticulture professional to design your landscape or diagnose plant issues, or a designer to create or renovate your landscape, or a landscape architect to provide detailed building designs and plans, or need your trees assessed, etc. you should be looking for professional credentials and work experience, 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 who wants to mentor other gardeners.

Now, I’ve known a couple of master gardeners that loved horticulture or garden design so much that they wanted to make it their profession: So they went on to seek professional degrees in the field and/or professional certifications in order to make that shift. If you have access to a community college with an associates degree program in your area of interested, this is a great option. 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 acquire professional hands on experience.

There are also more certificate programs available these days for those who want to transition careers and need a good starting place. They usually take about two years to complete. For example, I teach courses for UCLA Extension for their Horticulture Certificate program. Now, certificates are not equivalent to nor replace a degree or real professional working experience, but it's much more in-depth and training that helps students evaluate whether a career in the green industry is for them. It's perfect for ongoing learning and development for those already working in the green industry, or those who who may want to start their own business. And it can show companies looking to hire that this person has a foundational knowledge and the desire and commitment to grow, even if they don't have a relevant degree or much experience. As someone who's done a lot of hiring in this industry, I can certainly tell you that a horticulture or related certificate would carry weight with me. Now, does just a certificate make you a professional "horticulturist"? Not in my book on it's own. That would require ongoing professional experience and credentials.

An interesting thing that happens to me a lot (as a lifelong intensive gardener and indoor grower) is that master gardeners will accuse me of not actually knowing anything about gardening...only "science". A misconception that is borne from a lack of understanding of the profession, and what horticulturists like me do or our typical experience.

Assuming that master gardener designation is enough to grant someone professional status not only distorts the main purpose of the master gardener program and its mission of community volunteerism, but it also damages both the understanding and perception of value of green industry professionals. And more importantly, it's not an accurate representation of credentials for potential clients.

So when you’re looking to hire a green industry professional, (or are interested in becoming an 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.

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