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Voyageur's Best Features of 2002

Bob Lewis

Gathering up the Masters
Meet Master Gardener Bob Lewis
by Cynthia Brekke  |  April 16, 2002

Definition of Master: an expert, such as a great artist or skilled worker; person who knows all there is to know about a subject.

Well, now. As you begin to chuckle, let's get the joke out in the open. We probably all know someone who thinks they fit this definition... maybe we think WE fit into it, at times. It's a 'highfalutin' (or pompous) way to describe the word 'master'. Maybe the office needs a better dictionary. After all, can it be possible, in this world of infinities, to know all there is to know about a subject?

There is, in our midst, a group of individuals which carry the name 'Master'. However, you won't find them acting 'highfalutin' or putting on airs. Their feet are firmly rooted in the soil and their duty is geared toward service. If they know all there is to know about their subject, they certainly don't act as if they do. They are called Master Gardeners.

The Master Gardening program was started in 1977 by the University of Minnesota and is administered at the state office in the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Department of Horticultural Science. (Arboretum is a place where trees and shrubs are grown and exhibited for scientific and educational purposes. Yes, I looked that one up in the dictionary, too...)

Most midwestern gardens and landscapes are richer and more productive because of the research done on the University of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus, and the University's Horticulture Research Center. As of 2002, Master Gardeners, trained by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, have answered questions and helped the state's gardeners for 25 years. Through research and breeding programs, the U of M has developed improved techniques in yard, garden and landscape care, which are passed along through the Master Gardeners.

Minnesota Master Gardeners are paraprofessionals, representing the U of M Extension Service. They teach horticulture and are required to volunteer 50 hours during the first year of membership, 25 hours annually after that. Active volunteers are also asked to participate in continuing education of five to 12 hours per year, depending on the county where they volunteer.

All of Minnesota's 87 counties have Master Gardeners and, as of 2001, there were approximately 2,200 active Master Gardeners in the state. Are they an active bunch? You bet! Typical activities of Master Gardeners include answering phone inquiries concerning home horticulture, teaching classes, holding workshops, Home and Yard days, guiding and supervising community plantings and school gardens, teaching and judging 4-H horticulture projects or exhibits, writing newspaper columns and horticulture newsletters, holding plant clinics in garden centers, staffing county and state fair displays, and other activities. If that isn't enough, many Master Gardeners are involved with horticulture therapy, teaching horticulture in hospitals, nursing homes and retirement centers for both children and adults.

Participants keep track of their hours and turn them in each fall to the state office, where records are kept of total hours of service. Each year, an Annual Conference is held to recognize the contributions of Master Gardeners who have volunteered for 10 years, 1,000 hours, 15 years, and 2,000 hours. So, let's do some basic math: if each Master Gardener contacts five people directly, per hour of volunteer work (a conservative estimate), 2,000 Master Gardeners x 25 hrs x 5 people = 250,000 people who are receiving horticultural information each year, through the program.

Our Master Gardeners

In the greater McGregor area, we are fortunate to have a collection of five representatives. We will, in the following weeks, be introducing each one, individually. We chose to start out with Bob Lewis.

Bob Lewis became involved in the Master Gardener program about seven or eight years ago, but he's no stranger to the agriculture realm. "I was a farm kid," Bob said. He didn't stay on the farm, but became a school teacher instead. He taught 27 years, much of it in the Coon Rapids area, but he taught two years in Kansas. During his teaching years, one of his 'sideline' jobs was as an insurance adjuster for farm crops. "I was a hail adjuster," Bob explained. "After the hail storm would go through, they would send me in to make the decision on how much damage there was. In the process, I spent a number of weeks, over the course of the 25 years I did this, at agricultural experiment stations." He went to such places as Ames, Iowa; Lamberton and Grand Rapids, MN. He's been to Oklahoma as well, gathering experience and information everywhere he went. "I really enjoyed that job," he quipped. He's been involved in crops from Ohio to Montana and from Texas to Canada.

The MG program required Bob to attend training in Mora, twice a week for about five weeks or so, after which he became involved in forestry projects, assisting people with trees and shrubs. This progressed to his involvement with the Division of Forestry. "The right tree in the right place, that's the motto," said Bob. "Nothing's worse than driving along and seeing trees planted under power lines..." A good point, especially since the power company has to come along and top them off when they begin to grow up into the lines. This is a good example of the WRONG place for a tree. A good rule of thumb: before you plant your tree, find one that's fully grown and see how tall and full it gets. Then, at LEAST, you can predict the best placement. Of course, soil conditions are another story.

What if you have a gardening problem? "A number of us [Master Gardeners] have specialties," Bob began. "We kind of pass the paper around; if it's a long question, call Bob... if it's a house plant or dried flowers question, call Jan... we kind of divide it up that way." They also divide the writing activities for releases through the Extension Service.

There's also the Master Gardener Web site, which is a cornucopia of information. "Sometimes I get in there and I forget what I went in there for," jokes Bob. The Web site,, is interesting and packed with suggestions for a variety of gardening dilemmas.

Is there a pitfall in the Master Gardener area? Bob thought of a couple things, but the most important was this: "We don't do an adequate job of educating kids," he commented. Many times, kids will play with the new growth on trees, or just simply pull on them, snapping off the ends of the branches and setting the tree growth back for years. Some don't recover. "Then you're left with a bush. Of course, they [the kids] don't know any better," he added, but that was pretty much his point. Kids need to be better educated on the growth and care of the trees we all depend on.

Interested in the Master Gardener Program? All volunteers, or Master Gardeners, must enroll and be accepted in their local county Extension program. Contact your Extension office, or visit their Web sites: or Brochures about the program can be obtained from your county office, the State Office, or viewed online at the Master Gardeners Web site: and click on 'Be A Master Gardener'.

This article first appeared in the April 16, 2002 issue of the Voyageur Press.