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Georgia Master Gardeners

Why is my plant dying? What can I grow that deer will not eat? How can I start a cottage garden?

Such common questions reflect a cultural sensitivity to the joy of gardening in the Lake Country. Fortunately, a group of garden angels routinely answer these and other botanical curiosities for free and with enthu-siasm. The same nurturing spirits move quietly behind the scenes on over a hundred botanical projects throughout the region, creating lush landscapes that visually, emotionally, and nutritionally enhance community life.

One local amenity tended by these garden angels is Marion’s Corner in Eatonton. This cottage exhibition garden features a collection of regional-friendly botanicals to freely educate and inspire homeowners to replicate. Bountiful citrus orange trees, a bog garden, thornless blackberry bushes, sourwood trees for bees, experimental vegetables, and disease resistant heritage roses are just a few of the robust home-garden options locals might choose over more commonplace or troublesome vegetation.

The same green-thumb souls support youth programs including an after-school program called the Putnam County Primary Garden Club that teaches curious youngsters the fundamentals of fertile soil, seed germination, growing fruits, and cultivating vegetables. Following harvest, the young participants can taste their hand-grown hand-picked ripe bounty freshly prepared and served by cafeteria staff.

These devoted garden spirits are Certified Master Gardener Extension Volunteers, trained and mentored through the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Office. Master Gardeners share unbiased research-based UGA horticultural resources and teach community members how to care for and use plants and gardening to improve their environment, health, and quality of life.

The Master Gardener program is national in scope, regional in application: Continental variations in climate, topography, and soil affect local growing techniques and plant choices. What began in Seattle, Washington, in 1972 was customized to Georgia in 1979 through Dr. Butch Ferree, then Director of the UGA Department of Horticulture. Thereafter it spread throughout the state. Since 1999, the Putnam County Extension Office, alone, has certified over 150 garden volunteers serving middle Georgia. The Oconee Master Gardener Association is currently supporting horticultural projects in Putnam, Baldwin, Greene, Morgan, Wilkinson, Hancock, Jasper, and Newton counties.

Keith Fielder

The horticultural genius who educates, inspires, and certifies his cadre of garden angels is County Extension Coordinator-Northeast District, J. Keith Fielder, based at the Putnam County Extension Office in Eatonton. As a toddler, Keith followed his gardener parents and grandparents in Bleckley County, Georgia, absorbing agricultural and food preservation principles season by season. At age 6, he began tending a beehive. At age 7, his grandfather inspired him to plow, plant, and harvest his own small vegetable garden. This family connection led to a professional career educating and guiding growers. A graduate of UGA in Animal Science and Agronomy, Keith arrived in Putnam County as Extension Agent in 1998. He serves as both director and chief instructor of the Lake Country Master Gardener Extension Volunteer program.

The diversity among Master Gardeners magnifies what any one gardener could ever hope to achieve on a community project. “I could not do my job very well without their contributions,” says Keith of the Master Gardeners in the area, “because these talented unselfish volunteers help me cover so many bases.” Of their knowledge and community improvement, he adds, “Be not mistaken. Our volunteers are not free labor or weed pullers. Rather they advance UGA’s outreach vision for our region. Their impact may be through offering promising garden tips to a neighbor or working with youngsters to channel research-based botanical education into the community for multigenerational effect.”

Garden volunteers supporting Lockerly Arboretum in Milledgeville. Photo by Shawn Davis

Given that Master Gardeners serve as representatives of UGA on qualified projects, institutional rules require each participant to complete a security background check prior to entering the program and again every six months to maintain certification. Other than that, all that is needed to enter the program is a sincere desire to learn and share garden tips and techniques with a community. Volunteers pick their own projects to support.

Program training can be obtained in several Georgia counties including Putnam County. Classes range in size from 15 to 25 and meet one full day per week for 12 consecutive weeks. The syllabus reviews region-specific principles of soil management, plant nutrition, fruit trees, waterwise landscaping, annuals and perennials, pest management including deer, landscape design, and home vegetable and herb gardens. The total certification program costs each participant less than $200, which includes all educational materials and lectures by experts including Keith Fielder, visiting professors, public servant specialists, and veteran Master Gardeners.

Master Gardener's restore a neglected historic cemetery. Photo by Shawn Davis

Silip (pronounced Philip) Alexandar, age 25, a manager of T-Bones Nursery in Milledgeville, believes strongly in the Master Gardener mission, educational content, and community impact for young adults.

Immediately after completing his undergraduate horticultural studies at UGA, Silip obtained the Master Gardener professional certification. “It enabled me to expand my generalist knowledge of horticulture from academia to include pragmatic region-specific plant knowledge,” he explains.

Silip’s annual volunteer activities aim to minimize ‘food desert’ communities in Hancock County that lack sustainable nutritional resources. He networks with farmers in the Athens area to distribute food surplus to residents in need, and he also markets home grown blue oyster, lion’s mane, and chestnut mushrooms. He readily shares the organic protocols he follows in mushroom cultivation with his culinary customers and curious nursery visitors. Advocating that other young people obtain the Master Gardener designation for career advantage and community enhancement, Silip says he’d like to see expanded program awareness on college campuses as well as more marketing to commercial nurseries that attract garden enthusiasts.

Master Gardeners at work in the teaching and experiment garden at Marion's Corner in Eatonton. Photo by Shawn Davis

Veteran Master Gardener Shawn Davis, class of 2010, can relax any home gardener with her unassuming spirit pulsing with homespun humor. She personally nurtures an orchid collection, experimental greenhouse, bonsai collection, koi pond, and heritage rose garden. Shawn freely shares what works for her and what fails to outperform simple rules of thumb, green ones of course. Her welcoming persona encourages garden newbies to fearlessly experiment, chuckling while recalling her own trials and errors, imprinting the core life lesson that hidden in every ‘failure’ is valuable information that can lead to subsequent success … and often an amusing anecdote.

A key benefit treasured by many participants is that through the Master Gardener program, they make friends for life. Observes Shawn, “One of my favorite gifts of the program is the like-minded friends I’ve made, the camaraderie, and the sharing of things beyond gardening.”

Louise Hess, Master Gardener class of 2007, celebrates the diversity each new Master Gardener brings in varied gifts, interests, and resources to benefit others. She is particularly interested in water and bog gardens. Her favorite volunteer activities include Marion’s Corner, teaching horticultural principles to young people by planting a ‘pizza garden’ featuring such ingredients as wheat, tomatoes, oregano, basil, onions, and peppers, and tending the Veterans Wall of Honor Park in Eatonton. Louise echoes Shawn in the value of garden comradery. “For me, a key element of the Master Gardener group is fellowship, the interaction with other people who share a passion, where everyone has different areas of expertise to offer peers through mentoring, even on little things.” Louise touts the Master Gardener program as a way to give back to the community, even to positively affect a child’s life. Her calm steady encouraging demeanor reminds youngsters and adults that when planning for harvest, patience is a virtue. Louise touts Keith’s decades of experience when training Master Gardeners on the challenges of local soil and climate. “Keith’s knowledge is just incredible,” she says. “Unbeknownst to many people, he nurtures and leverages so many valuable connections that benefit our region.”

Veteran Master Gardener Judy Carman, class of 2014, radiates a warm aura, twinkling eyes, and a ready smile that could woo a seedling right out of the ground. Her favored projects include supporting Marion’s Corner, planting azaleas and daffodils at the Eatonton Putnam Library, and tending flower beds at Christ the King Catholic Church in Greensboro. Born and raised in England as a child, Judy fondly remembers her grandmother’s British garden of strawberries and gooseberries as inspiration. Today, she serves fresh home-grown broccoli to her granddaughter and great-granddaughter toddler, extending a gardening tradition across generations. Maintaining a strong bond with her original classmates, Judy is one of seven Master Gardeners hailing from Putnam, Baldwin, and Warren counties who trained together and for the past eight years, routinely gather for lunch throughout the year.

These garden angels, in the name of Master Gardener Extension Volunteers, are enhancing Middle Georgia with beautiful, restorative, and nutritional vegetation, their landscape contributions often unseen by the general public. If you harbor an active interest in botanicals, even as a novice, consider becoming a Master Gardener Extension Volunteer. If you have a simple or even challenging garden question, call your local Cooperative Extension Office for assistance. Above all, when you pass a lovely park, historic garden, or farm, extend gratitude for the special people who help to make green things happen, including your local Master Gardener Extension Volunteers.

To apply for the next Master Gardener program, or to ask a gardening question, call 706-485- 4151, visit the Putnam County Extension Office at 663 Godfrey Road, Eatonton. Ga., or email

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Story by Michele Bechtell, published in the March-April 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.


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