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New Castle County Master Gardeners Class of 2023.
New Castle County Master Gardeners Class of 2023.

New class of Master Gardeners

Photos by Michele Walfred and courtesy of Carrie Murphy, Tracy Wootten and Megan Pleasanton

Delaware benefits from garden expertise

Last autumn, as garden enthusiasts across Delaware prepared their pots and plots for the winter season, 50 new individuals embarked on training to become Master Gardener volunteers. They join an unpaid workforce of approximately 200 active Master Gardeners serving the First State. These new volunteers inspire Delawareans of all ages with their passion for growing healthy vegetables, plants, trees and gardens and offer research-based information for projects ranging from the smallest container to the most expansive yards. 

The statewide training is taught by current and retired extension agents and faculty and Master Gardeners from the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and Delaware State University. Trainees meet twice weekly through in-person and hybrid classes and educational field trips twice weekly. The coursework includes topics Master Gardeners will typically encounter in their interactions with the public: entomology, disease and pest identification, soil testing procedure, composting, lawn and turf management, and native alternatives to invasive plants, to name a few.

“They were involved in training from September through November, on any topic that one can think of related to horticulture,” said Carrie Murphy, UD horticulture extension agent for New Castle County. “We are excited to see what projects they will get involved in, for example, already new trainees are suggesting new workshops and presentations to offer in libraries and for other community organizations, and garden clubs. Now that they have completed their initial training, it will be exciting to see how they will get involved in service work across the county.” 

The impact of Master Gardener outreach is impressive. In 2023, current volunteers donated 13,305 service hours, calculated at a national professional rate, translating to an impressive $423,099 as the calendar year closed.

Robert Lyons, UD emeritus professor, hosts the trainees at the UD Botanic Gardens.
Robert Lyons, UD emeritus professor, hosts the trainees at the UD Botanic Gardens.

Christine Pfeiffer of Middletown, a master sergeant in the Delaware Air National Guard, sought special permission to attend the program, sometimes via Zoom, when mission obligations came first. 

“They were very supportive,” Pfeiffer said of her military leadership. 

As she approaches 20 years of military service, Pfeiffer envisions a retirement framed in gardens and flowers, a passion she first cultivated as part of the horticulture academy track at the Abraham Lincoln High School in Philadelphia.  

Before her retirement, Pfeiffer plans to use her new knowledge to beautify the base. Afterward, she will garden without the camouflage. 

“I look forward to wearing Master Gardener gear,” she said.

New to Delaware

The Master Gardener program addresses Delaware’s changing demographics as a popular retirement destination with a web page highlighting a “New to Delaware” feature. With so many new Delaware residents unfamiliar with growing conditions, it makes sense to have Master Gardeners with a shared experience. 

New Yorker Gerri Jackson retired to Lewes and fulfilled a lifelong dream to become a Master Gardener. Keen to learn about the different soil compositions in Delaware, she looks forward to working in the Demonstration Garden at the UD Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown and interacting with children. Jackson felt apprehensive about insects before the training but found new confidence in learning more about them.

Kent and Sussex County Master Gardeners Class of 2023.
Kent and Sussex County Master Gardeners Class of 2023.

“I am fascinated by entomology and hope to audit college-level classes,” Jackson said. “I have a whole new respect for insects and bugs now.”

Tabblair ‘Tobi’ Hope-O’Brien first learned about the Master Gardener program after moving to New Mexico from California and trained there as a Master Gardener to learn how to be successful in the southwest climate. After relocating to Delaware in May 2023, she sought updated information. Little of her New Mexico experience transfers to the Mid-Atlantic.

“I learned so much about the soils, watersheds and climates in Delaware,” Hope-O’Brien said.

As a volunteer, Hope-O’Brien wants to work in the Delaware State University greenhouse and the garden at Carvel. 

“My other interest is workshops with homeowner associations, encouraging them to use their gardens more protectively — less lawn and more garden,” explained the Camden, Delaware resident.

Hope-O’Brien was one of many trainees who marveled at the camaraderie of the volunteers and extension staff. 

“What surprised me was the socialization at this program,” she said. “I got to know so many people from New Castle, Sussex, and Kent; we talk, share ideas and plan projects together — something that my New Mexico experience didn’t provide.” 

Reliable sources 

No one expects newly trained and experienced Master Gardeners to know it all, but rather, know who, how and where to source unbiased, reliable university-researched information. Building relationships with the extension experts proved highly valuable.  

With a lifelong gardening passion, Edward Ziegler of Newark enjoyed helping friends and neighbors with gardening questions.

Rose Ogutu, horticulture extension specialist at Delaware State University, teaches a session on plant propagation.
Rose Ogutu, horticulture extension specialist at Delaware State University, teaches a session on plant propagation.

“But I wanted to be better, and this training would help me,” Ziegler said. “It is what you don’t know that you don’t know that gets you into trouble. And after this training, boy, there’s a lot I don’t know.”

Speaking on behalf of his class, Ziegler had high praise for the speakers. 

“It wasn’t just the knowledge, but their passion and enthusiasm for their field – it was very inspiring,” he said. “We are so thankful to be given this opportunity.”

Tracy Wootten, UD horticulture extension agent for Sussex County, was glad to receive the positive feedback. 

“The networking with our extension experts will provide a valuable resource anytime our Master Gardeners need more information or clarification,” Wooten said. “They feel comfortable knowing who to contact to obtain the right answers."

Bruce Jones of Lewes felt similarly. 

“I am amazed at what is in existence with extension. I had no idea,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have gotten in and trained as a Master Gardener.”

The gratitude flows in both directions.

“If it weren’t for our volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do half of what we do,” said Megan Pleasanton, DSU extension educator in Kent County. “We rely on them to help. We can’t do it all, so to have new volunteers go out in the community, sharing unbiased research information, they expand our outreach.”

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