Cheryl Alloway of Tillson is one of about 80 volunteer Master Gardeners in Ulster County trained by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) to provide the public with gardening expertise. While acknowledging that the connotations of being called a Master Gardener can seem a little lofty or “highfalutin,” Alloway says that the program is really just about being trained to help people find the answers to their gardening problems. It’s not that a Master Gardener knows everything, she says, “it’s that we know where to go to find the answers, and it’s all backed by university-based research.”
The Master Gardener program is part of Cornell University’s land-grant mission, created in the mid-19th century to teach practical knowledge — like agriculture, science and engineering — to benefit students and the community.
Master Gardeners teach classes and workshops, give lectures and demonstrations, organize plant sales and work with 4-H groups and schools, particularly with school gardens. The Master Gardener program also maintains a xeriscape garden at the entrance to the SUNY Ulster campus in Stone Ridge, where a program for the public is held on the third Saturday of each month. “That’s our living classroom,” says Alloway, “developed to teach people water-wise practices.” Xeriscaping was developed in Denver, Colorado at a time when there were severe water shortages and is now an accepted landscaping practice in many communities. It’s not a style of garden, but a concept of water conservation that can be applied to landscapes of any design.
Cornell Cooperative Extension also staffs a horticulture hotline, where the public can call (845) 340-DIRT (3478) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon to speak with a Master Gardener. The public can also drop by CCE’s office at 232 Plaza Road in Kingston during those times to have a soil sample tested for pH (for a modest fee) or get help with insect or plant identification.
Each Master Gardener receives an initial 120 hours of research-based instruction from CCE and then continues to learn about the latest developments in horticulture through a variety of educational training programs or conferences. The continuing education is a big part of being a Master Gardener, says Alloway. “You’re always learning.”
Alloway first became involved with the Master Gardener program in the mid-1980s. She had just relocated to the Hudson Valley from Pennsylvania with her husband, Dick, who had accepted a position with IBM, when she saw an advertisement for the volunteer training program in the newspaper. She’d grown up gardening with her parents in their big backyard garden (“with a little wannabe fruit orchard”) in southwestern Pennsylvania in a small rural town called Eighty Four. (The unusual name came about when a township and a city were both named Somerset and the mail train kept getting the mail mixed up. To save confusion, the town was given the name of the train stop.)