If you’ve ever blown a fuzzy dandelion bloom and watched the tiny seeds float away to land elsewhere, you know how the master gardener program is intended to function. “Master gardeners are a little like missionaries,” jokes Drew Jeffers, the Spartanburg County master gardener coordinator. “They’re trained to go out and share gardening knowledge in their own communities.”

Born in 1972, the master gardener program is a national volunteer-training effort designed to help county extension agents share more horticulture information with more people in the community. South Carolina’s version of the program launched in 1981 through a partnership with Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and operates throughout the state and online. Master gardeners undergo 40 hours of intensive horticultural education and training, followed by 40 hours of educational service in order to be certified—along with a yearly commitment to more educational service to keep the certification current.

All those hours of educational service impact communities. “Master gardeners have the heart of a teacher,” explains Jeffers as he lists off various ways participants serve the community: teaching gardening groups at local libraries, working in community gardens or planting projects, teaching gardening classes, answering calls at the county extension agent’s office to provide on-demand gardening help, and more.

Under the guidance of individual county coordinators, master gardeners find unique ways to nurture growth where they live. In Spartanburg, Jeffers estimates that his master gardeners contributed $80,000 worth of volunteer hours to the community last year, including a mentorship program with Habitat for Humanity’s new homeowners. In Greenville, residents can make a small donation to the program and get a personalized yard assessment and advice from Greenville’s team of master gardeners.

That team of master gardeners? Definitely not the tea-sipping, retiree-only garden club of stereotypes. Jeffers has noticed a definite trend upward in young adults signing up to become master gardeners, and he anticipates that number continuing to grow with cultural interest in gardening rising. “Gardening takes us back to our roots,” says Jeffers. “And we’ve definitely had more calls about vegetable gardening and home-food growing since the pandemic.”

Taming nature to produce something edible or beautiful may be an ancient instinct, but the process doesn’t always come naturally. Grass withers, weeds run unchecked, flowers die. We have questions. We need answers. “The big problem the Master Gardeners Association solves is this: we’re here with research-based information about gardening when you need it,” says Jeffers.

Illustration by Karen Schipper. Learn more about the SC Master Gardener Program: clemson.edu/extension/mg/counties/index.html