No matter where you live, access to fact-based gardening information is merely a click or phone call away. The Cooperative Extension System, housed at land-grant universities across the nation, provides research-based hyperlocal advice about everything from how to solve blossom-end rot on tomatoes to keeping garden pests, such as deer or insects, at bay.
“Best of all, it costs nothing to contact your local extension office where trained and educated experts can help the public solve their gardening challenges,” says Doug Steele, Ph.D., vice president for Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, based in Washington, D.C. “Extension is designed to educate Americans on food, agriculture and national resources. It’s research-based and continuously updated and revised based on the latest knowledge.”
Can I grow blueberries in my backyard? Why aren’t my daylilies blooming? When is the best time to prune my holly shrubs? My maple tree is dropping leaves in the summer; what’s wrong? What can I do to attract more butterflies and pollinators to my yard? What kind of perennials grow best in my area? These and countless other questions can be answered by local extension office staff or on your state’s extension website.
“When you have questions about your landscape or your garden, that’s the time to reach out to your local extension office,” Steele says.
“We call our local extension agents ‘curators of information on the front lines’ for farmers, ranchers, gardeners and communities,” Steele says. “Through our national network, these on-the-ground agents are among the first to learn of new technologies and techniques and bring them to their local areas.”
For instance, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, regularly funds grants to university scientists and specialists who research crop varieties, diseases, pest control or sustainable growing. This research is shared throughout the extension network and each state’s land-grant universities, who then adapt it for local application.
Local extension agents generally hold either bachelor’s or master’s degrees in agriculture, horticulture or a related field. While they may specialize in crop management, turf grasses or animal science, they are trained to educate the public and provide reliable and understandable knowledge.
“The internet is filled with all kinds of gardening and plant advice, but when people call their local extension, they’re assured of getting the latest information from a tested, peer-reviewed and reliable source,” he says.
Statewide extension websites maintain detailed publications on hundreds of topics, written in easy to understand language and plenty of diagrams. They are free to download.
Many local extension offices offer formalized community education through Extension Master Gardener programs. Open to private citizens interested in garden education, volunteerism and community service, candidate Master Gardeners attend classes taught by experts.
“While formal programs vary in duration and number of classes from state to state, the objective is the same,” Steele says. “The focus is to train community members to assist the local extension office with horticulture education and to provide a strong volunteer resource in the area.
Master gardener groups conduct youth programs in schools, create educational community gardens and sponsor annual plant sales. They offer public seminars and speakers for garden clubs and church groups.
Candidates must apply for the annual course; most states have online applications. There is a nominal cost to participate, which includes class materials. Once they complete their studies and pass exams, they become certified Extension Master Gardeners. To maintain their active status, they are required to volunteer a proscribed number of hours volunteering in the community.
“The Master Gardener program is a critical link to the work of the extension,” he says. “It helps us reach even further into the community and extend the educational mission of extension.”
Grassroots Community Benefits
Land-grant universities were created by the federal government in 1862 to address various needs of the public related to agriculture and technical topics. In 1914, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formalized its partnership with these institutions to further address rural and agricultural issues.
Today, there are 112 land-grant institutions in the U.S. and territories that oversee extension offices in approximately 3,000 counties. The mission has been broadened to embrace agriculture, nutrition and home economics. Through national 4-H initiatives, extension trains young leaders.
Since the pandemic, the interest in home gardening has surged. People are interested in growing their own fruits and vegetables, partly to know where their food comes from but also as a safe outdoor activity that can be enjoyed by all members of the family.
“Information from extension is far-reaching and freely available to the public,” Steele says. “With the resources of your local extension office, you have a pipeline to gardening success. If you’re perplexed about an issue or simply want to know the best way to start a home garden, just ask your local extension office. They’re here to help.”