Valencia County Extension Master Gardeners member Bob Henry, vice president Dave Cates, president Merlinda Acevedo and member Jan Villa prepare to set out for a Saturday morning of judging yards for the organizations newly-launched Yard of the Month competition.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

As the title implies, being a Master Gardener isn’t an easy feat.

The program, sponsored by the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service, started in Albuquerque in 1981 and in Valencia County about 19 years ago.

To become a certified Master Gardener requires about 50 hours of training sessions over a 14-week period. To earn certification, trainees must maintain a 70 percent average on all written exams.

“It’s open book, or internet,” said Valencia County Extension Master Gardener President Merlinda Acevedo with a laugh. “The classes are taught by NMSU professors and extension agents. The information is tremendous; it’s been so great. There’s a lot of support for the program.”

The purpose of the program is to serve the educational needs of Valencia County’s urban, non-commercial horticultural community. Local, experienced gardeners are provided specialized horticultural training in exchange for a minimum of 40 hours of volunteer service to the community throughout the following year as directed by the extension agriculture agent.

The program isn’t for new gardeners, Acevedo said.

Applicants should know the basics of gardening in central New Mexico’s challenging environment and have a few years of gardening experience under their wide-brimmed hats.

The VCEMG program is one of 15 in the state and has 35 members, all willing to educate the public about all things growing.

Working closely with the extension service agriculture agent, Master Gardeners host workshops and education programs throughout the year, attend local growers markets to sell their own goods and answer questions, and set up information tables at local events and big-box stores during planting season.

Master Gardeners, like Loretta Torres, are often at local farmers markets selling their own harvest and educating the public about various growing techniques.
News-Bulletin file photo

They also work closely with the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Los Lunas to offer community members hands-on experience and do volunteer hours in the gardens.

Many of the gardeners waited to retire from their day-to-day job before becoming certified and volunteering with the program.

“I heard about the program years ago while I was working but the classes were Monday afternoons, January through April,” Acevedo said. “I had to retire first to do it.”

She learned an appreciation of gardening from her father, who did extensive gardening and landscaping at the family home when she was a child.

“I’ve always liked gardening but I’m not a real expert,” she said. “As soon as it gets hot, I go inside.”

Jan Villa, a member since 2011, found herself in the same situation. She took the classes almost a decade ago, but couldn’t volunteer due to work.

Then she retired in December 2010, just in time for the classes starting up in January.

“That first year, I went nuts; I earned a certificate for the most volunteer hours,” Villa said. “I love to garden and it’s so great to be with like-minded folks.”

Bob Henry, a long-time gardener and a member since 2015, said he decided to become certified to “find out what I was doing wrong,” he says with a chuckle.

The Valencia County Extension Master Gardeners Facebook page offers a variety of information about pests, plants and helping flowers, such as hydrangeas, grow in the New Mexico sun. The key is to plant them where they only get a few hours of morning sun.
Courtesy photo

The mission of the program drew Dave Cates in to assist the extension agent in providing science-based agriculture knowledge to the community.

“When we do the pruning workshop, people ask questions. When we go to the big box stores, people ask questions. When we go to the farmers markets, people ask questions,” said Cates, vice president of VCEMG. “We give people science-based knowledge on gardening.”

Experienced gardeners themselves, the key to starting a garden is to keep it small; don’t plow under the backyard, they say.

“Don’t take on too much,” Cates said. “Patio gardening in containers is a good way to start.”

Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, even lettuce, grow easily in containers and are easy to water daily.

“Have fun with it. If you like something, grow it and see how it works,” Villa said.

One common mistake new gardeners often make is not reading the seed packets and plant labels, Acevedo said.

“See whether it’s a cool or warm weather plant. Does it like shade,” she said.

Cates noted that New Mexico and Valencia County is a challenging climate to grow in.

“There are hot summers and cold winters, wind, sun and drought,” he said.

He recommended buying plants from a local provider with a selection of things that have performed well in New Mexico and Valencia County specifically.

As the growing season winds down in the fall, the Valencia County Extension Master Gardeners recommend gathering up plant labels and seed packages, and recording how they did to make plans for next season. There are free, downloadable garden journals online or a simple notebook will do.
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Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the usual workshops put on by the Master Gardeners are on hiatus, and the volunteers don’t have to complete their 40 hours of community service this year.

The members have kept busy with a Yard of the Month competition, a project they say has been inspiring and fun for them.

“I’ve had a blast judging,” Villa said. “I have gotten some great ideas.”

The typical workshops, classes and information the program offers the community is free, Acevedo said, and the Master Gardeners hope to get back in the swing of things come January.

Before the virus threw everything for a loop, the program offered annual pruning workshops, plant clinics at stores such as Lowes, The Home Depot, Walmart, Ace Hardware and Tractor Supply.

One of the Valencia County Extension Master Gardeners most popular workshop is the winter pruning and tool sharpening event. Even though it’s still cold, January is the perfect time to start preparing for spring planting.
Courtesy photo

“We would take these rolling bags full of pamphlets with the most common info people ask,” Acevedo said. “When we see something we’re getting a lot questions on, we put it in the bag.”

They have offered a Gardening Survival series at the Bosque Farms Library, which ran January through November.

“We’re not doing it now obviously, but it was good to try to be ahead of the game,” she said. “In January, we’re already talking about preparing your garden and soil.”

The program initiated a Seed to Supper series last year. The six-week class was aimed at people who didn’t now anything about gardening, and took them through planting, growing, harvesting and preparing the foods when they ripened.

“We’re hoping to do that again next year,” Acevedo said. “Part of our program is to get people to garden more and grow their own food.”

If a member of the community has a question for a Master Gardener, contact the extension office at 565-3002 and staff will forward the question to the appropriate gardener.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.