Sun or shade? Master Gardener volunteers share horticulture and landscaping expertise at schools, neighborhoods and farmers markets.
by Vanessa Infanzon
After a group from the Extension Master Gardener Volunteers in Mecklenburg County visited Cindy Trlica’s gardens during Wing Haven’s spring garden tour in 2010, they suggested she become a Master Gardener. “That got me thinking,” Trlica says. “I started talking to them about the program. I decided when I retired, I’d apply.”
Trlica didn’t waste any time after retiring in 2015 from Bank of America’s marketing department — she applied to the EMG program online, interviewed and became a trainee. During interviews, she was asked about her past horticulture and gardening experience, along with her specific gardening interests.
“Some people specialize in vegetable gardening,” Trlica says. “Some people specialize in perennials and native ferns. Some are more about trees, pruning, pests, growing from seeds.”
Applicants to the program don’t need to be experts, but they must have a willingness to learn and an interest in educating others about gardening and horticulture. Members answer questions at booths set up at large retail stores with gardening centers and speak to community groups and gardening clubs about specific gardening topics. They also host library workshops and install plants in the community. In 2022, the program encountered 13,000 Mecklenburg residents during their work.
By the end of 2016, Trlica earned her EMG certification after 80 hours of training between January and May and an additional 40 hours as an intern. To remain an EMG, she volunteers at least 20 hours and participates in 10 hours of continuing education a year. She also serves on the advisory team for Mecklenburg County’s program.
The statewide Extension Master Gardener Program has operated under N.C. State University since 1979, six years after Washington State founded the first program. Its mission is to recruit, train and engage volunteers in sharing research-based horticulture information through various educational and service opportunities.
Mecklenburg is one of 83 counties in North Carolina with an EMG program. The program started in the late 1980s with just 10 EMGs and has grown to 126, with 33 more in the current training program. Funding for the nonprofit comes from the N.C. State Extensions Program, Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, grants and donations.
Master Gardener volunteers answer questions at local garden centers and farmers markets. Photographs courtesy EMG
EMG supports the Davidson Farmers Market, Matthews Community Farmers’ Market and the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market by answering questions and giving out educational materials at a booth. An online Horticulture Help Desk is available to county residents with questions about pests, plants and other gardening topics.
“You can call or send in questions and we’ll respond with specific answers,” Trlica says. “One of the questions might be, ‘Here’s a photo of my tree. I planted it three years ago, and it was doing great. All of a sudden, it’s dying. What’s wrong?’”
The group also partners with teachers by connecting gardening to art, literature, music and science. In early 2019, Jessica Bethea was teaching sixth-grade science at Cochrane Collegiate Academy, a public 6-12 school in east Charlotte. Through a connection with the science facilitator, Bethea reached out to EMG to help develop hands-on activities for her students to learn about the plant life cycle.
EMGs worked with the students to plan and plot a garden in three planter boxes. Together they planted fruits and vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, herbs, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. “[The volunteers] were instrumental in showing how particular plants grow well with other plants,” says Bethea, now an instructional designer at Central Piedmont Community College. “[The students] got to see the process of building the garden and then engaging in building the garden.”
Cochrane Collegiate’s garden continues to flourish. It’s a talking point for the school community, and students and staff not directly involved with the garden have asked to participate. Bethea attributes some of the success to how the EMGs interacted with the students. “[The volunteers] gave everyone a role, so everyone felt included,” Bethea says, “and that made the students a lot more comfortable working with them and asking questions.” SP
Learn how to become a Master Gardener, ask a question or request a community garden consultation at mastergardenersmecklenburg.org.