What it takes to be a master gardener

Meet Islanders Barb Trainor and Heidi Riley, who both love gardening so much they've invested a lot of time and money to train as master gardeners.

'I just want to get other people more excited about gardening'

Heidi Riley loves to share her knowledge of gardening with others. (Wayne Riley)

Islanders Barb Trainor and Heidi Riley both love gardening so much, they've invested a lot of time and money to train as master gardeners.

Master gardener is an official designation — there's an intensive training course at Dalhousie's Faculty of Agriculture in Truro consisting of four online courses plus a five-day summer school, from which both women have graduated.

It improves people's confidence in the things that they're doing. Knowledge is power.— Barb Trainor

To use the moniker master gardener, graduates must then register with the Atlantic Master Gardeners Association and volunteer 25 hours a year, as well as eight hours of self-education every couple of years. 

Neither Trainor nor Riley are registered with the association, but both have taken the training and consider themselves master gardeners, volunteering frequently. 

Helping others

"I use it mainly in my own garden, and I volunteer," said Trainor, a 67-year-old retired educator. "I really do like helping other people with their issues and their gardening problems." 

Barb Trainor considers herself a master gardener, although she has let her official credentials lapse recently. (Submitted by Barb Trainor)

Trainor enjoys growing perennial flowers on her 28-hectare property on the Royalty Road in Charlottetown, overlooking the North River. She was also a Communities in Bloom judge for several years. 

"I'm always looking for different and unique perennials, which are difficult to find." 

Riley, 59, has a huge vegetable garden at her home in York — five plots measuring about one metre by five metres each -— as well as perennial flowers around her home and a plot at the Legacy Garden in Charlottetown, where she volunteers to help others. 

'Solitary pursuit'

"I didn't take it so I could call myself a master gardener," said Riley.

Barb Trainor has an eye for design and she enjoys helping people decide what to put where in their gardens. (Submitted by Barb Trainor)

"Gardening can be a very solitary pursuit, and it is really nice to learn from other people. There's only so much you can learn by trial and error ... [The training is] a lot of fun and you learn a lot."

Riley also teaches gardening at UPEI's Seniors College and volunteers at the Stratford Farmers' Market and community garden, and educates and entertains others with her blog, Heidi in the garden

"'I just want to get other people more excited about gardening," she said. "I just want to share the knowledge I have so that people start to enjoy gardening instead of being afraid of making mistakes." 

She would like to see more people empowered to grow their own food, because it's healthier and tastes better, and so they can appreciate what farmers do to bring food to our tables. 

'Improves people's confidence'

Acknowledging the tuition is not cheap — totalling about $1,800 — both women think more Islanders should be encouraged to gain master gardener status. 

Heidi Riley's specialty is vegetable growing, and she thinks more people should try it. (Wayne Riley)

"It would just make it a lot more professional," said Riley. "The more you know, the more fun you will have in the garden, and I've definitely benefited from the knowledge that I gained in the master gardener program." 

Trainor thinks the training would make garden centre employees invaluable. 

"It improves people's confidence in the things that they're doing. Knowledge is power."

The Atlantic Master Gardeners Association reports it knows of only one master gardener in P.E.I.

Although 130 to 160 people now take the master gardener program at Dalhouse every year — it began in 2004 — many of them are from Ontario. 

"I think it's something that will grow here," said Sarah Macdonald, the manager of Extended Learning in Dalhousie's Faculty of Agriculture.

She notes that interest in growing vegetables has increased dramatically in recent years, and a good portion of the certification is dedicated to growing veggies.