How to Become a Master Gardener in Chicago

The deadline for applying for the Master Gardener certification in Cook County for 2010 is November 1, 2009. The certification program is a great learning opportunity for gardening enthusiast and beginners. I asked Ron Wolford, University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture/Environment Educator, to tell me about the program and why it would be of interest to gardening enthusiasts in Chicago.

“The Master Gardener program is the engine that runs our horticulture programming in Chicago. We have over 200 certified Master Gardeners who last year contributed 14,000 hours of volunteer time to University of Illinois Extension-Chicago horticulture projects in the city,” he said.

“80 Master Gardeners planted, maintained and gave tours of the Museum of Science and Industry Smart Home Vegetable Garden,” Wolford said. “The garden will receive the 1st place award for Public Institutions City-Wide at the Mayor’s Landscape Awards ceremony on November 14 at Garfield Park Conservatory.”

The University of Illinois Extension provides assistance with the Urban Farm at the Cook County Jail, where inmates take the Master Gardener courses and receive certification as Master Gardeners.

How much gardening experience does someone need to be able to complete the Master Gardener Course?

“No experienced needed. That is what I love about all the people who take the course. We have people who have been gardening all their lives to brand new gardeners. We have had 20 year olds to gardeners in their seventies. We have people from all over the city from Chicago’s south side to Lincoln Parkers. It is really great to watch each year as these gardeners come together connected by their love of gardening,” says Wolford.

The course to become certified a Master Gardener in Chicago is 11 weeks long at the Garfield Park Conservatory from January 13th through March 24th. Classes are held Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the course costs $275.00.

I became acquainted with Ron Wolford via Twitter because he manages several social networking accounts and performs the functions of a social media ambassador for the University of Illinois Extension. So, it is no surprise that the University of Illinois Extension also provides Master Gardener training online so that internet savvy gardeners can also take advantage of the training. According to Ron Wolford, online Master Gardener trainee numbers grow each year and so far this year 24 people have expressed an interest in taking the course online.

The fee for the program can seem pretty steep, especially considering the Recession this year, so I asked if he thought being certified a Master Gardener could help someone career wise.

“Yes, the Master Gardener Certification is well known and highly respected. We often have people take the course looking to make a career change into horticulture and see the Master Gardener training as a good first step,” he said.

The most famous graduate of the Master Gardener program, according to Ron Wolford, is William Moss- who does garden features for the CBS Early Show. Chicago gardeners and listeners of Mike Nowak’s Sunday morning gardening show on WCPT 820– where Beth Botts is a frequent guest may also recognize them as Master Gardeners.

If you become a Chicago Master Gardener you’ll be in pretty good company.

For more information on services the University of Illinois Extension offers visit: You can ask a Cook County Master Gardener gardening questions here.


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  • Thanks for these links. I've thought about doing this up at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is marginally more convenient to my location-- do you know anything about their program?

  • In reply to naxn:

    I believe the CBG course is the same as this one, because it is done in conjunction with the UofI Extension. But the thing about the one at the CBG is that they only do it every other year. So the next one isn't held until 2011.

    If I had 275 to blow right now I'd sign up for the online course, because I've been wanting to take it since 1999 and this year would probably be perfect, schedule wise.

  • In reply to naxn:

    I took the course last winter in the south 'burbs. It was very rewarding. I learned a lot, have met so many wonderful people, and enjoyed some really interesting volunteer assignments. There are also occasional field trips through the program, Master Gardener idea exchanges, and an annual conference.

    Ron Wolford's vegetable gardening class was one of the highlights of the training program. He's such a warm, wonderful, engaging speaker. He brought lots of props, gave away prizes during the class, and offered plenty of hands-on experiences. Ron's a born teacher. We all came away from the class enriched by the experience. Besides having a great learning experience, we all even got some free veggie plants and seeds in addition to the prizes that Ron gave away.

    One thing to keep in mind, that some may not know about Master Gardener certification, is that it's main purpose is to educate and train volunteers for the Extension's Master Gardener program. Participants are expected to complete 60 hours of volunteer time during and after the certification program in order to get their certifications. The 60 hours must be completed within two years. During that period, you're an apprentice Master Gardener. Once 60 hours of service are completed, you become a certified Master Gardener. Going forward, in order to maintain the certification, 30 volunteer hours per year are required. After the apprentice period there's also an annual continuing education requirement in order to maintain certification. The $275 fee helps offset the cost of training, and helps assure that it's primarily people who are committed to the program apply. It sure would be nice though, if they would consider offering scholarships to cover or help offset the cost for people who might not otherwise be able to attend.

    It would also be nice if more weekend and evening volunteer opportunities were available for people who work full-time. One of the really nice aspects of the program is that Master Gardeners can create their own volunteer opportunities. Ideas for self-created volunteer assignments are submitted to the Master Gardener coordinator for approval. This is a good way for people holding full-time jobs to be able to meet their volunteer hours committment.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I forgot you were taking the course last winter. Thanks for the info on the volunteer hours and about the ability to create volunteer assignments, I didn't know about that at all.

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  • the run of the mill yearly compensation for a Master Gardener in the United States master grower certification

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