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Does the very thought of trying to grow anything in the caliche of the Las Vegas Valley send you screaming from the room? Have you thought about improving your own gardening skills?

If you have ever needed help for a difficult spot in your garden or with a plant here in Las Vegas, there is a good chance that someone suggested you call the Master Gardeners. If you have ever admired the native plants outside the visitor center at Red Rock canyon, or the arboretum on the UNLV campus, then you have already been impressed by the work of the Master Gardeners. These are volunteers with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Since 1992, this program has helped valley residents deal with their garden problems.

I have to admit that when I first heard the term "Master Gardener", I was cowed. All I could think of was something like the village magician, a person who could get any flower, herb, tree or vegetable to thrive and never have any difficulty. Of course that isn't the case at all.

Now, don't get me wrong. Master Gardeners are very good gardeners. You know, some of them might even be magicians. The people who can get tomatoes to produce even when the temperature is much too high, or those whose flower gardens always look perfect, well, they do make me wonder. But that's not the essence of being a Master Gardener.

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No matter how innately talented they are, two characteristics set Master Gardeners apart from other excellent plant people, or village magicians.

The first is that they are trained both generally, in the fundamentals of horticulture, and specifically in the range of concerns that affect gardening in their region wherever the region may be. There is a Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program in virtually every state of the union, but a Master Gardener trained in Michigan would probably not be prepared for the conditions that are present here in the Mojave. So, obviously, the localized instruction is critical.

Even so, that horticultural education does not define a master gardener. Almost anyone can learn how to grow plants correctly. What really distinguishes a master gardener from others, the second, but more important characteristic, is the commitment to assist other area residents as a volunteer.

Some serve as docents at the Desert Demonstration Garden while others participate in school and community gardens. They teach, they explain, they describe, they help. During office hours every Monday through Friday, master gardeners staff the phones at the Cooperative Extension office and answer questions from the public on any plant-related subject from aphids to zoysia.

But who are these people? Are they all wealthy retirees?

Not hardly.

Among the Master Gardeners in Las Vegas, you can find people in their 20s as well as 80 year olds. And every age in between. Some are retired. But, there are doctors, waitresses, engineers and landscapers. They may be self-employed but it is just as likely that they are casino workers or teachers. Both men and women are involved.

None of this is particularly important where Master Gardening is concerned. What matters is creating a beautiful environment and helping others to do so. Some Master Gardeners have gardened for decades, but a number have only started raising plants in the recent past. Some don't consider themselves particularly terrific gardeners at all, but they know that their contributions are important.

Maybe you would like to be part of developing the community of Las Vegas working with children or in neighborhoods, or by becoming a member of a healing garden. Perhaps you would like to be part of the team that is studying which fruit trees work well in this region. Since every master gardener contributes 50 hours to the program every year, there are many projects to choose from, and folks bring in their ideas for new projects regularly.

In order to become a master gardener, you need to have both the preparation and the commitment.

The Southern Nevada program is about 70 hours long, done over the course of two months. The curriculum covers plant nutrition, soil science, how to plant and grow trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers and vegetables, and confronting plant problems like insects and diseases. University faculty as well as master gardeners and local experts teach the courses. You gain access to very good reference texts, and the only financial outlay is to cover the cost of the books and other instructional materials.

The commitment comes from within.

Required orientation for the next class will be held on August 8 at 9am. Why don't you call 257-5501 to get the details?

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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