In the fall, I took an online Master Gardener class through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. My goal was to learn to grow flowers and vegetables here in the high desert, where years of previous attempts had met with disappointment.

According to the Washington State University website, “Beginning as a response to a need for information about gardening and pest management, the Master Gardener (MG) program has evolved into a proactive partner with other agencies in addressing environmental and social issues covering topics such as integrated pest management, natural gardening and low-impact development, to name but a few.”

Started in 1973, MG programs can now be found across the United States, as well as in parts of Canada and South Korea. As of 2018, there were over 86,000 MGs in this country alone, volunteering over five million hours. This is quite a big deal!

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If your attempts at horticulture in this area have failed after being successful in another part of the country, you haven’t lost your green thumb. Nature’s challenges are a little more taxing here. Our local soils are nutrient poor and the sun is intense. Due to freezes as late as June and as early as October, the growing season is short. Spring’s near single-digit humidity and frequent high winds have adverse drying effects. And when summer monsoons deliver much-needed moisture to our parched earth, it’s often in the form of heavy rains and hailstorms.

The class taught me practical ways to work with these challenges. Some of his invaluable lessons include the best ways to amend the soil, effective planting techniques and protective measures, organic weed and pest control, drought tolerant landscaping and composting. I also learned methods to create environments that help specific plants thrive.

Now that I have completed the online learning, I am engaged in the required volunteer work, which provides me with important practical experience. (To become a Certified Master Gardener in Coconino County, a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer work within 12 months of completing the class is required.)

In addition to learning to grow abundant fruits, vegetables and flowers in these harsh conditions, there are other benefits to becoming an MG. Getting a sense of accomplishment is one of them. I am always in awe at the sight of a beautiful garden. And when a friend gives me home-grown tomatoes, peppers or zucchini, I feel great admiration and appreciation. Gifts from the garden are filled with the pride of a grower’s successful partnership with nature.

Making new friends is another benefit of becoming an MG. As we move through life, it can be challenging to meet new people whose company we enjoy. Finding ways to spend time with others while sharing a common interest makes it easier. New friends and new experiences help expand our individual worlds, making them more interesting.

Finally, studies show that feeling a sense of belonging to a community improves our mental health and extends our lives. And a contingent of Master Gardeners is not just any community; it is one whose members are passionate about working with the earth and sharing information for the benefit of all. Volunteering at plant sales, garden shows and public gardens gives new MGs the opportunity to truly experience a sense of belonging.

Becoming a Master Gardener opened up a beautiful new world for me. This year I harvested vegetables for the first time since moving to Northern Arizona over a decade ago. I have met longtime gardeners who are happy to share kindness and expert advice. And I feel I have become part of an extraordinary community. If you want to improve your local gardening skills while making new connections, I strongly encourage you to join the class starting this fall on August 29th.

For more information about the program as well as the application, visit:

Lisa Miller is a writer, scratch cook, gardener, and outdoor enthusiast who has lived in Northern Arizona since 2010. Most evenings she can be found preparing delicious plant-based meals while listening to some great music. She shares thoughts and research on how human health is connected to nature along with the occasional vegan recipe at

If you have a gardening question, email or call the Master Gardener Hotline at 928-773-6115 and leave a message. A master gardener will get back to you.

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