Inspiration from the Extension Master Gardener Program

February 15, 2020

In the past month I’ve had a great time teaching “basic botany and plant identification” to Extension Master Gardener Trainee classes in Doña Ana, Santa Fe, and Taos Counties. From the NMSU Extension Master Gardener (EMG) website: “Each year, EMG chapters throughout NM produce knowledgeable gardeners who enjoy assisting their local Cooperative Extension Service office in providing accurate, research-based gardening information to county residents. Within the programmatic structure of the Extension Master Gardener Program is a curriculum focused on the fundamentals of good horticultural and biological land management practices. Classes are held at varying times of the year (depending on the county) in an effort to prepare volunteers for service and keep those already trained up to date.” For more information, please visit Master Gardeners.

Image of artichokes
Artichokes like these growing in Valencia County Extension Agent Newt McCarty's garden in Belen last summer are a great example of a biennial plant. In year one, they develop a rosette of dramatic leaves, but no fruit (sometimes huge leaves). You have to wait until the second year to get flower stalks and edible fruit. After year two, they'll keep producing each year. That is, if you can keep the roots alive through the winters and especially that first winter. Photo credits M. Thompson

Also from that page: "Are you interested in plants and gardening? Are you a life-long learner? Do you love to share what you're learning with others? The New Mexico Master Gardener Program has a place for you."

Those who participate are part of a nationally recognized program. About a dozen counties in New Mexico offer training each year. To find an EMG program near you, visit the website above.

Many communities also have garden clubs that offer great educational classes on important local gardening issues. To find those without Google, ask around at nearby nurseries or, better yet, compliment the landscaping of a garden you like in your neighborhood--maybe they're garden club members themselves. If not, it's a kind compliment.

In case you haven't heard my EMG story before, here's the CliffsNotes version: I was working in a plant nursery in ABQ when I graduated from UNM, and a customer suggested I might like the Master Gardener program, which I'd never heard of before. As soon as the classes started I was inspired by a former Bernalillo County Extension Horticulture Agent, Joran Viers (now city of ABQ urban forester), and several of the Extension Specialist speakers (like entomologist Dr. Carol Sutherland, turfgrass specialist Dr. Bernd Leinauer, plant pathologist Dr. Natalie Goldberg, and soils agronomist Dr. Robert Flynn) to go back to school for a master's degree in horticulture with the goal of teaching people about plants. I knew from several years working in restaurants and plant nurseries that I had a knack for customer service and that I loved working with people. Through biology classes at UNM, I discovered an obsession with houseplants. And moving to New Mexico and being awed by native and adapted species that thrive in our enchanting desert showed me that plants were as cool as my mom had always insisted back home. I became an Albuquerque Area Master Gardener in fall 2008 after attending all the classes and completing the required 40 hours of volunteer work. I ended up staying in school long enough to get a Ph.D. So now I warn all the new EMG trainees I meet that this program can be life-changing, if they let it.

Image of more artichokes (yellow flowers and green leaves)

Each EMG chapter has impressive stats that are worth bragging about. At their banquet celebrating 10 years of their EMG program in November, Colfax County Extension Agent Boe Lopez announced that their small but dedicated volunteer group had provided 11,449 hours of service to their community in the past decade. And Santa Fe Master Gardener president Wendy Wilson told EMG trainees last week that their larger group volunteered a total of 9,572 hours in 2019 alone! According to NMSU's EMG Program Manager, Dr. Eduardo Servin, these NMSU EMG programs train about 250 new interns each year, statewide. In total, EMG programs contribute over 55,000 hours of volunteer service and donate over 52,000 lbs. of produce to local food banks every year.

Last year I had the great idea to start recording all of the questions I get in EMG classes because they'll make great future columns. The trouble, I've found, is that I'm so preoccupied teaching I can't seem to get all of them and often only write down a few of the harder questions I don't have answers to. So this week in Santa Fe I asked an audience member (thanks Tamara P.!) to keep notes of questions asked during my talk. Here are about half of them:

  1. What are examples of biennial plants?
  2. How should I deal with cottonwood roots growing above the surface in my lawn?
  3. Will mulch around the base of a tree suffocate the roots?
  4. Are there any tricks of the trade to monitor soil moisture?
  5. Are asparagus flowers pretty?
  6. Is it true that male and female pecan flowers develop at different times?
  7. Why did my zucchini plant produce more male flowers than female flowers last year?
  8. Why is the root system described as being "under pressure" when talking about guttation? As soon as you're done reading this column, do yourself a favor and Google image search the term "guttation."
  9. Do sugars created by photosynthesis in the leaves move all the way down to the roots before being allocated to other parts of the plant?
  10. Can I graft fruiting mulberry branches onto my nonfruiting mulberry tree and get at least a few berries each year?

Some I knew the answer to, like pushing a screwdriver down into moist soil to see how deeply the water has soaked. Some I fumbled with, like question #8 on guttation. In this case, the pressure is caused when soils are saturated enough that roots take up extra water that's exuded from the leaf tips. (I'll work on this topic and try to make a good column out of it.) Some questions I suggested they save for a future speaker, like NM State Forester Jennifer Dann when she teaches about tree roots, or Dr. Gill Giese, Extension Viticulture Specialist, when he teaches about controlled sugar movement in grapevines (what he calls "grape-ology"). One question actually came from me (#10). Many of these will make great future columns. Which would you like to read more about? Find this column posted on social media (@nmdesertblooms) and let me know.

Images of Ladys mantle
Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) in Asheville, North Carolina (photographed last May) provides a beautiful example of guttation, which is the formation of water droplets on leaf margins and is not dew. Photo credits M. Thompson

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!