Happy National Volunteer Week! (plus COVID-19 program update)

This year, April 19-25th is National Volunteer Week, and an important time to stop and consider all of the goodness that Master Gardener volunteers bring to this world. The 2019 Annual Report provides an overview of the incredible work that Master Gardener volunteers do across the state of Oregon: 52.5 tons of food donated to food pantries and food banks; support of 29 school gardens, 46 community gardens, and 23 educational gardens; over 200,000 hours volunteered and over 139,000 Oregonians served!

In 2020, and despite the pandemic, Master Gardener volunteers continue to do good things in their communities. Many are individually participating in the Plant a Row for the Hungry campaign by allocating space in their personal garden to grow food for local food banks or soup kitchens. Master Gardeners in Polk and Lincoln Counties have turned the disappointment of cancelled plant sales as an opportunity to donate fresh veggie starts to those in need in the community. The Benton and Linn County Master Gardeners have been teaching Seed to Supper beginning vegetable gardening classes using distance learning. The online Master Gardener short course made their vegetable garden course free, and more than 29,000 have enrolled in less than a month (currently, the number enrolled is passing 31,000). This year, these efforts are needed more than ever, as we’re experiencing disruptions to global food distribution chains, demand is rising at local food banks, and the collective efforts of Master Gardeners to grow food as a group has been upended by the Governor’s Stay Home Save Lives executive order.

I want to take the time to recognize the great work being done by nearly 3,000 Master Gardener volunteers across the state, while also recognizing the incredible hardships that individual volunteers and Master Gardener chapters may be suffering. In February, as I was travelling the state to teach Master Gardener classes, I met so many people who told me how important their volunteer colleagues were to their daily life. In some cases, the Master Gardener shared that they had suffered a huge loss in their life, and how their volunteer colleagues were the ones who were helping them get through a very difficult time. I worry so much about the Master Gardeners who benefit from or depend on the social interactions of our volunteer Program. I encourage Master Gardener volunteers to continue checking on their colleagues and friends from the Program via phone, social media, email, or another safe method that maintains recommended social distancing.

The Oregon Master Gardener Association and its chapters, our 501(c)3 friends, are also grappling with losses. Multiple Master Gardener plant sales, garden fairs, educational events, and other spring gatherings have been cancelled. These events are seen as a harbinger of spring and the unofficial kick-off of the spring gardening season. The funds raised from these events help to fund the many Master Gardener scholarships, grants, and educational outreach programs that are offered across Oregon. It remains to be seen how these losses will affect the philanthropy and outreach of the Oregon Master Gardener Association and its affiliate chapters.

The good news is that I have yet to hear of a Master Gardener volunteer, faculty member, or staff member who has suffered serious illness as a result of COVID-19. I hope that is indeed the case, and that you all are staying healthy and safe.

The other good news is that our Governor has shared a plan to reopen Oregon, that includes several benchmarks she would like to see met.

On the flip side, the bad news is that the Master Gardener Program remains in a holding pattern: continuing our suspension of face-to-face activities, meetings, and events until the Governor lifts of modifies EO 20-12. I know that this is disappointing to many, including me. But, the Master Gardener Program is aligned with Oregon State University, and as a state agency, OSU is strongly encouraging everyone to Stay Home, Save Lives.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Stay Home, Save Lives order for many Master Gardener volunteers is what this has meant for plant care in Master Gardener-tended gardens and greenhouses. We are working with Master Gardener faculty and staff to try and ensure that watering is provided to plants on OSU property. For gardens and greenhouses that are not OSU property, such as at county fairgrounds or on community college property, OSU is adhering to the current policies of our partner organizations. And in many cases, our partners have closed their facilities to the public and have severely restricted who can visit or work on their property. Even if the property might be open, we are still unable to greenlight face-to-face Master Gardener program volunteer activities, until EO 20-12 is modified or lifted.

I truly am grateful for all of the great work that Master Gardener volunteers do across the state, and I’m PROUD of the way that Master Gardener volunteers have responded to hardship with generous, ingenious, and creative ways to give back to their community during this pandemic.

I hope that one small silver lining might be that you have more time to work on your personal garden or to tend to your houseplants. And, if you don’t have a personal garden or houseplants to tend, I hope that you have been able to get out into the beautiful Oregon weather that we have been having, to enjoy the sunshine and the beauty of local trees, shrubs, and birds. Most of all, I hope that you stay safe and healthy, and that I get to see all of my Master Gardener friends in person, very, very soon.

Take care,

Gail Langellotto, OSU Extension Master Gardener Coordinator

My own garden is definitely getting more attention this year, compared to most. Happy gardening to all!

FAQs Related to MG Plant Care

Since sharing the document outline OSU’s requirements for the Care of Plants in Master Gardener Greenhouses and Demonstration Gardens, I have fielded many questions. So, I thought it would be useful to compile some FAQs, here.

Question: Why is OSU telling the Master Gardener Chapters to donate their plant sale plants?

Answer: OSU is NOT suggesting, requesting, requiring, or even asking Master Gardener Chapters to donate their plants. The guidance on plant sale donations came to be, because I received questions from four separate Master Gardener chapters about whether or not they might be able to donate plants that had otherwise been destined for a plant sale. If you are part of a Master Gardener chapter that would like to donate plants to a local food bank or food pantry, wonderful! If not, that’s fine, too!

Question: Why are Plant Sale Donations Allowed, but Plant Sales are Not Allowed?

Answer: The Master Gardener program does not currently have permission to allow for plant sales conducted under the Master Gardener name. Some key points:

  • OSU is observing the Governor’s Stay Home | Save Lives order, and is encouraging everyone to stay home. 
  • The plant donations was an exception, granted after review by the OSU attorney in charge of making sure OSU is in compliance with the Governor’s Executive order (Julie Penry), OSU’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator (Dan Larson), and the interim head of OSU Extension (Anita Azarenko). The exception was granted because it was made clear that donations would only occur if we were able to leverage another organization’s distribution network, rather than set up our manage our own. The exception was given for one-time, bulk donations, rather than limited, frequent, and dispersed distribution.
  • An exception has NOT been granted for Master Gardener plant sales, and I doubt that one would be granted. A donation can occur as a bulk, one-time transfer of plants, whereas a sale would occur over time, bring multiple volunteers and customers to a common point (even with social distancing), and would require folks to travel (in violation of the Governor’s Executive order to stay home and minimize travel).

Question: But why are nurseries allowed to sell plants, and Master Gardener Chapters are not?

Answer: In short, Master Gardener Programs are not commercial nurseries. We want our volunteers and our employees to be safe. Staying home a critical part of the Stay Home Save Lives Executive order.

Nurseries are open and are selling plants. But, as a business, they’re also subject to being reported for violating the 6 foot distance rule for employees, promoting unsafe conditions for employees and customers.

Question: But Master Gardener chapters are separate 501(c)3’s from Oregon State University? Why are we subject to OSU rules?

Answer: Our partner Master Gardener chapters are separate 501(c)3’s from OSU. The separation allows the OMGA and Master Gardener chapters to raise funds in ways (such as by holding a plant sale) that greatly enhance OSU programming. But, the Master Gardener Program and the Master Gardener name are service marked by OSU. The Master Gardener Program in Oregon is overseen by OSU. If a program or event is being advertised in the state of Oregon, using the name ‘Master Gardener’, OSU policies, procedures, and guidance must be followed.

Question: Does my local Master Gardener coordinator have flexibility to allow us to continue our local face-to-face events and activities?

Answer: No.

Question: Why is my Master Gardener coordinator allowed to water plants in our greenhouse, but another Master Gardener coordinator is not allowed to water plants for their Master Gardeners?

Answer: OSU has placed strict rules on employee travel. Any travel to a location that is not that employee’s normal work-duty station (such as the Extension Office) must be approve by their Director or Dean. If the plants are in a greenhouse or garden that is on OSU owned or leased land that is also that employee’s normal work-duty station, your Master Gardener coordinator would not have to submit a travel request for approval ~ and could thus be designated as the point person to water plants. If the plants are in a greenhouse or garden that is not on OSU owned or leased land, that person would need to submit a travel request to their Director or Dean for permission to travel and care for those plants. These types of requests are unlikely to be approved at this time, unless they are deemed an essential or critical activity.

Care of Plants and Gardens in the Context of EO 20-12 (Stay Home. Save Lives)

March 25, 2020

To: OSU Extension Master Gardener Coordinators, Faculty, and Staff

From: Gail Langellotto, Statewide Master Gardener Program Coordinator

Subject: Guidance on Master Gardener Activities and Plant Care, in the Context of Executive Order 20-12

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and in accordance with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-12 (Stay Home. Save Lives), Master Gardener Programs are to continue with the suspension of face-to-face programming. This means no face-to-face Master Gardener classes, events, meetings or outreach activities.

The purpose of the executive order and this guidance is to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon, to protect the health and lives of Oregonians, particularly those at highest risk, and to help avoid overwhelming local and regional healthcare capacity. Oregon State University fully supports the governor’s executive order and encourages its community members to stay at home.

Plant Care in Greenhouses or Gardens

In terms of plant care in greenhouses or gardens (whether they are school, community, or educational gardens), I offer the following guidance:

If the greenhouse and/or garden is on OSU-owned or OSU-leased land:

  • Only OSU employees will be allowed access to maintain plant materials or gardens. Limiting on-campus and onsite operations is required under EO 20-09. Volunteers are not to be permitted to access OSU Extension-owned or leased property for any reason, including plant care or garden care.
  • A single OSU employee should be identified (as per Anita Azarenko’s March 23rd email noting that ‘regional directors will identify one individual per off campus location to monitor building security, receive mail, and perform other critical functions determined by the university’.
  • Maintenance of plant materials or gardens by a designated OSU employee will be performed on an ‘as available’ basis. Employees should only include plant or garden maintenance in their short-term Plan of Work if they have the capacity, ability and willingness to do so.
  • Carefully consider whether or not plant care or garden care represents a critical function at this time. Supervisors will help employees to determine what qualifies as a critical function. If plant care or garden care is deemed critical, think of the steps that you can take to minimize plant care or garden care needs. For example, can the greenhouse temperature be lowered to reduce watering needs and slow plant growth? In parts of Western Oregon, many perennials can survive without supplemental water well into June. Note that many common gardening maintenance activities, such as weeding, pruning or plant propagation, are not critical activities.
  • Worm bin or compost pile maintenance is not considered a critical function.

If the greenhouse and/or garden is on land that is NOT owned or leased by OSU:

  • We must honor the policies in place of our community partners. Many fairgrounds, recreation and parks units, and schools have closed their facilities to the public.
  • Individuals should refer to Executive Order 20-12, particularly section 22, which dictates that “individuals are directed to minimize travel, other than essential travel to or from a home, residence or workplace; for obtaining or providing food, shelter, essential consumer needs, education, health care, or emergency services . . .”
  • Under the current directives of Executive Order 20-12, Master Gardener volunteers are not authorized to care for greenhouse plants or gardens on behalf of OSU or in their role as a Master Gardener volunteer.

Donating or Selling Plants

Many of you have asked about the possibility of selling or donating plants that were originally destined to be sold at Master Gardener Association plant sales.

For plant materials that are owned by Master Gardener Chapters or Associations and not by OSU:

  • We are exploring whether or not the plants can be sold or donated to partner agencies, while using the Master Gardener name. If we proceed, we aim to work with partner agencies that already have distribution channels in place rather than creating our own distribution network.

For plant materials that are owned by OSU:

  • We would have to work through the university’s surplus system, before donating or selling excess plants.  

These guidelines, like Executive Order 20-12, are in place immediately and until further notice.

I hold the important work that we do in the Master Gardener program in such high regard. I especially value and appreciate the joy that gardening and plant care brings to our lives and to the lives of Master Gardener volunteers, and the friendships that are formed through the Master Gardener Program. 

But during this public health crisis, the best thing that we can do to ensure the health and safety of our volunteers ~ many of whom are in groups that are at higher risk for serious illness if they are exposed to COVID-19 ~  is to encourage them stay home. Those of us in positions where attendance on campus or at the Extension office is not essential or critical should also be staying home. By doing so, each of us will reduce the risk and spread of COVID-19 locally and across Oregon.

Image result for stay home save lives oregon

CDC Issues New Guidance that Affects MG Outreach, Plant Sales, and Events, through May 10th

On March 15th, the CDC issued new guidance for large events and mass gatherings. This guidance recommends that, for the next eight weeks (which would take us to May 10th, or Mother’s Day) that events which can draw 50 or more people, in person, be cancelled or postponed.

This recommendation takes us out further on the calendar than the state of Oregon’s March 7th Executive Order banning face-to-face gatherings of 250 or more people for 60 days (which would take us to May 6th). It also takes us further on the calendar that Oregon State University’s policy banning face-to-face gatherings of 50 or more people, through April 30th.

Given the updated CDC guidance, I am updating the previous guidance given to Master Gardener groups (on 3/12), to adhere to CDC guidelines. Through at least May 10th, any face-to-face Master Gardener classes, meetings, outreach activities, and events, including Master Gardener Conferences and plant sales that can draw 50 or more people, should be cancelled or postponed.

All face-to-face Master Gardener activities, events, meetings ~ no matter how many people may attend ~ are suspended pending further notice. This suspension aligns with the guidance given by OSU Extension on March 13th.

As someone who has planned several large events, I know that this is heartbreaking news that will have negative impact on affected Master Gardener chapters. I truly feel bad for the many Master Gardeners who have tirelessly and enthusiastically worked for a year or more, only to have their event cancelled or postponed. But, the health of our volunteers, faculty, staff, and community is paramount, and should be put ahead of other concerns.

Wiley Thompson, the Regional Director for the OSU Extension on the coast, has said something like: ‘this is the year that a lot of things won’t happen: NCAA basketball tournaments, PAC-12 Spring Sports, and so much more’.

But, I’m also seeing many instances of ingenuity, in the face of these challenges.

Master Gardeners are holding meetings via Zoom. If you are able, and if your Master Gardeners are wanting and needing to meet, please help them by setting up a Zoom meeting.

The Benton County Master Gardeners are planning to offer Seed to Supper via Zoom!

Don’t forget that the Advanced Training Master Gardener webinars start tomorrow (3/17). Once again, they will be offered via Zoom! It’s not too late to sign up for one or more classes.

Hang in there! We will get through this!

Updated Guidance for Master Gardener Training Classes and Guidance for Large Events, Ongoing Master Gardener Activities in the Context of COVID-19

To: Master Gardener coordinators (Extension faculty)

From: Gail Langellotto, (Professor of Horticulture, Statewide Coordinator, Extension Master Gardener Program)

Date: March 12, 2020, 11:57am PST

Coordinators,

As you are aware, OSU and OSU Extension are actively engaged in continuity planning as we prepare for a localized outbreak of COVID-19 in the university community and communities we serve. The guidance from Oregon State University is rapidly evolving. The latest guidance can be found on OSU’s COVID-19 webpage.

Given that older adults are both a vulnerable population and an abundant group in the Master Gardener Program, we are recommending that local Master Gardener coordinators carefully consider the guidance provided for upcoming large events (such as conferences and plant sales) and ongoing Master Gardener activities (such as plant clinics and demonstration garden work).

At this time, we are suspending face-to-face Master Gardener activities immediately, and through at least March 30th. Specific guidance for large Master Gardener events and meetings, as well as work in demonstration gardens or plant clinics, can be found below. There is also updated guidance on completing Master Gardener training classes.

Guidance on Options for Large Master Gardener Events

Large events pose a particular risk for the transmission of COVID-19. Master Gardener conferences and plant sales can easily draw 50 or more individuals, and often draw hundreds of people to a site.  

On March 11, 2020, OSU has stated that non-essential, OSU-sponsored events of more than 50 attendees will not be permitted, between March 30th and at least April 30th.

Note that even though OSU is not planning to limit OSU-sponsored gatherings of more than 50 attendees until March 30th, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program is instituting this policy, immediately. All large Master Gardener events (i.e. those that draw more than 50 attendees) that are scheduled between now and the end of April, including those planned and managed by the Oregon Master Gardener Association and its chapters, should be cancelled or postponed until at least May.

Updated Guidance on Options for Completing Master Gardener Training Classes. At this time, no matter the number of attendees you have in Master Gardener training classes, we are requiring that you suspend face-to-face Master Gardener training classes, and pursue option(s) 2 (postpone and reschedule classes), 3 (use the online modules to complete your Master Gardener training, or 4 (end your 2020 training classes, if you have met minimum national and state standards for Master Gardener classes). These options were outlined in earlier guidance.

Guidance on Options for Other Ongoing Master Gardener Activities

Other ongoing Master Gardener activities, such as plant clinic and work in the demonstration garden, typically bring fewer than 50 people to a site.

At this time, we are suspending all face-to face work in Plant Clinic, Master Gardener meetings and other non-essential Master Gardener volunteer work, through the end of March. We are instituting restrictions on work in Demonstration Gardens through the end of March, and only if work is needed to prevent the loss of plant materials or to address emergencies at demonstration garden facilities (such as an irrigation line break). If Master Gardeners come to the Extension office to volunteer, observe best practices for limiting the spread of the virus.

Plant Clinic: March is a relatively slow time for many Master Gardener plant clinics. Suspending Master Gardener plant clinics through the end of March should not have too large of an impact on local Master Gardener programs. In lieu of walk-in plant clinics, questions may be redirected to OSU’s Ask an Expert service. If you have volunteers who you would like to sign up for Ask an Expert, you can sign them up online. Only volunteers who are well-practiced in plant clinic procedures, are comfortable working in an online environment, and have a strong understanding of how to craft a research-based and appropriate response to plant clinic questions should be signed up. A brief overview for how to view and answer questions in Ask an Expert can be found here. In addition, a dedicated email to receive questions/images could be set up, if needed, by the local Master Gardener coordinator to expand options for meeting the needs of the community.

Master Gardener volunteers who are seeking certification options, during this down time, may want to catch up on their continuing education credits by reading approved publications, or by participating in the upcoming Advanced Training Webinar Series for Master Gardeners.

Coordinators may want to relax plant clinic and other volunteer service hour requirements, in lieu of this disruption to our programming.

For Care of Plants and Facilities at Master Gardener Demonstration and Community Gardens: keep the number of individuals working in each demonstration garden to an absolute minimum. Observe maximum social distancing. Practice frequent handwashing. Use Approved Environmental Cleaners for shared surfaces, such as tools, hose spigots, or hose handles. Take care to reduce environmental exposure to these cleaners.

Master Gardener Chapter Meetings: The OSU Extension Master Gardener Program has a collaborative relationship with the Oregon Master Gardener Association and its chapters. These organizations are separate 501(c)3’s from Oregon State University. However, when using the term “Master Gardener” in association with Association meetings or events, the Extension Master Gardener Program can require that Oregon State University provided guidance and policies be adopted.

  • Inform your Master Gardener Association and Chapter, that face-to-face meetings should be suspended, at least through the end of March.
  • Face-to-face meetings that might draw 50 or more people are not allowed, at least through April 30th.
  • Where possible, assist your Master Gardener Association or Chapter with remote meetings, when the meetings are necessary. Assistance could include setting up access to Zoom meetings, or conference call lines.

Please contact your regional director and me with any questions or concerns.

Please continue to prioritize your personal health and wellness. Take the time to regularly review updates from the CDC and OHA websites, as well as OSU’s COVID-19 webpage.

Updates specific to the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program will be sent out via the OSU Master Gardener Coordinator listserv, the OMGA chapter and executive committee listservs, and on the OSU Master Gardener Coordinator blog.

Thank you,

Gail

Options for completing annual Master Gardener training classes in context of COVID-19

To: Master Gardener coordinators (Extension faculty)

From: Gail Langellotto, (Professor of Horticulture, Statewide Coordinator, Extension Master Gardener Program)

Date: March 11, 2020, 12:41pm PST

Coordinators,

As you are aware, OSU and OSU Extension are actively engaged in continuity planning as we prepare for a localized outbreak of COVID-19 in the university community and communities we serve.

Thank you for your efforts during this rapidly changing situation, and for the care and compassion you are showing for each other and your program participants.

Given that older adults are both a vulnerable population and an abundant group in the Master Gardener Program, we are recommending that local Master Gardener coordinators carefully consider available options for completing the 2020 Master Gardener training season.

We are developing additional guidance for large events such as conferences and plant sales, and ongoing volunteer activities such as plant clinics.

Here are four three options to consider.

Option 1: Continue with classes, but observe recommended practices for personal wellness and minimizing spread of illness.

****This option was removed as a possibility on March 12, 2020, when updated guidance for OSU Extension Master Gardener Programs was issued.**** Note that the recommended practices for personal wellness and minimizing the spread of illness is still recommened, for personal use.

These include:

  • No mandatory attendance: Do not penalize students who opt not to attend classes, provide options for making up missed work.
  • Stay home if sick: Speakers, employees, volunteers, or students who are sick or have a household member who is sick should stay home.
  • Observe social distancing: Seat students so they are not apt to touch each other or touch a shared desk space. Remind students to refrain from shaking hands, hugging, or otherwise touching other class members. If your meeting space is limited and you cannot meet this requirement, it might be better to consider a different option for completing classes.
  • Practice frequent handwashing: Build handwashing breaks into the training day. Have hand sanitizers on hand.
  • NO shared food or potlucks: Temporarily halt the tradition of shared food or potlucks for meals or snacks. Ask students to bring their own food and drinks. Do not share food or food utensils.
  • Use Approved Environmental Cleaners for Classroom Surfaces. Take care to reduce environmental exposure to these cleaners.

Option 2: Postpone and reschedule classes (i.e., after the state of emergency has passed or has been revoked). The ability to do this may depend on whether or not you will have access to the training site at a later date, and if students and instructors can accommodate a schedule change.

Option 3: Consider using the online modules to complete your 2020 training schedule.

Option 4: If you have met the minimum national and state standards for Master Gardener trainings, you can suspend classes for 2020. If you have questions about the standards, please contact me.

Keep in mind that decisions may differ among coordinators depending on local circumstances. Extension decisions made locally should be coordinated through supervisors and leadership at the appropriate level. Please contact your regional director and me with any questions or concerns.

No matter which options you chose, please prioritize your personal health and wellness. Take the time to regularly review updates from the CDC and OHA websites, as well as OSU’s COVID-19 webpage.

Thank you,

Gail

Customer Service Skills for Master Gardener Volunteers

Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A former colleague, who I have great respect for, let me know that he has heard multiple, independent, negative reports about the Master Gardener Program in his community. In one case, he heard of a Master Gardener yelling at a community member. In other cases, Master Gardeners were seen as rude or demeaning.

This is a difficult call to respond to. My colleague heard this information second-hand. Thus, it is hard to judge the veracity of these second hand reports. My colleague also didn’t have names to share. Thus, it is difficult to go to the source of the issue, and to address this matter, directly.

Unfortunately, in my 12-years of experience as Oregon’s Statewide Master Gardener Program Coordinator, I have occassionally (very rarely) seen a volunteer behave in a way that is not in line with the Volunteer Code of Conduct.

The first line of the Volunteer Code of Conduct reads:

“When volunteering as an Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener, I will:

  • Represent OSU Extension, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program and my individual county or local program with professionalism, dignity and pride, and be responsible for conducting myself with courtesy and appropriate behavior.”

Those words: professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy all suggest the type of behavior that we expect and require of Master Gardener volunteers. But, these words can have very different meanings to different people. Some of our volunteers may not have participated in the professional workforce, or they may be retired from work for quite some time. Some of our volunteers may have been high level supervisors when they were working, and are unaccustomed to serving in role that requires well-developed customer service skills. And in some cases, long-time and excellent volunteers may be going through a significant life change that impacts their ability to provide stellar service to the gardening public. This Journal of Extension article provides options for working with volunteers who might be experience medical issues that impact their ability to volunteer (see scenario #3).

Four Customer Service Skills for Master Gardeners

Let’s set the stage by what we mean by the words professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy.

First, it should be clear that yelling or other aggressive or belittling behavior will NEVER be tolerated in the Master Gardener Program: towards the gardening public, other volunteers, or Extension faculty and staff. Volunteers who behave in this way should be removed from the situation. Suspension or expulsion may be warranted, depending upon the severity of the situation. In other cases, the volunteer may simply need the time and space to collect themselves and to calm down. If you would like advice on how best to handle a difficult volunteer situation, please consult trusted colleagues who are Master Gardener coordinators. As the statewide Extension Master Gardener coordinator, I unfortunately have extensive experience in dealing with these types of situations, and can provide a list of options that would be appropriate for your situation.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who support the general public’s efforts to learn or improve their sustainable gardening skills. Basic customer service skills are crucial to helping others.

If you think it could be useful for your group, you may want to give your Master Gardener volunteers one hour of continuing education credits for reading this post (included embedded links) and watching the customer service videos.

Customer service skills for Master Gardeners include:

  • Patience: People who reach out to the Master Gardener Program for advice or support are often confused and frustrated. They may have tried their hand at gardening for the very first time, and failed. Or, a plant that they truly value may be in decline. Being listened to and handled with patience goes a long way in helping others feel at ease, and to have confidence that you can help alleviate their current frustrations. Your attitude will help to set and guide the tone for others, and can help steer interactions towards a more positive path.
This UM Extension video discusses the importance of keeping a positive attitude, when working with the public.

2. Attentiveness: The ability to truly listen is crucial to providing great service for a number of reasons. Not only is it important to pay attention to individual gardeners’ experiences, but it’s also important to be mindful and attentive to the feedback that you receive. Listening is a skill that can be developed with practice.

This UM Extension Video discusses the importance of listening, for successful customer service.

3. Curiosity: In many ways, being a Master Gardener is like being a plant detective. The gardener who is asking for help will give clues as to what could be wrong, if the volunteer asks the right questions and listens carefully to their responses. Cultivate a sense of curiosity in Master Gardener work, rather than the sense that Master Gardeners should immediately know the answer(s). Another great thing about fostering a sense of curiosity is that it breaks down barriers between Master Gardener volunteers and the gardening public. Master Gardeners who assume an air of authority or expertise limit conversations to a one way transmission of knowledge. Assuming an air of authority can also come off as being rude and dismissive. Curious Master Gardeners, on the other hand, invite the gardening public into a dynamic conversation, and put people at ease.

This oldie but goodie video from the Metro Area Master Gardener Program demonstrates the right way and the wrong way to work with gardeners who phone the plant clinic desk.
In this video, the Metro Area Master Gardeners demonstrate the importance of asking questions and getting more information, so that the volunteer can research the issue. A good answer, and not a quick answer, is what Master Gardeners should work towards.

More on Curiosity and Attentiveness: In 2019, I took the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science intensive workshop. It was a life-changing experience for me, that I wrote about in another blog post. During the workshop, I learned how to begin to listen deeply to others, and especially to those that I did not agree with. The skills of curiosity and attentiveness can be learned, are not easy to maintain, and get better with practice. These skills are directly transferable to all walks of life, including work in the Master Gardener Program. [I wish I could send everyone to the Alan Alda workshop! I truly felt that I was learning from a Master . . . because I was.]

In this PBS News Hour video clip, Alan Alda discusses the importance of curiosity and attentiveness to effective communication.

4. Collaboration: Collaboration is essential to the success of the Extension Master Gardener Program. We receive too many queries, and reach so many people, that no single Master Gardener can do it all. Master Gardeners who eschew collaboration, and instead take a dictatorial approach to their volunteer shifts, can come off as bossy. Often, other volunteers may request not to work with that individual. Tips on how to work with a ‘bossy’ volunteer can be found in Scenario #2 of this Journal of Extension article.

This Metro Master Gardener video does a great job of demonstrating how to make new volunteers feel welcome, and how to work together as a team on the plant clinic desk.

A Note on the Master Gardener Dress Code

One of the things I love most about working in a College of Agricultural Sciences is that the dress code is decidely relaxed. But, there can be cases when volunteers are a bit too relaxed with their attire, when working as a Master Gardener volunteer. Volunteers should dress in an appropriate and professional manner suitable for the activity or location.

  • “Office casual” is appropriate for speaking engagements, indoor plant clinics, and schools.
  • Gardening work clothes are appropriate for working in demonstration gardens and some outdoor events.
  • Always wear your Master Gardener badge (or intern badge) when working as a Master Gardener volunteer.

Best Management Practices for Master Gardener Plant Sales

Since mid-August, an advisory group consisting of myself, OSU Extension faculty (Brooke Edmunds), OSU MG volunteers (Linda Coakley and Ruth Estrada), and ODA Invasive Pest Professionals (Beth Myers-Shenai and Chris Hedstrom) have been working on developing guidance for best management practices for MG plant sales. This effort emerged as a result of increased awareness of how plant sales and plant swaps might serve as venues for invasive pest introduction or spread. Given the focus of the Master Gardener Program, we wanted to work together to do our part to stem the introduction spread of invasives, while delivering high quality plants to MG Plant sale customers.

THIS DOCUMENT is what our group has developed. As questions related to this document arise, I will start developing an associated FAQ list. Please let me emphasize, however, that the intention is not to police plant sales, but to provide guidance on how we can all work together to truly practice sustainable gardening.

FAQs (new questions and answers will be added, as soon as possible)

Q: How quickly must Master Gardeners adopt the best management practices?

A: Of the three recommendations, only the first (‘Apply for and receive a temporary nursery license from the Oregon Department of Agriculture’) is a legal requirement to host a short-term plant sale in Oregon. That recommendation must be adhered to, immediately (and should have been adhered to, in the past).

The other two recommendations (‘Only sell plants that are free from pests’; ‘Only sell plants that are properly identified, cross-checked against state and local noxious wee lists, and tagged’) should be adopted as soon as is practical for 2019 plant sales, but should become standard practice for plant sales in 2020, and beyond. For example, if a large part of your 2019 plant sale inventory consists of donated plants dug from home gardens, or another similar source, you are not expected to dispose of those plants. But, for plant sales in 2020 and beyond, Master Gardener groups should be proactively planning for a different approach to procuring plant materials for sale.

Q: How will these best management practices be enforced?

A: It is not my intention to act as the plant sale police. If I hear of reports of Master Gardener groups using practices that contradict the plant sale best management practices, I will reach out to the key organizers in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, and to strategize on how to remedy the situation.

Q: Can we take stem cuttings from plants grown in garden soil, if the plant is healthy and pest-free?

A: Yes.  As long as a cutting is from the above-ground portion of a healthy plant (inspected to be disease and pest free), then risk of invasive pest introduction and spread is minimized. Movement of soil poses the greatest risk, and thus root cuttings should not be taken.

Updated Volunteer Code of Conduct

Please note the Master Gardener Code of Conduct has been updated to include a provision prohibiting workplace violence. This statement has been reviewed and approved by OSU General Counsel and OSU Risk.

Workplace violence prohibited

The safety and wellbeing of OSU Extension employees, clients, volunteers, students and visitors is of utmost importance. Threatening behavior, both verbal and physical, and acts of violence at OSU Extension offices, at OSU Extension events, or by electronic means will not be tolerated. Any person who engages in this behavior may be removed from the premises and may be dismissed from the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program.

If you experience workplace violence while serving as an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer, please communicate with your Extension Master Gardener Coordinator as quickly as possible so the matter can be addressed.

This addition to our code of conduct is meant to clearly spell out that behavior including but not limited to, yelling/screaming, grabbing, pushing, or other violent and threatening behaviors that occur while someone is serving as a Master Gardener volunteer is grounds for dismissal from the program. In the past, we have always relied upon the first bullet point of our code of conduct to lay out what types of behaviors are expected:

  • Represent OSU Extension, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program and my individual county or local program with professionalism, dignity and pride, and be responsible for conducting myself with courtesy and appropriate behavior.

The statement prohibiting workplace violence is meant to clearly spell out what types of behaviors will not be tolerated.

You can access the updated Code of Conduct on the FORMS page of this website.

Plant Clinic Procedures for Master Gardeners

Master Gardeners provide research-based recommendations for the home gardeners, community gardeners and others who grow for fun, relaxation or other non-commercial reasons.

Plant Clinic Procedures:

In most counties, Master Gardeners staff Plant Clinic phone lines and desks at county Extension offices.  Many counties also offer Plant Clinics in their communities, (i.e. at farmers’ markets, fairs or garden retail outlets).  Plant Clinics are a valuable service to the community, where Oregonians can ask questions about their home or community garden.  Those who utilize the services of a Master Gardener Plant Clinic are often referred to as our ‘clients’.  To ensure high quality answers to questions received at Master Gardener Plant Clinics, it is important that volunteers are trained to recognize and utilize appropriate resources and to consult with OSU Extension faculty and/or expert Master Gardeners, as needed.

Appropriate resources include the Pacific Northwest Weed, Insect and Disease Management Handbooks; peer-reviewed journal articles, OSU Extension publications, brochures and hand-outs; eXtension and/or university Extension websites; online materials produces by eXtension and/or university Extension Services; and other resources that contain validated, research-based content.  In addition, to utilizing county Extension faculty and expert Master Gardeners, on campus resources (e.g. OSU Plant Clinic; OSU Herbarium, Oregon State Arthropod Collection), Extension specialists, and other OSU faculty should be consulted when needed.

Master Gardener volunteers should utilize these resources to provide research-based information to those seeking information or advice on home and/or community gardening.  Master Gardener volunteers are not permitted to answer questions for commercial growers, or questions related to commercial production.

Master Gardener Plant Clinics accept plant (live, dead or preserved), arthropod (dead or preserved) and soil specimens for assessment.  Safety of the volunteers is paramount.  For this reason, the Master Gardener Plant Clinics will not accept swabs, tissues, hair or other specimens of human or animal origin; articles of clothing, bedding or towels; personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, hairbrushes or any other items that may be contaminated with human or animal pathogens, parasites or secretions.  Clients with questions about possible human or animal health need to direct those inquiries to the appropriate public health or veterinary experts in the community.

A check list of the of what Master Gardeners can and can not do in plant clinic can be found below.

Guidance for Master Gardener Plant clinics, taken from page 18 of ‘An Introduction to Being a Master Gardener Volunteer’, EM8749 with OSU Extension.

Occasionally, a client may submit a sample to or seek advice from the Master Gardener Plant Clinic that could have implications for human health.  Examples include:  bed bugs, spiders, suspected arthropod-caused skin lesions, pesticide poisoning, poisonous plants, etc.  If this is the case, it is important to remember that Master Gardener volunteers are not permitted to offer medical evaluations, diagnoses or advice on treatment.  Instead, the client should be referred to a trained professional for these services.  Master Gardener volunteers are permitted to utilize appropriate resources to identify a plant or arthropod sample (e.g. bed bugs, poison ivy) – but not lesions, rashes or other symptoms that may have been caused by a plant or an arthropod (e.g. the bite marks or rash that could be caused by bed bugs or poison ivy).  OSU Extension faculty staff and volunteers should refer all clients seeking advice on managing any potential life/safety situations to medical or other trained professionals.

Often, the samples that are submitted to Plant Clinic make it difficult to confidently arrive at an accurate identification.  For example, the client may submit only a small portion plant foliage, or may submit a crushed arthropod sample between two pieces of tape.  If this is the case, and especially for those cases where the identity of the plant or arthropod could have implications to human health (i.e. a doctor would treat a patient who ingested a non-poisonous plant different than they would a patient who ingested a poisonous plant), it is important to use appropriate language when communicating findings to a client.  An example of appropriate language is:  “Based upon the information provided to OSU Extension and from the research conducted, it appears that this plant is a XXXXXX plant, which is listed as not poisonous.”

Master Gardener volunteers working in the Plant Clinic should be provided with continuing education and support, to ensure that they are current on information, understand appropriate resource use, recognize when they should seek additional help or support, and know that it is more important to accurately say ‘we can’t answer that question’ (for whatever reason – not enough plant material, sample to crushed to identify, no research based resources on the topic) than to provide an incorrect answer.


OSU policy for Master Gardener recommendations to clients:

  • Use appropriate research-based resources when providing recommendations.  Examples of research-based resources include the PNW Handbooks, OSU Extension Publications, other Extension publications, peer-reviewed journal articles.
  • MGs are not allowed to suggest homemade pesticides to clients. In addition to poor efficacy and potential plant injury, many homemade pesticides violate federal law. There are two laws that address this issue, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) Section 408. More information on this issue can be found here:
  • Master Gardeners are objective in their recommendations, and thus inform the client of all research-supported options:  Cultural, biological, and chemical (synthetic and organic).  Even if you do not use synthetic chemicals in your own garden, you should not exclude this option – so long as it is research-based – when making recommendations to the client.
  • Refer commercial clients to an appropriate extension agent


OSU Extension Master Gardener Program Stance on Select Gardening Topics:

As research on sustainable gardening practices continues to grow, we are learning more and more about those practices that methodologies that are backed by objective research.  Below you will find links to topics that have been reviewed by OSU faculty against the current published literature on the topic, and our current stance on what constitutes a research-based recommendation for that topic.

  • Compost Tea Policy: Research suggests that compost teas are equivalent to composts and inorganic fertilizers, as a source of plant nutrients and in their effect on plant growth. However, we are not able to make a clear recommendation on the use of compost teas as a disease suppressant.
  • Marijuana Policy:  Oregon State University and the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener program are recipients of federal funding.  Oregon State University and the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener program are also governed by the federal Controlled Substances Act, the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act.  Thus, to guard against risk of losing Federal funding and to adhere to the federal laws that govern our activities, OSU Extension Faculty, Staff and Volunteers do not provide advice or referrals on the culture, care and/or use of marijuana.