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Who do we think we are, anyway?

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

by Jim Davis

My mother was a great gardener, and I inherited her love of nature and plants.  Routine things such as establishing a career and helping raise a couple of children delayed my full attention to this love, but soon after retirement from both endeavors I discovered Master Gardeners and applied to take the Class. In my interview, required here in the County for prospective members, I had a question even before anyone had a chance to ask me one:  “How can one become a master of gardening in only a few short weeks?”  This must have been taken as an attempt at humor, as not one of the interviewing committee responded.  (No one laughed, either.)  Nevertheless, I was accepted. 

I still don’t think I’ve become a master of gardening, and I’ve never ceased feeling a little uneasy using the term master applied to myself as a gardener.  Can my experience be different from other Master Gardeners?  Apparently not.  If you Google the term, you’ll see that many would find “Extension Volunteer” more accurate for our organization, and that it would erase any resentment harbored by some unit members or the public

When David Gibby of Washington State University Cooperative Extension founded the Master Gardener program in 1973, no doubt he wanted the organization to sound worthwhile and chose the term master over any other.  But what, exactly did he have in mind?  Surely most of us would readily accept that the term master gardener denotes an experienced and educated gardener who has attained more knowledge than the average person about gardening.

But master has many meanings.  Would you say that in our case it means the same as master in “master’s degree”?  I’d think not quite.  How about “one who has consummate skill in, say, playing the tuba”?  Maybe that’s a bit too strong a term.  In the eighteenth century (and beyond), master could refer to a grade-school teacher, hence the term headmaster for the official we call principal.  Well, that makes pretty good sense, inasmuch as we are charged with teaching the public sound gardening practices.  Unfortunately, not many of the public are aware of that obsolete meaning.  (If they were, would our Extension agent Tom Stanley be called “headmaster”?)  And a boy too young to be called mister is still sometimes “master”; The skipper of a merchant vessel is the master; and nowadays, who sleeps in the master bedroom?  A worker or artisan qualified to teach apprentices, as in “master plumber” seems to fit pretty well, unless it suggests, for some, merely a step above handling wrenches—or hoes.

I tend to agree with Dr. Gibby’s (apparent) choice of words.  I’m inclined to think that our public construes Master Gardeners as folks who are quite capable, and if the term sounds a bit grand, well, perhaps we’ve earned the honor. I’ll bet we can trust our newly formed publicity committee to convey the idea that we’re not trying to be highfalutin’ but that we can be respected while down to earth, and yet figure out what’s eating the plants.

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