Master Gardeners Spread the Gift of Growing

By+Kathy Jonas

Sue Klepinger of Elkhart compares being a Master Gardener to a line from Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof: “When you’re rich, they think you really know!”

When you’re a Master Gardener, they think you know everything there is to know about gardening. 

The Master Gardener program, started in 1972 in Washington State, works in conjunction with local extension offices and universities, to provide intense horticultural  education and to perform volunteer work in the community. In Indiana, the program is run through Purdue University and the state extension offices.

It is estimated that there are more than 95,000 Master Gardeners in the United States who provide five million hours of volunteer service work.

“We teach people how to find the answers to the questions that are asked,” said Jeff Burbrink, Extension Educator, Purdue Extension, Elkhart County. “There’s a lot of not so good information out there, particularly online, and some of it is not necessarily healthy. There are more successful and proven methods.” For example, he said internet users often advise urine as a way to keep animals out of the garden. Burbrink does not recommend that method.

He said growing things is a lifelong learning process and the program helps people continue learning and sharing that information with others. 



The Purdue Master Gardener Program involves 13-15 weeks of training throughout the counties in Indiana, a written test and the completion of at least 35 hours of volunteer activity, according to John Orick, Purdue Master Gardener State Coordinator. Education is offered in the areas of soil, plant nutrition, plant science, weed identification and control, plant disease, and lawn care (to name just a few).

Klepinger laughs when she thinks back to her early days. She previously worked at Sautter’s Garden Center in Elkhart for 30 plus years before it closed. “Someone brought in a Staghorn Fern and I told them it was dusty and really needed cleaned up.” It turns out that particular type of fern has a natural coating on it that looks like dirt or dust. “Don’t ever fake an answer,” Klepinger added. 

Her story is kind of unusual in that she was asked to teach a class on houseplants to the Master Gardeners long before she ever became one herself.  But in 2010 she decided to take the classes and loved every minute of it. “It’s a great way to get together with people who have similar interests,” she said. “And passing on knowledge about gardening and the environment is part of our mission.”

A piano teacher now, she has at least 250 houseplants in her residence and is always looking out for new varieties, particularly cacti and succulents, which have become extremely popular the past few years. 



Donna Allen of LaPorte has been a Master Gardener since 2008. A field epidemiologist for the State of Indiana, she said it is interesting the way the two sometimes intersect. For instance, she is up on any infectious diseases, such as the West Nile virus.

She loves the volunteer aspect of the program, and, like most interviewed, works on the county’s hotline answering gardening questions. She is also involved with Habitat for Humanity. In that capacity, she said they help new homeowners tackle landscaping and gardening challenges. 

Allen also works part-time doing all the gardening at the Barker Mansion in Michigan City where she plants 3,000 flowers a year, including about 100 rose bushes. 

In Elkhart, Burbrink said the volunteers organize the annual Elkhart Master Gardener Tour, which takes place each July in different private gardens in the county. The county also hosted the Indiana Master Gardener Convention last year and brought in three nationally-known speakers and had 500 people in attendance.

Another popular volunteer activity is putting together group seminars for the winter. Subjects like flower gardening, growing vegetables or how to combat disease might be covered. Burbrink said by the time the volunteers give the seminar three times, they’re pretty good at it.

“I always tell them that they don’t have to be Katie Couric, just be a local gardener providing education. Their confidence is pretty low at the beginning.”



Betty Leverett, a former Plymouth resident, moved to the Indianapolis area and became a Master Gardener as a way to meet new people. “I like gardening and when I moved here I thought it would be a good way to meet people with the same interests.” 

Leverett said her new house was already landscaped when they moved in and it was very easy to maintain. “I found it was boring. I had no flowers to pick. So I started making more work for myself!”

Bonnie Elder, who is a Master Gardener in Michigan (through Michigan State University), enjoyed the people she met so much that she even took a trip to the most famous gardens in France with the Michigan Master Gardeners. They visited Princess Grace’s Rose Garden in Monaco, Monet’s Giverny, and stopped by Provence. 

“It was great traveling with other gardeners, getting to know people you had a lot in common with,” she said.

She got involved more to further her own education rather than the community outreach aspect. “You have the knowledge for a lifetime.”

Elder said her mother was so proud and often said: “My daughter is a Master Gardener!”

On the other hand, she said she has some friends who say: “Well, you’re a Master Gardener. Why don’t you know that?”


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