Confessions of a Master Gardener

For years, I followed a Saturday morning ritual. Walk the dog and head to the Farmer’s Market. I usually walked past the Master Gardener help table. On a few occasions, I stopped and asked a question or brought a sickly leaf for diagnosis. I always got answers and smiles. These were happy people doing what they loved.  Being an avid gardener, I thought I’d love to join the Master Gardener ranks, but becoming a MASTER GARDENER seemed intimidating and out of reach.

Master Gardener programs are volunteer programs that train individuals in the science and art of gardening. These individuals pass on the information they acquire during their training by becoming volunteers who advise and educate the public on gardening and horticulture. The first Master Gardener program was founded in 1972 by the Washington State Cooperative Extension in Seattle.

After years of wanting to become a Master Gardener, I went to a Green Spring Gardens’ information session on Master Gardening. I took up the pitch fork and joined. What have I learned? I learned I did not know as much about gardening as I thought. I learned you can’t be an expert on everything – shrubs, soil, fertilizer, propagation, vegetables, pruning and lots more. I learned that there are people who remember all the Latin names of plants.  I’m not one of them. There are those who can identify most trees.  Not me. There are Master Gardeners who are experts on weeds and native plants. I can’t say I know a great deal on these either.  What I learned most is that I don’t have to have all the answers. I can find the answers, and I know where to look. Each year, I learn more and gain confidence.

When I told family and friends that I was studying to become a Master Gardener, I became very popular.  Everyone has a lawn problem or a sick house plant. I got calls, texts, and emails filled with gardening questions. My most interesting inquiry came from my sister-in-law, who sent a text along with a picture and the comment, “This ugly thing stinks.”

2What was it? I was an informed Master Gardener and quickly texted the answer. It was a stinkhorn fungi (Phallaceae). They pop up unexpectedly, disappear as quickly, get their nutrients from wood mulch, and smell like putrid rotting meal. I felt confident and smug.  She, of course, didn’t know that just a few weeks prior, a neighbor had asked me the same question and I had researched and found the answer. She is still impressed. Dr. Joey Williamson from Clemson Cooperative Extension writes, “Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) often describe stinkhorns with adjectives such as amazing, interesting or unique. However, homeowners lucky enough to have these aromatic mushrooms suddenly appear in the yard just before an outdoor party will describe them as disgusting, shocking, foul-smelling or simply gross.” I’ve grown to like this unique mushroom.  They showed me that it’s okay to learn more as I help others.

So don’t hesitate to explore the Master Gardener program if you have an interest. There’s always someone who has as much to learn as you do.

See more about Master Gardeners at

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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