By Stacy Bronec

The Master Gardener program began in Washington state in 1973 and made its way to Montana in 1974. Since then, the program has been up and running in most counties across Montana. The classes are considered college-level courses, and some counties charge for the course, but in Chouteau County, participants only pay for the cost of the book.

“It’s a basic garden class for beginners to intermediate level gardeners,” says Tyler Lane, the Chouteau County Extension Agent. There are three levels in the program, and two of the levels are offered locally. The level one course introduces the Master Gardener program and focuses on soil health, vegetable gardening, growing trees, pruning, and more. New to the level one program is landscape design.

The course runs for eight weeks and ends with an open book test; however, a passing grade is not all that’s required. There’s a community aspect to the program. Each person must complete 20 hours of community service.

“Right now, we have 24 participants, twelve in the Fort Benton group and twelve in Big Sandy,” Lane says. “And I would guess about half will go on to the level two course.”

Lane requires at least ten students to run the class and generally offers the course just once a year in the spring.

Next year, he’ll offer level two, assuming he has enough participants. The level two course covers micronutrients and microorganisms, pesticide education, plant diseases, and more. The participants must pass a closed book test and complete 30 hours of community service to pass level two.
In Lane’s nine years running the program in Chouteau County, he says he’s had three students take the level three course.

The level three program is only offered at Montana State University in Bozeman. The student must apply and be approved by their local county agent to get into that course.

Most students take the courses because they love to garden and “want to better understand the science of gardening. And to be a better gardener,” Lane says. “We also go into the basics of tree management and how to waste less water.”

He says it also offers students a sort of community, an ability to connect with other avid gardeners. It provides them a forum to ask questions and get answers from a knowledgeable source.

Most of the classes take place in the classroom, but sometimes they go on field trips. In the past, they have gone to see fruit trees being trimmed, gaining hands-on experience.

Classes are held in Fort Benton at the Ambulance Building, and in Big Sandy, they take place at the public library.

Although classes are already in swing this year in Chouteau County, they will be offered again next year. Most counties run their classes in the spring, but it varies across the state. Lane says each participant can bring in their soil from home to be tested, and testing your soil in the spring is the best time to do that, which is one of the reasons he holds classes that time of year.

He adds with a laugh, “By the last class in the spring, everyone is itching to get out gardening.”

And with Lane’s expertise and MSU’s Master Gardening courses under their belt, their gardens will be in great shape this summer.

For more information, contact your local County Extension office, call the Master Gardener Program in Bozeman, or visit mtmastergardener.org/aboutmgprogram.