Volunteer Orientation to NYS Master Gardener Program Standards

The Master Gardener Program is a continually evolving program since its inception in 1975 in New York State. The development of a curriculum, learning experiences, and tutoring is different now than it was over a quarter of a century ago. Other states are experiencing changes as well. Standards for excellence to retain the integrity of a program, which is well-recognized and well-respected, mean that everyone benefits: the volunteer knows what is expected of him or her; the county can plan for a learning program; the public knows the value of a Master Gardener Volunteer in the state.

While the role of Master Gardener Volunteers is varied across the state, all roles are educational in nature.

For details on the functions of Master Gardeners, see Master Gardener Program in New York State and Master Gardener Position Description.

Policies and guidelines described in the statewide Volunteer Involvement Policy and Volunteer Orientation Manual for all volunteers in the Cornell Cooperative Extension System apply to the Master Gardener Program.

The Master Gardener Program is nationwide, but the title is neither trademarked, service marked or copyrighted to protect its integrity. Consequently others may legally use the title. America's most famous master gardener is Jerry Baker of media fame. He coined the term before Cooperative Extension began the program in states around the country. Some states have come to call their program the Master Gardener Program of Cooperative Extension. We have not done that in New York State. It might be noted, however, that all new logo approvals by Cornell in New York State say "Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension TM ." (It's the Cornell that has the TM).

We have also added wording to the Master Gardener Training Agreement to retain the integrity of the Master Gardener Program in New York State. We ask each applicant to agree before beginning the training to the following:

"At a time when I am no longer active as a Master Gardener Volunteer, I agree to refer to myself only as a graduate of the Master Gardener Program or former Master Gardener."

Selecting Volunteers

The first standard is selection.

The criteria for selecting volunteers in a program, which is well known for its unbiased, research-based information and client-appropriate delivery methods, require people who are suited to the job. The fact that Master Gardeners are volunteers does not diminish the credibility of information they provide for others, the educational role they play in the community, and the educational system they represent (Cornell Cooperative Extension and Cornell University).

Gardening has a universal appeal. Master Gardener applicants are expected to have:

In many cases, the assessment of a volunteer applicant who meets these minimum standards is a judgement call from the sponsoring county staff. It may also be based on limitations of class size. Not all qualified applicants need be accepted into a Master Gardener qualifying educational course. The ability of county staff to manage the resultant graduates of the course in meaningful volunteer experiences, in concert with the county's educational goals in home-grounds and community horticulture is an important factor in selecting an applicant.

There are two documents that an incoming Master Gardener Volunteer must sign before beginning the training. The first one (Cooperative Extension Volunteer Agreement with its accompanying Code of Conduct) is uniform for all volunteers in the Cooperative Extension System. The second one (Master Gardener Volunteer Training Agreement) is designed to help the Master Gardener Volunteer understand that the training is a preparatory step to volunteering.

Training is provided in exchange for a commitment to volunteer as a Master Gardener afterwards.


You will be asked to participate in orientation to the entire Cornell Cooperative Extension System in the county (as well as other counties, the state and the nation) is part of every volunteer's education, Master Gardener as well as other volunteers.

The Core Qualifying Course For Master Gardeners


The next standard is in the course, which qualifies individuals as Master Gardener Volunteers.

The New York State Master Gardener Manual is the core curriculum. Counties may add additional coursework, but the basic minimum expectation is mastery of the topics in the Manual.

From time to time, the manual is revised, usually, chapter by chapter. New topics are added in consultation with the Home-Grounds and Community Horticulture Steering Committee. Once a new topic is added to the manual, it is considered an additional core curriculum topic to be covered in the qualifying course. Occasionally, counties can make a convincing case that their particular county has little need to cover a particular topic represented by the chapter in the core manual. This is rare and should be carefully thought through, to be sure that the Master Gardener students get full-exposure to the topics.

The basic core curriculum in the Master Gardener Manual used in the Qualifying Course includes chapters (as of January 2002) on:

Generally the topic is covered as a lecture, however, other kinds of learning experiences are encouraged, and as long as the end result is that the trainee learns the material. The order in which topics are taught is flexible.

The time devoted to each topic is generally 2.5 hours. With general introductory sessions, minimum core instruction to qualify trainees as Master Gardener Volunteers is 45 hours. Training may be in half-day sessions or full day sessions. It may be once a week or twice a week. There are notable examples in the state where the training is 60 - 100 hours in duration.

Timing and Attendance

The day and time of core training will vary from location to location, depending on local needs. The vast majority of training is done on a pre-selected day each week, two topics per day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) for 10-13 weeks.

Attendance at the Core Training is required.

Tests for Master Gardener Students

It is important that Master Gardener students demonstrate how well they have learned the course material during the Qualifying Course.

This has traditionally been done through quizzes and exams. Sometimes the Course Host may administer the quizzes and exams, often in consultation with the instructors. The ultimate responsibility of whether a particular individual is ready to volunteer in the county rests with the sponsoring county's Master Gardener Coordinator.

Each chapter of the Master Gardener Manual starts with Learning Objectives. Almost all have Review Questions at the end of the chapter. Instructors who teach a particular topic often have specific main points that they make with the class. These are all sources of material for quizzes or the final exam. Usually quizzes are administered in the first 15 minutes before class lectures begin for the day. Speakers may have been asked in advance to provide the host site with sample questions for the quiz. Questions can also be taken directly or modified from the Review Questions at the end of the appropriate chapters. The host Master Gardener Coordinator or his/her designated proctor may have taken notes from the previous lecture as quiz questions.

A final exam at the end of the qualifying course is required to meet state Master Gardener standards. This may be in the form of a take-home exam or a designated time in class for administering an exam. A passing grade of at least 75% is expected.


The Qualifying Course for Master Gardener trainees or interns leads to Certification.

A certified Master Gardener in New York State means that he or she has the approval of the sponsoring county as a volunteer to interact with the public, representing the county association, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Cornell University. When Cornell Cooperative Extension certifies a Master Gardener, the organization has the confidence in that individual to serve credibly in a volunteer capacity.

The preferred time of certification is after successfully completing the qualifying course and a substantial enough number of volunteer hours to make the certification meaningful. A minimum time for certification is after successfully completing the qualifying course and just before beginning volunteer time. Counties with a large pool of certified Master Gardeners often choose to certify new Master Gardeners after they have completed a substantial number of volunteer hours. Counties with a small pool of certified Master Gardeners may need to certify at the earlier time, immediately following successful completion of the qualifying course. In all cases, there should be no obligation to certify any Master Gardener trainee or intern prematurely.

Extended or Advanced Training

Training or other educational experiences after the Qualifying Course will vary for each volunteer. Some will be trained in specific operations, such as diagnostic labs, demonstration gardens, public speaking or writing, while others may need periodic update on new developments in horticulture. Not all training is formal or set in a classroom. Horticultural field trips are excellent learning experiences. Tutoring or mentoring is another effective advanced training opportunity.

Lectures or workshops, which match the educational needs of Master Gardner volunteerrs are excellent opportunities to learn. Master Gardener Volunteers may attend conferences or lectures at other organizations or outside the county are usually optional, but it is wise to encourage this form of learning. Preparing a talk or write an article for others to learn about a topic is another form of advanced training, as it is a significant learning experience for a Master Gardener Volunteer to succeed in this process.

Conferences designed specifically for Master Gardener Volunteers are:

Master Gardeners are increasingly volunteering to provide educational experiences for individuals or groups with unique needs. This may include youth audiences, physically or mentally challenged persons of all ages, and older adults. When working with youth populations, it is critical to be aware of the two basic parts of 4-H youth development, which is teaching new knowledge, as well as fostering young people's learning about how to use the knowledge through experience. We encourage Master Gardeners to contact staff in the 4-H youth development office for suggestions, encouragement, and support. When working with audiences with special needs, we encourage advance preparation in terms of both awareness of tools adapted to enhance the learning experience and training to enhance sensitivity to working with this audience. Where that special training is not immediately available, it is recommended that the Master Gardener work in an apprentice mode with others who have the experience and skills.

Some of the material for Master Gardeners has been developed in other states (Minnesota http://www.mg.umn.edu),Arizona, Ontario Canada, probably with more coming). How the Master Gardener relates to his or her classmates (future co-volunteer) is an important part of the Master Gardener training. How the Master Gardener relates to the county MG Coordinator is another important part of the training. Neither of those can be observed if a learner is getting his or her information on-line. There may come a day when this has become a better understood method and may be approved to qualify for becoming a Master Gardener. That time has not arrived yet in New York State. On-line or distance learning is quickly becoming a wonderful way for an individual to learn for his or her own purposes, but the Master Gardener training is a precursor to volunteering. University of Connecticut has an online home study course for home and garden pest management at http://www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/frame2.htm Cornell has at least one relevant on-line learning course on advanced propagation, grafting. It is located at http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/hort494/graftage/ Another tutorial on IPM is worth reviewing for advanced learning at http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/facts-slides-self/core-tutorial/module11/index.html

Recording Volunteer time

Counties may set a minimum number of pay-back hours for their Master Gardener Volunteers. The average expected volunteer time in counties of New York State for each Master Gardener is 50 hours a year.

Master Gardener volunteers are expected to keep track, in the NYS Master Gardener Service Diary, of the time they volunteer in different capacities in the Master Gardener Program.

You may use the standard statewide "Record of Educational Experiences" as a way of tracking the time spent in core/advanced/extended/continuing education.

The records you keep on advanced or extended training either at Cornell Cooperative Extension or through other organizations should be kept separately as they are not considered pay-back or volunteer time.

To recognize volunteer pay-back time, there are available to all counties in the state Master Gardener Pins, representing:

  • Green Pin - 50-70 hours (equivalent to one year of service)
  • Red Pin - 70-350 cumulative hours (equivalent to 2-5 years of service)
  • Blue Pin - 350-700 cumulative hours (equivalent to 6-10 years of service)
  • White with Gold Trim Pin - over 700 cumulative hours (equivalent to more than 10 Master Gardener Years of service).

Volunteering at Other Organizations

Master Gardener Volunteers are encouraged to share their talents with other organizations as a means of participating in their community. Sometimes Cornell Cooperative Extension enters into a formal partnership relationship with other organizations, sometimes other organization actively seek individual Master Gardeners, and yet other times Master Gardeners volunteer for more than one organization -- sometimes with similar horticultural projects.

It is expected that county policies or guidelines on how Master Gardeners' account for these overlapping experiences are in concert with state standard. The statewide standard is that:

Master Gardener Volunteers may account to Cornell Cooperative Extension only for volunteer projects that support Cooperative Extension's mission and objectives.

Cornell Recommendations Record Book

In reaching out to gardeners in the community, we often give recommendations for caring for plants in the home or community garden. A special bound book in the county: Cornell Recommendations Record Book" is designed to staff and volunteers to use. Record the following information with each recommendation you give:

Briefly state the problem or the question. Be as precise as possible without going into unnecessary detail. Example: Houseplant is too brief; Leaves yellowing on Swedish Ivy in a hanging pot is more precise.

Recommendation should be approved information from resources and references in the office. Where research based information exists, it must be shared.

Resources used: There is a checklist for your convenience. Fill in title and date of publication. If another source is used, it can be written in the Recommendation section. A website is a reference. Use the entire website address (URL) and subheading for the record.

These records are periodically reviewed and may be useful in determining the frequency of types of calls or serve as a reminder of the transaction.

In most cases you are sending the client a factsheet or photocopy of what you recommended. If you need to send a copy of the record you filled out, be sure to photocopy it.

Disseminating Research-Based Information

In the Master Gardener Training Agreement,

You are asked to agree to disseminate research based information and refrain from giving out information from personal gardening experience that could be construed by the public to be an official statement from Cornell.

We do not ask Master Gardeners to leave their gardening experiences at the door and ignore them. However, there are many occasions when a practice that we are used to doing under our own environmental conditions or circumstances is not applicable to others. If research has been conducted and shown that there is confirmed evidence that differs from your experience as a Master Gardener (or staff), it is expected that the research-based information be disseminated.

Cornell's horticultural standard is ecologically-sound practices.

That usually means recommending environmentally friendly practices before any harsher method. When using "Pest Management Around the Home, Parts I and II", for instance, this means quoting information in Part I (Cultural Methods) before quoting information in Part II (Pesticide Information). Other research-based information may be less environmentally sensitive.

Information generated from Cornell that Master Gardeners are expected to disseminate can be from printed or electronic sources. Bulletins and factsheets from Media Services, the IPM Program, Departmental publications (e.g. Department of Horticulture), NRAES and the Center for the Environment are all printed resources. In addition, the evolution of electronic, web-based publications is rapid and may be difficult to keep pace with. To minimize confusion for Master Gardeners and county Horticulture staff, the state office of Home-Grounds and Community Horticulture incorporates (or "links") relevant web-based publications from various departments on campus (e.g. Horticulture, Entomology, Plant Pathology, Natural Resources, Center for the Environment, Horticultural Sciences at Geneva, county horticulture programs, other university gardening websites, etc.) into a "Gardening Resources" website address (URL), http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/ The same information is also available in specific host websites. It may also be linked to a NYS county's CCE website. A more interactive website (a searchable, guided database of flower and vegetable plants for ecologically sound selection, videos to show proper, environmentally-conscious lawn care, and feature "articles" that highlight a family garden, color and texture in the garden) http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/ was introduced in December 2001. Both "Gardening Resources" and "Explore Home Gardening" are accessible through http://www.gardening.cornell.edu

Master Gardeners should be aware that the maintenance of county factsheet libraries is an ongoing and time-consuming task. It is expected that a Master Gardener volunteer will question the validity and current usability of old factsheets, especially those that still designate chemicals. Chemical pesticide recommendations change over time and current information to the public is always required. Occasionally there are even new cultural recommendations. We no longer recommend painting tree wounds or making flush cut pruning of tree limbs, for instance. If a factsheet on file in the county office contradicts a more recent lecture or workshop, feel free to question the older information.

Resources on file from commercial organizations may also be questioned. Some are acceptable, but others are blatantly self-serving. Resources from other states with different soils, weather conditions and laws should be disseminated only with approval from the appropriate county staff. Opinions from authors in books, newspaper and magazine articles may also be questioned. Some may be valid opinions, based on research; others may be couched in terms of preference or convenience. Some may be downright wrong. Err on the side of caution when a resource of questionable validity is available. Much that passes for fact in the world of gardening is nothing more than personal information.

How do we justify a Cornell Cooperative Extension mission that promotes research-based information and experience? The experience that was intended in the mission statement is "community experience." That means that there is often community wisdom that is valid and has not had the benefit of research. Horticultural communities may not necessarily be geographically connected. Horticultural communities could be regional or national. [Horticultural] community experience is different from personal experience. It is collective and validated by a broad sector of the community. Again, when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

It is perfectly acceptable to offer a wide range of interpretations (from credible sources) on an issue. For instance, you might say that the University of Wisconsin says one thing, the University of Texas says something else and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden says something else. If Cornell has published or can be quoted on the issue, of course, that should be part of the message.

Plant Sales and Educational Event Fund-raisers

The most common type of fund-raisers for the Master Gardener Program in New York State are plant sales. At these events, there are generally excellent opportunities for educating the buyer at point-of-purchase on proper selection and care of plants for the home and garden. Frequently, Master Gardeners propagate plants from the excess or overgrown plants at home, pot them up and bring them in as merchandise for sale. These kinds of gifts for the fund-raiser are tax-deductible at a fair estimate of their value.

There is often a real or perceived conflict with commercial growers to hold a Master Gardener plant sale fund-raiser. The county's policy on purpose and type of fund-raiser may consider the impact then Master Gardener event might have on the relationship CCE has with the horticultural industry. In some cases, nurseries and other commercial vendors are invited to sell at the same Master Gardener fund-raising plant sale. County policy prevails on that element of a sale as well.

Educational events (e.g. Gardening Days, multi-county public conferences, educational bus trips) also generate revenue. Registration fees, books, plant or product sales by vendors at these events need county approval as well. A clear and consistent agreement between the Master Gardener Program and the county CCE Association on the destiny of proceeds for this kind of event needs to be drawn.

Check county policy on door prizes, raffles or other activities involving the element of chance, especially those that could be construed as gambling.

The county policy for approving the fundraiser, disbursing funds and reimbursing expenses apply. The county's policy on disbursing funds raised is perhaps the most important element for all volunteers involved with the event to understand. The policy may vary from county to county. If multi-county events are planned, take time to discuss the differences among the counties involved.

In general, differing county policy on disbursement of proceeds fall into the following categories:

Note that in some counties, Master Gardeners or other volunteers may not be permitted to conduct fund-raisers at all (eliminating any question about disbursement).

Where the county CCE has approved Master Gardener administration of proceeds, the volunteer and the staff Master Gardener Coordinator responsible for the program generally determines how these funds are spent to enhance the educational nature of the Master Gardener Program (e.g. reference books, educational field trips, awards for excellence, etc.).

Using the Master Gardener Emblem

The NYS Master Gardener Emblem is an easily recognized symbol of a successful program. Its use is subject to the same principles and guidelines of all Cornell emblems and symbols, as described in the CCE Volunteer Orientation Manual, under the heading of "Using Official Names and Artwork."

Active and Inactive Master Gardener Volunteers

The status of Active Master Gardener has historically been a difficult status to define. Counties set standards for active, veteran and inactive status. In essence, however,

a Master Gardener Volunteer is "active" when he or she is still providing volunteer services as a Master Gardener for the county.

A statewide minimum standard for veteran Master Gardeners to remain active is to keep up with updated information (usually discussed at meetings and advanced training) AND at least 30 hours of volunteer service per year.

The county may put some formerly active Master Gardeners on an "inactive" status, where they can be more easily contacted by mail of phone for special reasons. Counties are not required to have such a formal "inactive" list.

Updated 5/29/2002
Effective date: Sept. 1, 2001
Revised slightly: February 18, 2002
prepared by: Charles P. Mazza
New York State Master Gardener Office
15F Plant Science Bldg.
Department of Horticulture
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853