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What does it take to be a Louisiana master gardener? Learn, grow and get your hands dirty

Master Gardener Sarah Schoeffler. Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.
Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Sarah Schoeffler has six acres between her home and the Vermilion River, land she's been digging up and planting since 1978. Lisa Boudreaux fits flower beds around her pool and between big shade trees in her small front yard.

Juan Nieto tends roses at the demonstration garden at Ira Nelson Horticulture Center, and Babette Werner helped start the healing garden at Vermilionville.

Like their plants, their experiences look a little different, but all four share the title of Louisiana Master Gardener and a passion for gardening.

"People who like to dig in the dirt, that's some good people," Boudreaux said.

She went through the 13-week LSU AgCenter program in 2013 after she retired to take care of her parents. Retirement is a common thread among many in the Lafayette Parish Master Gardener Association, as it allows them more time to dedicate to their hobby.

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Since the state Master Gardener program started in 1994, more than 3,500 people have participated and become certified. The Advanced Louisiana Master Gardener Program debuted in 2015 and has seen more than 100 earn this status so far, according to the AgCenter.

Louisiana Master Gardeners Mary Gladney (L) and Babette Werner (R). Thursday, July 28, 2022.

Lafayette's association began in 1998, and some of its more than 150 members today are from that first class, said Nieto, current president of the LPMGA.

He completed the program in 2008 and has been helping get gardens into Lafayette Parish schools, put on Plant Fest and other activities to earn volunteer hours and spread the love of gardening to future generations.

Nieto's love for horticulture goes way back to his childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, he said.

"It's a big garden out there," he said.

Werner became a certified Master Gardener in 2010, something she'd always wanted to do.

"I retired in the spring and then took the class in the fall," she said.

She learned everything from soil science to botany to compost and more.

Louisiana Master Gardeners Paul Manuel, Maddox Miller, horticulture agent for Lafayette Parish's LSU AgCenter, Babette Werner and Mary Gladney. Thursday, July 28, 2022.

"It's a fantastic learning program," she said, holding up a huge binder of resources. "It's much more in-depth than how to make a bed."

Mary Gladney grew orchids in her home garden well before she entered the Master Gardener program in 2017. Today she's vice president and newspaper editor for LPMGA.

"I thought I knew a lot," she said.

It's about the people

What she has loved about the program is not just the new knowledge, but the people she's met and close friends she's made.

"You are automatically in a group of people who all have the same interest," Gladney said. "And then you realize you have a lot more in common other than plants."

One thing they have in common is being service-minded, as the program requires new members to earn 40 volunteer hours the first year and to maintain good standing with 20 hours each subsequent year. They earn these by serving on committees, maintaining flower beds across the parish, helping with the school garden program or other events.

Boudreaux is earning some of her hours from home, washing pots for the association to plant. She hasn't been as active as she'd like due to a health issue last year, but she still found a way.

"Everyone does what they can," Boudreaux said. "It all contributes."

Nieto has found a passion for helping children learn to grow vegetables and improve their nutrition along the way. There are gardens at nine Lafayette Parish School System schools, and students from first through seventh grades help build and maintain beds.

Lisa Boudreaux graduated from the Louisiana Master Gardener program in 2013 and continues to find sanctuary working in the gardens around her home in Lafayette. --Monday, Aug. 1, 2022

Then they come up with a meal using at least two vegetables they've grown themselves and compete against other schools in a cookoff. The winning plate is later served across the school system.

"We are definitely making an impact on the way kids eat and grow vegetables," Nieto said. "We are actually changing the way kids eat vegetables these days with this curriculum."

That aligns with the association's mission, he said, which is to help the LSU AgCenter educate the community "about the right way to do things."

It's for all ages

Schoeffler, who will be 80 in January works in her garden for a full day once a week during the summer. At the onset of August, she donned gloves and a belt holding clippers as well as plenty of sunscreen before she got to work pulling weeds.

"Gardening has taught me responsibility," she said. "It's just like a child. You have to come out here and take care of it or it will not be with you for long."

Master Gardener Sarah Schoeffler. Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

Over the decades she's changed up her beds, often leaning toward wildflowers and plants native to Louisiana, which is important to her.

"It should be important for everybody," she said. "It's what feeds our insects, which feeds our birds, feeds our lizards and rabbits."

She graduated as a Master Gardener in 2000, although she picked up gardening many years earlier when she married and got her own house.

"What else do you do but have children, cook and garden?" she said.

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How to become a Louisiana Master Gardener

The program includes meeting once a week for 13 weeks from August to October. Registration takes place each May, Lafayette class coordinator Paul Manuel said.

There are chapters to read as well as lectures and visiting speakers, whom Boudreaux called "top-notch." Graduates leave with a large handbook and skills to find answers as questions arise

"I refer back to that binder regularly," Boudreaux said. "I learned that you don't know everything. When you have a question you can find the answer."

That's the goal. Werner called the binder a resource book.

"Like anything in life, you're learning constantly," Boudreaux said.

In addition to the classes, new members have to earn 40 volunteer hours with the association the first year and 20 hours each year after. For more information, visit https://www.lpmga.org/