October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB4

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Extension Master Gardeners Valued by Teachers in School Gardening Programs

Elementary school teachers experienced in the use of gardening as an interdisciplinary teaching method responded to a national School Gardening Survey and structured interviews. They indicated a widespread use of Master Gardeners to address two specific school gardening needs: (a) the need for horticultural and gardening information provided by a horticultural expert, and (b) the need for volunteer help when engaging in school gardening activities with students. Of the surveyed respondents, 43.6% indicated that they used Master Gardeners in either one or both of these capacities. Respondents also indicated a high interest (49.6%) in obtaining Master Gardener training.

Laurie DeMarco
Internet address: ldemarco@vt.edu

Diane Relf
Internet address: pdrelf@vt.edu

Alan McDaniel
Internet address: alanmcd@vt.edu

Department of Horticulture
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia


Elementary school teachers can use the process of growing plants and gardening as a vehicle to present an interdisciplinary curriculum to their students. Teachers find the use of school gardening assists students in learning and understanding new ideas within the context of the real world and through participation in the learning process (DeMarco, 1997; Johnson, Wright, and Alexander, no date; Ocone and Pranis, 1983; Sarver, 1985).

Elementary school teachers may use school gardening to improve student academic and social achievement, to provide a hands-on learning experience that reaches across the curriculum, to furnish a forum that provides opportunities to learn such positive social qualities as nurturing life and responsibility, and to encourage students to expand their appreciation of the living world around them. The interdisciplinary nature of school gardening shows promise as a teaching strategy to enhance student learning and to expose students to the learning available through the process of growing plants.

To effectively use gardening and growing plants in their curricula, elementary school teachers can access a multitude of information sources concerning gardening with children provided by the professional horticulture community. Information can be accessed from horticulture periodicals (Waters, 1993), Cooperative Extension and 4-H programs (Whiren, 1995; McKenna and Barber, 1987), Master Gardeners (Alexander, North, and Hendren, 1995; Gao, Bumgarner, and Buettner, 1995), private education companies (Lucas, 1995), garden clubs, garden centers, arboreta and botanical gardens (Bowles, 1995), and horticulture associations and societies (Heffernan, 1994; Pranis and Cohen, 1990; Ocone and Pranis 1983; Stiles, Williams, and Pettigrew, 1994). In addition, horticultural therapy programs provide information on gardening with special needs children (Relf and Dorn, 1995). Educational periodicals and journals are also excellent sources of structured activities using plants and gardening for learning (Gerber, 1995; Griffin, 1992; Johnson, Wright, and Alexander, no date; Simpson, 1988; Smith, 1991; Smith, 1995; Sunal and Sunal, 1991).

The Study

A study of teachers from 315 elementary schools who received a Youth Gardening Grant from the National Gardening Association in the 1994/95 or the 1995/96 academic year was conducted using a mailed, national School Gardening Survey (SGS) (with 236 respondents; 77% response) and structured, personal interviews with selected teachers from the study population (28 participants). The SGS contained 23 questions and the interviewed teachers were asked 10 questions focusing on factors that determine the successful use of school gardening in the elementary school curriculum (currently unpublished data). The element of this study of specific interest to readers of this journal describes the SGS and interview results that specifically address the use of Master Gardeners and other Cooperative Extension resources, including 4-H clubs, 4-H educational materials, and Extension agents, at these elementary schools.

Study Results

The SGS indicated that teachers were accessing a variety of resources to meet their school gardening information and volunteer needs. Master Gardeners were reported by 43.6% of the respondents to be used as either a source for expert horticultural and gardening information or as a source of volunteer help to assist in school gardening activities (Table 1). The use of Master Gardeners indicated that some teachers were aware of the availability of this particular form of expert help for horticulture or gardening information and volunteer assistance. The 55.9% of the teachers who did not access this resource may not have known about Master Gardeners or have had access to them.

Table 1
Use of Master Gardeners (MG) as expert or volunteer
help by respondents to the School Gardening Survey (N = 236).
MG help Frequency Percent
MG as both expert and volunteer 74 31.4
MG as expert only 23 9.7
MG as volunteer only 6 2.5
No MG assistance 132 55.9
No response 1 0.4

Cooperative Extension agents were used as sources of horticultural information by 36% (Table 2) of the respondent teachers. Cooperative Extension is responsible for administering and providing Master Gardener training and 4-H club organization and leadership for the community. When all Cooperative Extension programs were consolidated, the SGS responses indicated that 66% of the teachers were using Cooperative Extension services as sources of expert horticultural information or volunteer assistance in their school gardening endeavors (Table 2).

Table 2 The use of Cooperative Extension services (Extension Agents, 4-H
clubs and educational materials, and Master Gardeners) for
school gardening assistance by respondents to the School
Gardening Survey (N=236).
Use of Extension services Frequency Percent
Use of Extension services 156 66.1
Agents 85 35.7*
4-H 24 10.6*
Master Gardeners 100 44.0*
No use of Extension services 80 33.9
* Not cumulative; reflects multiple category use.

Working in a school garden with a group of students often requires the assistance of additional help to manage gardening activities and maintain productive student behavior. Volunteers can provide an adequate adult-to-student ratio and help teachers facilitate successful school gardening projects. This help can come in such forms as volunteer parents, senior citizens, garden club members, Master Gardeners, or interested community members. This intergenerational interaction can lead to better communication and understanding between generations (Sarver, 1985). Parents and older students were indicated as the most accessible and engaged sources of volunteer help, but Master Gardeners were also used by many teachers to assist in school gardening activities (33.9%, Tables 1 and 3). Comments provided by SGS participants also described the use of Master Gardeners in school gardening programs.

"Our Master Gardeners have done a wonderful job of helping our school to have a good gardening program. They began by starting a butterfly garden and have expanded to have class gardens, differing types of gardens, gardens begun at different times of the year, planting trees and landscaping the school grounds, and giving tremendous support to our 4th grade girls science club which started a bird sanctuary and which is trying to plant black alders and marsh mallows to help a wetland to develop in the bird sanctuary. This program has been tremendously exciting for our teachers and students alike!" (Comment from SGS)

Table 3
Percent of School Gardening Survey respondents that accessed
corresponding sources of volunteer assistance for school
gardening activities (N = 236)
Volunteer Help Percent
Interested parents 80.4
Older students from school 52.3
Master Gardeners 34.0
Garden club members 17.9
Senior citizens 17.0
High school students 16.2
4-H Club members 10.6
University students 8.1
Note: Percentages are not cumulative

Maintaining school gardens during summer months was a concern for many educators using school gardening in the curriculum. Surveyed teachers (49.3%) stressed the inadequacy of their current summer garden maintenance programs. Master Gardeners were involved in school garden summer maintenance at 7.2% of the surveyed schools.

The majority of the surveyed teachers (92%) felt that additional training was needed to augment their use of school gardening in the curriculum (Table 4). Most of the surveyed teachers (85.1%) indicated they were using their own gardening knowledge as a source of information when using school gardening in the curriculum (data not presented). These teachers (69.1%) indicated that they were most interested in the easily accessible, in-service training provided through the school system. Also, half of the surveyed teachers (49.6%) stated they were interested in the Master Gardener training provided by the Cooperative Extension Service.

Table 4
Percent of School Gardening Survey respondents interested in
obtaining additional gardening education (N = 236).
Educational forums Percent
In-service by school gardening expert 69.1
Cooperative Extension training, such as 100-hour Master Gardener Program 49.6
Continuing education credit at community college 34.3
Graduate credit at local university or college 28.0
Continuing education credit at university or college 25.4
No further training 7.6
Note: Percentages are not cumulative; reflects multiple category use.

To determine if exposure to Master Gardeners increased teacher interest in obtaining Master Gardener training, a Chi- square test was used to determine if exposure to Master Gardeners, as either a source of expertise or as school gardening volunteers, increased a teacher's interest in obtaining Master Gardener training. There was no significant relationship between these two factors.


Based in the data obtained from the SGS and personal interviews conducted with selected teachers from the study population, it can be concluded that the Cooperative Extension Service can assist teachers in their use of school gardening through (a) training of Master Gardeners to assist teachers, (b) training teachers to be Master Gardeners, and (c) promoting 4-H as a partner to learning through gardening.

A specific advanced curriculum developed to educate Master Gardeners in school gardening methods would allow Master Gardeners to assist teachers both as sources for horticultural information and as volunteers for school gardening activities. Master Gardeners could be instructed in classroom management, learning theory, and multiple ways of augmenting a school curriculum through horticulture. This additional training would expand and improve the assistance Master Gardeners provide, and it would result in greater benefits to student learning.

Master Gardener training for teachers would need to be made available when teachers could attend. Teachers should also be able to pay back their Master Gardener volunteer hours through gardening with their students beyond regular classroom activities, perhaps through 4-H clubs. This interaction between the Master Gardener-trained teacher and the students in the garden would be a valuable form of educational volunteer service. An alternative to teachers acquiring the complete Master Gardener training might be a School Gardener class to address the specific needs of teachers. This class could be conducted and taught by selected, experienced Master Gardeners and delivered to teachers through workshops or in-service training.

A partnership between 4-H and school gardening would benefit both teachers and students. The 4-H educational materials would augment the existing curriculum and provide teachers with a source for gardening activities and horticultural information. The students in the 4-H clubs themselves would assist teachers in meeting the logistical needs of school gardening, including garden maintenance and garden preparation. In addition, to assist schools specifically with summer garden maintenance, the Cooperative Extension Service could promote 4-H summer clubs on the school grounds or have a club "adopt" a school for the summer.

The use of Master Gardeners reported by the teachers on the SGS indicated that they were aware of this form of volunteer help. However, it may be in the interest of Master Gardener programs to promote their expertise to schools in general and link it to 4-H programming, which would expand the impact of Cooperative Extension and increase its visibility in the local community.


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