Editor’s note: This is the second in a series commemorating the 100th year of Cooperative Extension in the U.S.

The Cooperative Extension program is marking 100 years of providing important research-based knowledge to farmers, homemakers and young people. And for about a fifth of that time, the Extension’s Master Gardeners Volunteer Association has helped local growers put that knowledge to work in McDowell County.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Cooperative Extension program throughout the United States. McDowell County’s own Cooperative Extension is celebrating this centennial too.

One of the major programs of the local Cooperative Extension is the Master Gardener Volunteer Association. It is a group of gardening enthusiasts, professional horticulturalists and certified Master Gardeners who are devoted to promoting and sharing knowledge about gardening. If a person is having trouble growing a certain vegetable, they can turn to the Master Gardeners for advice.

“We’re the baseline troubleshooters,” said Alex Portelli, one of the Master Gardeners.

Formed almost 20 years ago, the local Master Gardener program is affiliated with the N.C. Cooperative Extension. The members participate in such projects as the community gardening at the Corpening YMCA, garden seminars and demonstrations, McDowell County Agricultural Awareness Day, school greenhouses and outreach programs, greenway landscaping, the Mountain Glory festival and Earth Day. In addition, college and camp scholarships are awarded through the program.

To become a Master Gardener, a person has to “have an active interest in gardening and a desire to share this interest with others,” according to a brochure about the program. A Master Gardener has to complete training held by the Cooperative Extension Service. The classes are taught by Extension agents, local professionals and Master Gardener volunteers. The program includes a minimum of 40 hours of instruction on horticulture (including lawns), ornamental trees and shrubs, insects, disease and weed management, soils and plant nutrition, vegetable gardening, home fruit production, garden flowers and water conservation techniques.

After graduating from the course, a Master Gardener must volunteer at least 40 hours of service. And that’s not all. To remain active as a Master Gardener, you have to log a minimum of 20 hours of volunteer service a year. You also have to get 12 hours of continuing education a year, according to Charlie Sander, one of the Master Gardeners.

“Our primary goal is to serve the public with information about horticulture,” said Sander. “There’s a lot of information available to the public. We’re expected to stay up to date.”

Both Sander and his wife Ruth have been members of the Master Gardeners program since 2001. They got their training in Forsyth County before coming to McDowell.

On Tuesday, the Master Gardeners had a booth at the Historic Marion Tailgate Market. Portelli is a retired Army colonel who has become involved with the program and is eager to help local folks grow better vegetables and flowers at their homes.

“We try to become the resident experts on anything related to gardening and then we impart that knowledge to others,” he said. “That is the kind of stuff you can learn from these classes.”

But you don’t have to be a certified Master Gardener to be a part of the program. There are also associate members too. Annual dues are $10.

The Master Gardeners program also participate in 4-H and works with local young people too.

In March 2012, volunteers with the Master Gardeners, the Early College and others helped out with the construction of the community garden at the Corpening Memorial YMCA. The YMCA started the project with a grant so that a community will have its own garden. Since then, the YMCA has rented out the 13 different plots. Vegetables are mostly grown in the community garden plots but it is up to the discretion of the groups that will rent them out too. The Master Gardeners have maintained a plot that provides produce for needy folks in the community, said Portelli.

The Master Gardens also participate in beautification projects in McDowell. For example, they have done plantings at the entrance to the Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway.

For more information, contact the McDowell County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association at 652-7874 or email mcdowellmastergardeners@gmail.com.