When Lou Horton retired from a career in education, he promised himself he'd learn about gardening and share that knowledge with others.
The West Chicago man has kept that promise. Now in his 13th year as a University of Illinois Extension master gardener, he works at the DuPage County office's help desk and at events fielding questions about everything from the emerald ash borer and garden pests, to when to plant vegetables in the spring and whether the harsh winter did permanent damage to lawns and trees.
Master Gardener Help DesksThe DuPage County Master Garden Help Desk is at 1100 E. Warrenville Road, Naperville, and is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, May through October. Gardeners may come with their questions, call (630) 955-1123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
During May, mobile Help Desks will also be at the following locations:
• Naperville Community Gardeners Plant Sale in Naperville, 7 a.m. to noon May 10
• SCARCE Get Your Garden Growing event in Glen Ellyn, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 10
• West Chicago's Blooming Fest in downtown West Chicago, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 17
• Lake View Nature Center worm display in Oakbrook Terrace, noon to 4 p.m. May 17
• Roselle Park District Garden Club Plant Sale in Roselle, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 17
• Itasca Public Library in Itasca, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 24
"I love to talk and think about gardening," Horton said. "I thoroughly enjoy sharing information and exchanging ideas with other gardeners."
It's a sentiment shared by DuPage County's 123 master gardeners, who go through rigorous training and then volunteer their time helping others.
"My master gardeners amaze me, the amount of time they give and their enthusiasm," said Sarah Navrotski, program coordinator for the The DuPage County Master Gardener program. "It's a really popular program."
Still, many people don't understand what master gardeners do, Navrotski said. Sure, they know a lot about plants, but they're not people just acquiring knowledge for themselves, she said. Volunteering their expertise to the community is a required part of the master gardener title.
"I have a love of gardening and I like to volunteer. It seemed like a really good fit to serve the community in a different way," said Deb Hornell of Glen Ellyn, now in her sixth year as a master gardener.
Training to volunteer
Those who apply to be master gardeners go through an interview process before being accepted into training.
"Some gardening background is nice, but it's not absolutely required," Navrotski said.
Those accepted in the program go through 12 weeks of training -- learning about everything from soil to botany -- in classes taught by University of Illinois educators from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. once a week. The training costs $250.
The next unit training for DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties will be in the fall in the DuPage office, 1100 E. Warrenville Road, Naperville.
During the first year, the master gardener interns must do 60 hours of volunteer work. After the first year, master gardeners are required to put in 30 hours of volunteer work and take 10 hours of continuing education annually.
Spring and summer are the busy season for master gardeners, but the volunteer opportunities are far-ranging and some continue year-round.
In addition to the help desk open at the extension office from spring through fall, master gardeners may staff mobile help desks at libraries and community events, give presentations, serve on a speakers bureau and teach a program on worms in third-grade classrooms.
They work in community gardens in Naperville and Downers Grove to grow vegetables for food pantries and work with special-needs children and students through NEDSRA, Downers Grove North High School and Easter Seals.
Master gardeners also help maintain gardens and grow crops in public areas, such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago, Graue Mill & Museum in Oak Brook and the Clock Garden in Wood Dale.
Another place to volunteer is the DuPage Convalescent Center, where master gardeners help elderly and disabled residents grow produce in raised beds and help beautify the grounds. Gail Sanders, a second-year master gardener from Carol Stream, said that's her favorite spot to volunteer.
"Volunteering at the DuPage Convalescent Center is very rewarding because you are working directly with residents a lot of the time," Sanders said. "They're very appreciative."
All sorts of questions
Like all master garden interns, Sanders worked at the help desk at the extension office her first year, but said she found it challenging.
"There's so much to know about gardening, and you have no idea what people are going to come and ask," she said.
Hornell said she gets stumped at the help desk "all the time," but that's when she turns to the extension's reference library.
"We've been trained to ask a lot of questions and not to feel we have the answer immediately," she said. "I love those conversations we have with people about what they're trying to do in their garden."
Hornell said she gets a lot of questions about lawns, pest management, vegetables, perennials, trees and shrubs.
This year, because of the harsh winter, she and other master gardeners are hearing concerns about snow mold on grass (a fungus that makes the grass look dead), and the survival of other plants and trees.
But the plants may just need more time because spring is about three weeks later than usual, Navrotski said. In many cases, the snow actually acted as a protective cover for the garden.
"I think people worried about losing a lot over the winter are going to be pleasantly surprised," he said.
Over the years, Horton said he has seen increased interest in growing vegetables and in gardening itself.
"I suspect it's the fastest growing hobby in the country," he said.
Concerns about safe food and use of pesticides have added to the interest. People want to know what plants to grow in the right places, Navrotski said.
"There's a push for sustainability," she said. "People are thinking more environmentally."
Master gardeners get some unusual questions as well. Horton recalled a man who brought in a piece of treated lumber that had what appeared to be a drill hole in it. The hole was made by carpenter bees.
"He couldn't understand why the bees could do that," he said.
Gardeners are welcome to bring plant samples or insects to the help desk at the extension office, but they're also welcome to email photos to email@example.com or call the help desk at (630) 955-1123.
Help desk hours for the rest of the growing season, May through October, are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Messages may be left at other times and a master gardener will get back to the caller.
Information about gardening and how to become a master gardener also is on the website at web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk.