35 years as a master gardener

Mary Stoel has been recognized for 35 years of service as a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener. She was a master gardener in Oklahoma before returning to Minnesota in 1988 and becoming a master gardener here. Photo by Kyle Kuphal

As long as there have been Pipestone County Extension Master Gardeners, Mary Stoel has been one of them.

The University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension Master Gardener volunteer program started in 1977, according to the U of M. The Pipestone County Master Gardener program started 11 years later in 1988.

“I was in that class,” Stoel said.

Stoel said she was first a master gardener in Oklahoma. She was interested in the program because she’d gardened her entire life and, at the time, she worked in a locally owned feed store that sold plants, trees, shrubs, garden seeds and other items of that nature, and thought being a master gardener would help her better serve her customers. She and her husband, Bernard, then moved back to Pipestone County in 1988 when the opportunity arose to farm on her family farm near Trosky where they still live today.

“I’m gardening in the same garden I gardened in since I was a little girl in the ‘50s,” said the 78-year-old.

After they returned to Pipestone County, she saw an advertisement in the paper for the master gardeners and decided to take the class to be a master gardener here.

“I took it again because Minnesota’s classes were a little bit different than Oklahoma,” Stoel said. “There we learned about peach trees and pecan trees and different things.”

To become a master gardener, she took a class at what is now Minnesota West Community and Technical College. It included at least 40 hours of classroom instruction provided by U of M staff. Stoel said people came from around southwest Minnesota to take the class. They learned about soil, trees, shrubs, fruits, vegetables, flowers, lawns, trees and more. Stoel said the class structure is basically the same today, but it’s done online for those outside the metro area.

To become a certified master gardener, participants have to volunteer 50 hours during their first year on projects and events that deliver horticulture education and information to the public, and complete five hours of education. They’re considered an intern until then.

To maintain their active master gardener status, participants must complete at least 25 hours of volunteering and five to 12 hours of continuing education each year, depending on their county. Stoel said Pipestone County Extension requires five hours of continuing education each year.

Being a master gardener involves sharing gardening best practices that promote healthy landscapes, healthy foods and healthy lives, according to the U of M. One very visible project taken on by the Pipestone County Master Gardeners in recent years is the plantings at Hansen Park at the corner of Main Street West and Eighth Avenue S.W. in Pipestone. Stoel said the master gardeners donated all the plants from their own gardens.

They also hold a tree sale on Arbor Day every other year, have a plant sale each May, and have a presence at the Pipestone County Fair in August. In the next couple months, they will offer a gardening 101 class in March and a tree grafting workshop in April.

Stoel said master gardeners are also happy to answer questions about gardening. Anyone with questions can reach them through the Pipestone County Extension Office at 507-825-1190.

She said gardening is a great way to spend time. It provides an opportunity to get fresh air and sunshine, it can be done with children or grandchildren, and there’s always more to learn. Stoel said her love of gardening and the opportunity to always learn more is part of what’s kept her with the master gardeners for 35 years.

“I love to watch a seed grow, I love to plant a seed,” she said. “It’s just a little miracle. You plant this little tiny thing in a little pot and then you plant it in your garden and it’s just amazing what you get out of it. To me, it’s like working with little miracles. And I love to learn new things and there’s always something new to grow and try, and it’s very nice to help someone else succeed at their garden or help them through a problem. It’s nice to see them succeed and to help people along the way. You meet other gardeners, you meet new friends, and I think we’re here on the earth such a short time — we need to take care of it. We need to take care of the earth and each other, and this is a way for me to be able to do that.”

There are currently six active master gardeners in Pipestone County and one intern taking the class. Those interested in becoming a master gardener, can visit extension.umn.edu/master-gardener/become-master-gardener to learn more and apply. Applications are accepted Aug. 1 through Oct. 1 and the core course begins in January.