Master Gardener Vic Pirnie of Fairway advises people to climb the to the top of a building and take a good, long look.
“You can hardly see the roofs for the trees,” said Pirnie, a 70-year-old retired real estate agent.
As a master gardener, Pirnie joins an elite gardening garrison, about 400-strong in the metro area by extension agents’ estimates. The program’s goal is to educate gardeners, and the community in which they live.
Gardeners’ activities include work on demonstration gardens, horticultural hotlines and staffing seminars and shows. The local extensions are affiliated with Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, along with the United States Department of Agriculture. The national program extends into Canada.
“You wouldn’t be in the program if you really didn’t enjoy gardening,” Pirnie said.
The program rigorously educates its proteges through university professors, extension agents and varied horticultural pundits.
Missouri master gardeners will hold their statewide conference sept. 19-20 at University of Missouri-Kansas City and Powell Gardens.
Though training rigor varies from program to program, Johnson County requires 40 hours of class training and another 40 hours pf volunteer time, extension agent Dennis Patton said. Sixteen sessions span October through November. Gardeners must then continue their education and volunteer work to retain master gardening privileges.
“That’s the mission of master gardeners: to teach novices,” Patton said.
From soil to grubs
Pirnie began his gardening education with soil, he said. Then he advanced to grasses, fruits, vegetables, flowers, chemicals and – finally – grub control, he said.
Educators put a lot of emphasis on sustainable, non-toxic gardening methods, said Denny Schrock, home horticulture extension specialist at the University of Missouri. Schrock heads up Missouri’s master gardener program.
“We do a lot for cutting down the need for chemicals,” Schrock said.
Missouri extension’s approach to gardening encompasses an integrated pest management program, he said. That is, master gardeners look at pest control using the least toxic methods and the best landscape plant materials.
“We’re getting some chemicals now you can darn near drink the things,” Pirnie said. “You wouldn’t do it.”
Mostly an urban phenomena, most Missouri master gardeners are found largely in St. Louis, Kansas City or Springfield, Schrock said. Since Schrock came to MU three-and-a-half years ago, the number of the gardeners in the state doubled to nearly 1,000.
The program started in the Seattle area 25 years ago out of locals’ interest in gardening, Schrock said.
Planting the seeds
As a lifetime Kansas City gardener, Pirnie has seen the area’s greenery grow and change throughout his 70 years. He has been a master gardener since 1989.
“When I was a lad, 75th Street was the city limit,” said Pirnie, who lives in Fairway.
Among various master gardener projects in which Pirnie involves himself, he works at the Gardeners Gathering, teaching curious gardeners about flowers, grass and trees. The gathering recently took place in Prairie Village. Master gardeners work on projects throughout the region, though.
A walking repository of Kansas City’s horticultural history, Pirnie speaks from learning and experience. He remembers when Leawood was mostly apple orchards and certain developers’ affinities to various types of landscape plantings.
“J.C. Nichols used to do this,” he said. “If you drive through Prairie Village, there’s a magnolia just about every other yard.”
Pirnie also warns of the dangers of careless gardening. Some of the area’s gardeners’ sins include overplanting the same species in the same area, careless prunings and an expanding, more confident critter population.
“We’re getting out into such areas there’s getting to be a deer problem,” Pirnie said.
When there’s not enough diversity in the plant base, they become susceptible to disease, Pirnie said. When the elm beetle appeared, vast populations of landscaped elms fell to Dutch elm disease.
“There’s some things you can change and some things you can’t,” Pirnie said.
But garden shows aren’t the only education opportunity for Master Gardeners. Schrock said MU uses them for research. That is, since Columbia’s environs aren’t representative of the entire state’s, master gardeners conduct test plantings in different areas.
“I think that’s what makes master gardeners unique: it’s their affiliation with (university) extension,” Patton said.
Two master gardener projects in the region are an herb garden in Old Shawnee Town and the Deanna Rose Farmstead in Overland Park.
“There were figures that said it was the third or fourth most visited spot in Johnson County,” said Jan Willits, a master gardener who works at Deanna Rose.
The farmstead houses bobcats, buffalo, wild turkey and sunflowers.
Anywhere from 12 to 50 master gardeners can be found on Tuesday mornings to maintain the farmstead.
“The heads on these sunflowers are the size of cushions on a sofa,” Willits said.