Access to fact-based gardening information is only a click or phone call away.
The Cooperative Extension System—housed at land-grant universities across the nation—provides research-based hyperlocal advice about everything from how to solve blossom-end rot on tomatoes to keeping garden pests such as deer or insects at bay.
“Best of all, it costs nothing to contact your local extension office, where trained and educated experts can help the public solve their gardening challenges,” says Doug Steele, vice president for Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, based in Washington, D.C. “Extension is designed to educate Americans on food, agriculture and national resources. It’s research-based and continuously updated and revised based on the latest knowledge.”
Gardeners have countless questions: Will blueberries grow in my backyard? Why don’t my daylilies bloom? When is the best time to prune holly? Why is my maple tree dropping leaves in the summer? How can I attract more butterflies and pollinators? What perennials grow best in my area?
“When you have questions about your landscape or your garden, that’s the time to reach out to your extension office,” Doug says. “Many problems that occur when growing plants, garden and landscape can be prevented by planning before planting. We call our local extension agents ‘curators of information on the front lines’ for farmers, ranchers, gardeners and communities. Through our national network, these on-the-ground agents are among the first to learn of new technologies and techniques, and bring them to their local areas.”
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture—a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—regularly funds grants to university scientists and specialists who research crop varieties, diseases, pest control and sustainable growing.
Research is shared throughout the extension network and adapted by each state’s land-grant university.
Local extension agents generally hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees in agriculture, horticulture or a related field. While they may specialize in crop management, turf grasses or animal science, they are trained to educate the public and provide reliable and understandable knowledge.
“The internet is filled with all kinds of gardening and plant advice, but when people call their local extension, they’re assured of getting the latest information from a tested, peer-reviewed and reliable source,” Doug says, noting statewide extension websites maintain free detailed publications for download on hundreds of topics, written in easy-to-understand language, with diagrams.
Many extension offices offer community education classes taught by experts through Master Gardener programs open to citizens interested in garden education, volunteerism and community service.
“The focus is to train community members to assist the local extension office with horticulture education and to provide a strong volunteer resource,” Doug explains.
Master Gardener groups conduct youth programs in schools, create educational community gardens and sponsor annual plant sales. They offer seminars and provide speakers for garden clubs and groups.
Once they complete their studies and pass exams, candidates become certified Master Gardeners. In exchange for their training, they must volunteer 75 hours.
“The Master Gardener program is a critical link to the work of the extension,” Doug says. “It helps us reach even further into the community and extend the educational mission of extension.”
The federal government created land-grant universities in 1862 to address public needs related to agriculture. In 1914, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formalized this partnership to further address rural and agricultural issues.
Today, 112 institutions in the U.S. and territories oversee extension offices in 3,000 counties. The mission has been broadened to include nutrition and home economics. Through national 4-H initiatives, extension trains young leaders.
Since the pandemic, interest in home gardening has surged. People want to grow their own fruits and vegetables—partly to know where their food comes from, but also as a safe outdoor activity that can be enjoyed by all family members.
“Information from extension is far-reaching and freely available to the public,” Doug says. “With the resources of your local extension office, you have a pipeline to gardening success. If you’re perplexed about an issue or simply want to know the best way to start a home garden, just ask your local extension office. They’re here to help.”
For more information about Florida Cooperative Extension, visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu. For Master Gardener information, visit https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/mastergardener.