Best Online Master Gardener Programs

Further your education with an emphasis on gardening

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Photo composite of a hand shovel, a bulb plant in dirt, and terracotta pots over a green background.

The Spruce / Design by Amelia Manley

Master gardener programs train members of the community to nurture plants and offer advice to other budding gardeners on how to build a thriving garden. Certification requirements are often specific to your county, with a designated university program spearheading the education for aspiring master gardeners in each state. To achieve master gardener status, you must pass a specific set of evaluations and complete a specific number of volunteer hours. Often, you must complete ongoing education and recertification classes each year.

While you’ll need to contact your county extension office for master gardener certification instructions specific to your area, curious green thumbs worldwide can enroll in online classes to reap the benefits of the coursework—even if they can’t earn an official title at the end. From official university programs to more casual online classes, here are some of the best online master gardener programs—and a few more basic options for those who aren’t quite ready to commit to something more serious.

Best Online Master Gardener Programs of 2021

Best Overall: Oregon State Master Gardener and Home Horticulture Basic Training

Oregon State University

Oregon State University

Why We Chose It: With the option to enroll in a full course of study or purchase specific lessons individually, this set of online programs has something for every aspiring gardener—and every budget.

What We Like
  • No prerequisites required

  • Option to enroll in a full certificate course or purchase individual lessons

  • Free introductory lesson

What We Don’t Like
  • Master Gardener certification not always available

Green thumbs seeking master gardener certification will need to go through their state and county’s extension office for the specific coursework, but that doesn’t mean that Oregon State can’t offer its educational resources to students across state lines. With no prerequisite experience required, aspiring gardeners can enroll in the university’s Home Horticulture Basic Training to learn about different plant types and what environmental factors affect their growth, from soil quality to surrounding insects. The program also teaches about different garden types, such as container gardens, and touches on the basics of botany, pesticide safety, sustainability practices, and more.

Master gardener certification through this course is only available to Oregon residents, and even those who live in-state will need to check with their local extension office about additional requirements—counties require between 40 and 70 volunteer hours in addition to the coursework. But out-of-state candidates (or those who don’t wish to complete the volunteer hours) can still complete the program for a Certificate of Home Horticulture at a cost of about $500.

It’s not all or nothing, though: The Master Gardener “Short Course” option allows students to purchase on-demand lessons for $45 each, focusing on fields of study such as soil composition, vegetable gardening, plant pathology, and sustainable landscape design. Those who select this option will maintain access to the lessons for one year after purchase. If these shorter classes seem like too steep an investment, consider trying the program’s free intro course, which covers the fundamentals of gardening and outlines the role of a master gardener in their community.

Best for Organic Gardening: Cornell University Extension and Certificate Programs

Cornell University

Cornell University

Why We Chose It: This Ivy League school’s distance learning program caters to would-be gardeners worldwide with a six-week course that focuses entirely on organic gardening, offering hands-on activities, structured weekly deadlines, and flexible scheduling on reading assignments.

What We Like
  • Flexible schedule, with online discussions and weekly deadlines but no live class times

  • Emphasis on organic gardening and a “whole-systems” approach

What We Don’t Like
  • Costly at $675 per class

  • Limited class size

When residents of New York contact their county extension office about becoming a master gardener, Cornell University is generally the entity that takes it from there, providing training via local offices throughout the state and supplementing in-person learning with advanced online webinars. But the Ivy League institution offers training for plant-curious students worldwide, too, through Cornell Online.

The school’s horticulture distance learning programs cater to adult learners around the world, with hands-on activities and flexible scheduling that revolve around deadlines rather than live class times. Chief among Cornell’s online gardening programs is the six-week organic gardening course, which comes with a $675 enrollment fee and is limited to just 30 students per class.

Beginners who enroll in the course will learn the basics of organic planting, while even more experienced gardeners stand to deepen their knowledge of soil health and the whole-systems approach. Students follow a weekly reading and assignment schedule that should take about five hours per week, engaging in digital discussions with classmates along the way.

Best Master Gardener Alternative: Colorado State Certified Gardener Program

Colorado State University

Colorado State University

Why We Chose It: Those who can’t go through their local office for master gardener programs can still become an authority on gardening with the Certified Gardener program, a self-led online certificate course at Colorado State that offers an extensive guide to how plants grow, diagnostics and pest management, landscape design, and more.

What We Like
  • Similar to a traditional master gardener program without in-person volunteer requirements

  • Self-led courses

  • Ability to purchase individual segments of the coursework

What We Don’t Like
  • Could be cost-prohibitive

Colorado State is leading the way when it comes to online, fully remote training for Master Gardener candidates, with 10 weeks of core training through live and recorded webinars, Q&A sessions, and self-paced lessons before students engage in the required 50 hours of volunteering over the following year. But those who aren’t ready for such a hefty time commitment—or who simply don’t live in Colorado—can get in on the top-notch education, too.

Colorado State’s Certified Gardener Program is modeled after the same curriculum that its Master Gardener program uses, but it follows a self-guided structure and doesn’t require any volunteer hours. Sign up for individual segments (or “Quest Bundles”) that focus on specific tasks, like growing fruits and vegetables or “water-wise” landscape design, for about $110 to 150 per segment. Or you can enroll in the full program for a little more than $650 for the most extensive training in the art of gardening. Each segment has a recommended timeline for completion, but students can move at their own pace. No experience? Rest easy—there’s no application required.

Best for Low Budgets: Garden Tutor

Garden Tutor

Garden Tutor

Why We Chose It: This free online course is perfect for those who lack the budget or the advanced skills to pursue a full Master Gardener designation, covering the basics in just a few hours of instruction.

What We Like
  • Free online course

  • Accessories and tools available for purchase if desired

  • No commitment

What We Don’t Like
  • Not suitable for advanced gardeners

Not everyone interested in ultimately becoming a master gardener is quite ready for the full commitment—and that’s OK. Plant-curious folks have to start somewhere, and this free course from Garden Tutor makes a perfect primer—especially for those who lack the funds for further instruction.

The course is broken up into eight modules, from the most basic “What Is a Garden Site?" to a guide on winterizing and maintaining your garden year-round. Along the way, students will learn how to style different plants together, how to prep their planting sites, and what elements are required to install plants of all sizes.

To get the most out of this free program, consider purchasing a Master Garden Tutor Course Kit for about $40: It comes with tools such as soil pH test strips, garden layout graph paper, a compass to analyze sun exposure, and helpful guides and handbooks. Any product you purchase from Garden Tutor is backed by a 30-day guarantee, so there’s no risk in trying it out.

Best for Beginners: Skillshare

Skillshare

Skillshare

Why We Chose It: A top-notch resource for many skills, this online learning platform offers multiple video courses for gardeners who are just getting into the hobby, setting them up for success down the road.

What We Like
  • Low cost

  • Lots of options

  • Online community with other students

What We Don’t Like
  • No certificate program

If you’re interested in pursuing a new hobby but are unsure whether gardening is the right one, consider enrolling in a Skillshare course. The online learning platform offers access to thousands of online classes ranging from graphic design to flower arrangement, and its course offerings on gardening include many excellent primers for beginners.

Consider Gardening 101, a course from herbalist and farmer Geraldine Lavin. Over 10 brief lessons totaling about 45 minutes, students can tackle the basics of seed starting, learn the fundamentals of propagation, get a crash course in garden planning, and try their hand at harvesting and storing their crops. Or consider a more basic course, like Happy Houseplants: Caring for Your Plants, which helps new plant parents understand how to pot (and when to re-pot) what they’re growing indoors.

Each class generally challenges students to complete a project—in Gardening 101, for example, students propagate an herbaceous cutting—and share their results in a project gallery. Class discussions offer the opportunity for students to ask questions and troubleshoot issues, seek help from classmates, and even get direct feedback from instructors. A membership costs about $20 per month or $100 for a prepaid year, with no ongoing commitment.

Final Verdict

Students who want to be officially certified as master gardeners generally don’t have a choice in who provides the training: Universities offer statewide programs through county extension offices, and those who are serious about certification must go through the process required locally. But others who want gardening know-how without the title can enroll in the same or similar coursework at several universities around the country—and of these programs, Oregon State stood out as the top choice. Its master gardener coursework is available to students nationwide, with the option to purchase the full courseload or cobble together special interest topics for a smaller fee. The university even offers a short introductory course free of charge, making it an excellent option for gardeners of all skill levels and budgets.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Master Gardener Program?

A master gardener program is a structured course of study and accompanying set of volunteer requirements that certify an individual as an expert in gardening—and a resource for the community. Every county has different requirements, and there is generally one university in each state that offers the coursework required to become a master gardener. For this reason, students who wish to become certified as master gardeners rarely have the option to choose where they receive instruction. Those seeking the training without the title, however, can occasionally enroll in the same or similar coursework at the university of their choosing.

How Much Does a Master Gardener Program Cost?

Prices vary widely, but master gardener programs through universities generally cost between $500 and $700 for the full course. Scholarships may be available in certain localities for eager gardeners who do not have the funds for the course but who wish to use their training to volunteer in the community. Gardeners with smaller budgets might consider taking one course at a time or enrolling in less expensive online classes, which may not come with the same certifications.

What If I Don’t Feel Ready for a Full Master Gardener Program?

Master gardener programs are best for those who are already very passionate about plants and are committed to volunteering at the local level. But that doesn’t mean that more entry-level gardeners should abandon their hopes for a green thumb. Consider enrolling in less expensive beginner-level courses, like those listed here from Garden Tutor or Skillshare, to get a feel for whether a more serious gardening journey is right for you.

How We Chose the Best Online Master Gardener Programs

Those seeking master gardener certification generally have little choice in where they enroll in classes, as local extension offices usually work with a specific university to train potential candidates. With that in mind, to make this list of online master gardener programs, we considered what plant-curious students who are seeking master gardener programs might be looking for—high-level instruction, hands-on gardening exercises, or even just more information about the fundamentals of the field—and looked at online programs that offered those elements, with or without the master gardener distinction. We also looked at less intensive courses of instruction for budding gardeners who are still finding their calling.

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