The Cooperative Extension System

You're Told to Contact Them, But Who Are They?

Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners
Photo: © Marie iannotti

“Call your local Extension office.” You’ve probably heard it more than once when you you’ve asked someone a gardening question. But what exactly is an Extension office and is there one locally?

What is Cooperative Extension?

The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide educational network that is a collaboration of federal, state and local governments and a state land-grant university (A land-gran university means, among other things, that they research and teach practical agriculture).

The mission of the Cooperative Extension System is to disseminate research-based information on topics as varied as nutrition, child rearing, agriculture, horticulture, husbandry, small business and personal finance. Every U.S. state and territory has a central state Extension office at its land-grant university. Each state Extension serves its residents through a network of local or regional offices staffed by professionals in their field.

What does that Mean to a Gardener?

Since the extension system's mission is to get the results of their research out to the public, gardeners have information on everything from growing techniques, to the best plants for their particular area, to what pests to look out for at any given time. All you have to do is call, click on, or visit your local extension office and they will not only answer your gardening questions, they provide you with all kinds of fact sheets and diagnostics.

A handful of services, like soil testing and disease and pest identification, may have a nominal fee, but the rest of their information is free.

What’s a Master Gardener?

When someone recommends that you contact your local office with a gardening question, more than likely you will be talking with a Master Gardener Volunteer.

Although there are always agriculture and horticulture agents on hand, the Master Gardener Program has been around since 1972, when it was started in the Seattle, WA Extension office, as a means to train qualified volunteers to assist in answering home gardener’s questions.

Master Gardener volunteers are local gardeners who are trained by Extension and University Staff as well as local horticulture professionals, in many facets of horticulture including: taxonomy, plant pathology, entomology, cultural growing requirements, integrated pest management, wildlife control and much more. Once a Master Gardener trainee completes his or her classroom training, they are required to volunteer a designated amount of hours back to the program by answering questions on the phone and at fairs and festivals, speaking to groups, participating in display gardens and other projects as needed in their service area.

Many Master Gardener organizations offer classes throughout the year that are great opportunities to further your gardening knowledge even more.

What Exactly Does Cooperative Extension Have to Offer the Home Gardener?

Some of the services provided at your local Extension Office, often for free or a nominal charge, are:

  • Soil testing
  • Fact Sheets on cultural requirements, diseases and pests
  • Information on Frost Dates
  • Plant Recommendations by Area
  • Wildlife Deterrent Info

Most offices also have hours when you can bring in a sample of your plant problem or garden insect for identification. As mentioned, these services are generally offered for a small fee, to cover materials.

Where Is My Local Extension Office?

To find your local Extension office just click on your state on the Map of Cooperative Extension System Offices. Most local and regional office now have their own web sites and can tell you what services they offer and maybe even how you can become a Master Gardener for your area.