When you browse resources, online or other, with a gardening question, you might come across references such as “contact your local extension office” to get specific, locally pertinent information.
Almost every county in the United States has an Extension Office. They are an essential resource all gardeners should know about, with plenty of resources to take advantage of.
What Is an Extension Office?
Alongside research and teaching, cooperative extension—often referred to as extension—is the third mission of the more than 100 land-grant universities and colleges in the US. These publicly funded land-grant educational institutions offer practical, research-based information about soil, gardening, crops, pests, landscaping, and more to farmers, small business owners, consumers, families, and young people.
Extension offices are run by university staff and their programs engage numerous volunteers who are trained as part of the program and then give back to the community in the form of volunteer hours. Two well-known Extension programs are the Master Gardener Program, and 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization for farming and animal husbandry.
The History of Cooperative Extension
The origins of the Cooperative Extension go back to agricultural clubs and societies in the early 1800s. Their role was formalized by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, which expanded the partnership of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with land-grant universities to give farmers a resource for free advice, and grew to providing the public with research-based information and non-formal education.
Beyond its core area of agriculture, the services offered by Extension today include a wide array of programs: gardening and horticulture; food, nutrition, and food safety; natural resources management; energy conservation; and much more.
The program that you will most likely encounter as a home gardener is the Master Gardener Program. It was started in Seattle, Washington, in 1972, as a response to the growing public demand for answers to specific plant problems. Today there are Master Gardener Programs in all 50 US states and eight Canadian provinces.
What Services Are Provided by Extension Offices?
Because the services of the Extension Offices are tailored to the county in which they are located, they each offer a different mix of services. By the same token, the information you get from an Extension Offices is highly localized. For example, the vegetable planting chart from the Cooperative Extension in Georgia is very different from the one put out by the Cooperative Extension in Maine, a state in a different USDA hardiness zone with a considerably colder climate. And recommendations for native plants in New England are different from recommendations for North Carolina.
Services offered by an Extension Office may include:
- Information, online or on paper, such as fact sheets about plants, pests and diseases, soil and fertilization, composting, lawn care, weed control, plant and variety recommendations, and landscaping—virtually any topic that’s relevant to home gardeners in the area.
- Hotlines where you can call in your specific gardening questions
- Information booths at public events
- Educational events like workshops, webinars, plant clinics, and more
- Plant identification, both of desirable plants as well as weeds and invasive plants. If it’s an uncommon plant, you might be asked to provide a sample of that plant, which will help the Master Gardener volunteers or the Extension Office horticultural staff with the identification.
- Plant and pest disease identification and management. In addition to a detailed description of the problem you will likely be asked to provide close-up photos of the issue, and/or provide a sample of the diseased plant material or the pest. Extension Services have guidelines how samples must be submitted so make sure to check those out.
- Soil tests with suggestions for fertilizers and pH level amendments. This service is usually not performed on-site but the local Extension Office sells soil test kits, which are then sent to the university lab. The soil test kits usually come with a questionnaire where you indicate what you want to grow, for example a lawn or a vegetable garden. Based on that information, you will receive information on which nutrients and other amendments to add to the soil, at which rate, and at what time.
How to Find Your Local Extension Office
To find your county’s Extension Office, do a Google search for “extension office near me.” The search engine will take into account your geographic location and provide you with several nearby Extension Offices on a map and links to their websites. Or, see the map of land-grant universities on the website of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Clicking on your state leads you to the Cooperative Extension website where you can find the list of County Extension Offices.