Mastering Your Garden

The dog days of summer can be a good time to learn more about plants as part of Marion County’s Master Gardener program.

Brown turkey fig

You may already know about the Master Gardener program available throughout the United States. And if you want to expand your plant knowledge and gardening skills, then you may want to consider joining this dynamic group of volunteers.

Marion County has an especially robust program, coordinated by Jeremy Rhoden, the Urban & Residential Horticulture Agent for UF/IFAS Extension Marion County. He encourages people to participate and is proud to have more than 150 volunteers in the program. 

“You don’t have to have a green thumb to be a Master Gardener,” Rhoden notes. “We train you and give you everything you need to know. Any plant knowledge you already have is just icing on the cake.”

One of the best benefits of being a Master Gardener volunteer is learning new things about plants and then sharing that knowledge with others, offers Sheldon Grant, who began his training in 2019. 

“Growing plants, nurturing them, harvesting them, it all just made me feel really good. It’s good for me and the earth,” Grant shares. “I love to soak up the knowledge and then share that knowledge.” 

Grant gives presentations at local libraries and clubs regularly and really enjoys helping other gardeners. He says he always liked plants and began gardening as a teenager in New York with a typical vegetable garden, “tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, herbs,” and found his interest in cooking blended perfectly with growing food. As an adult, his initial interest was in vegetable gardening, and he has branched out into pollinator plants that encourage bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife to help create and populate his garden. 

Another benefit to the Master Gardener program is the opportunity to get the scoop early on research that the University of Florida and other teams have done about plants, Rhoden says. For example, UF created a new citrus tree more tolerant of the dreaded citrus greening disease that has devastated the Florida citrus industry.

Jeremy Rhoden

“Master Gardeners had the chance to receive free the Sugarbell Citrus mandarin hybrid soon after they were developed and they’ve only recently been selling to public,” Rhoden explains. 

The volunteers also learned early on that research found that citrus grown under filtered sun, such as under a canopy of pine trees, was more tolerant of greening and didn’t show the effects of the disease. 

The Master Gardener program entails an application process, background check and orientation session that is followed by 15 weeks of intensive education and training. After that, a time commitment of 75 volunteer hours and 10 hours of continuing education comes during the “internship” year. The internship year includes 20 hours of work in propagation, 20 hours of demonstrations and 10 hours in the plant clinic at the UF/IFAS office on the campus of the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala. 

“We have folks do a little of everything the first year to expose them to all facets of the program,” Rhoden notes. “Once you’re done with your initial 15-week training, you choose what activities you want to focus on. For some people, that’s working in the propagation greenhouse or in the MG plant beds. For others, that might be speaking to area groups and classrooms, educating people about plants, landscapes and gardening.”

After that first-year commitment, it’s 50 hours of time plus 10 hours of continuing education. Volunteers often donate more time, of course, because the gig is fun. Many of them do their hours during the program’s annual plant festival held in March and the summer and fall plant sales held in May and October.

The training includes field trips to local nurseries and research gardens, a mix of online and in-person classroom study and lectures, and a trip to the UF campus in Gainesville. Volunteers also receive a green polo shirt and a big training manual that outlines the classroom material. The cost for the course is currently $200 and Rhoden is hoping to adjust that fee downward soon.

The sense of camaraderie and connection with other gardeners is another benefit to the program—you can find your fellow plant people.

“I love learning, as much as I can get,” Grant says. It feels great to “help people who may have an issue or plant question.”

The overall mission, he shares, “is to educate residents on how to design, plant and care for their plants and landscapes using Florida-friendly landscaping principles.” OS

For more information, visit and You can contact Rhoden at or (352) 671-8400. He has a FAQ sheet he can send you that answers many basic questions.

A native Floridian and lifelong gardener, Belea spends her time off fostering cats and collecting caladiums. You can send gardening questions or column suggestions to her at

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