Becoming a Master Gardener Volunteer

This article first appeared in The Times-Herald Record on Saturday, February 16, 2019 in the Home & Garden section.

By Joe Gregoire, Orange County Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County

What made you decide to become a Master Gardener Volunteer and how do I know if the program is right for me?  – Jackie from Port Jervis

A vegetable garden: leeks, trelised cherry tomatoes, rosemary, parsley, marigoldsI love this question and I’m asked often why I became a Master Gardener.  As I’m a mid-career professional with a full-time job that occupies much of my time, people I work with are often curious how I have time and energy during the week to devote to volunteering as a Master Gardener.  The training program took time to complete and in exchange for the education, all participants in the program give back more time through volunteer work throughout the year.  So, instead of using my limited free time doing whatever I want, I make time to give back to the community.  For me, its about passion.  I’m passionate about gardening and have been from a very young age.  And I have my Dad to thank for that.

One Saturday morning when I was seven, I came home from little league baseball to find the backyard and woods behind our house bull dozed into a large cleared field.  Dad apparently had plans to start a vegetable garden and I wasn’t in the loop.  Not that Dad needed my input, I was a little kid after all.  But had I known what was coming, I could have removed my Matchbox cars from the sandbox the day before.  I didn’t, and the bulldozer turned them into little treasures that would pop up in random parts of the backyard for years to come.  And since I no longer had a sandbox to play in, playing in the dirt became the next best thing.  And Dad made good use of me playing there, putting me to work weeding and watering, while quietly planting seeds in me that would grow into the deep passion I have for gardening today.  The miracle of watching a tiny seed sprout and transform into a growing plant in a matter of days still gives me that sense of awe that is so rare in this busy world.

I find that carving out some of my free time to help share this passion and plant seeds in others like my Dad did for me, is rewarding beyond measure.  While it takes my time, it gives me back energy, joy and relationships within my community I would not have otherwise.  Sure, training for the program also expanded my gardening knowledge, but more importantly, it connected me to resources within the Cornell Extension office.  I’ve used the training and resources to help expand my gardening hobby into a small farm business.  And I’ve found opportunities to volunteer my time that help me hone skills I use in my full-time career, such as creating new presentations, public speaking, and writing articles (like this one).

Three Master Gardener Volunteers staff an "Ask a Master Gardener Table" a
Master Gardener Volunteers answer questions and provide information to the public about a wide range of topics varying from composting to bed bugs.

So, what exactly is a Master Gardener Volunteer?  The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is a national program of trained volunteers who work in partnership with their county Cooperative Extension office to provide home and community gardeners with research-based information and skills. In Orange County, Master Gardener Volunteers assist with gardening projects in the community, teach classes and workshops, work in school and community gardens, provide information at public events, and answer gardening questions through the Garden Helpline.

Who Becomes a Master Gardener Volunteer?  Master Gardener Volunteers are adults of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. They range from having no professional gardening or landscaping experience, to very experienced gardeners. They all share a genuine interest in making the world more vibrant and livable through gardening.  Master Gardener Volunteers are students, teachers, moms, dads, grandparents, working folks, retired people, and anything else you can imagine.  All you need is a love for gardening, some time to volunteer, and a willingness to complete the training.

Master Gardener Training is completed locally in Middletown.  Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County will hold its next training class for Master Gardeners starting in September 2019 and running through March 2020.  The training will be held on Thursdays from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm.  Applications will be sent out to interested individuals in the beginning of March 2019 and will be due back on April 19th, 2019. After applications are reviewed, interviews will be conducted in early May and final selections will be made.  All applicants will be contacted by early August and notified of their standing.  The training cost is $300.  Scholarships are available.

If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardener Volunteer or want to learn more about the program, please contact:  Susan Ndiaye, Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator,, (845) 344-1234

Spectacular Succulents

By Michele L. – Cornwall Master Gardener

This article appeared in the February Issue of the Gardening in Orange County Newsletter.  Click here to subscribe!

Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkopf'
Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkopf’
I am a self-proclaimed succulent lover always in search of the most exotic, colorful, and unique plants.  My cousin Denise lives in California where succulents thrive in the sunny dry climate.  She is a member of the Contra Costa Garden Club and has been my go-to person when I need to find out about a particular succulent variety or care.  My visits with my cousin in California consist of visiting succulent gardens and many mind-blowing greenhouses that grow only succulents.  I have been known to buy dozens of plants, shake off all the soil and transport back in shoe boxes in my luggage to replant once I get home. (Check rules for your own state for transporting plants.)

Haworthia cooperi 'Pilifera'
Haworthia cooperi ‘Pilifera’
Cacti (members of the family Cactaceae) and succulents (members of many different families) all have one thing in common – they all are adapted to conserving water.  All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.  The name “succulent” is derived from “succulentus”, a Latin word which means sap or juice.  Succulent plants are found in about 60 plant families and thousands of hybrid cultivars that differ in color, texture and size.  Most people are familiar with succulents such as Jade, Kalanchoe and the popular Aloe.  Not only do succulents come in many varieties and colors, they have the added benefit of blooming if they are happy in their space.

Snow White Panda Plant (Kalanchoe eriophylla)
Succulents are known for their low maintenance and long lifespans, which makes them perfect for people who work all day, are on-the-go or just aren’t great at taking care of plants.  Another distinction is that succulents are native to most parts of the world and love hot, dry weather.  Because they store water in their leaves, they can withstand quite a bit of neglect.  These plants are great for adding structure and vibrance to container gardens outdoors.  However, even though these drought-resistant plants are simple to maintain, they still have preferences when it comes to location.

I am frequently asked how to keep succulents alive since there are thousands of different succulent cultivars, all growing with different care requirements and sizes.

Jade (Crassula bonsai)
Here are a few simple steps and tips so you can enjoy your succulent garden for years to come:

Treat your succulent garden as living art.  Don’t be afraid to pull out a plant that has overgrown the planter or has died.  Just replace with another succulent.  Succulents are a great gift for a non-gardener.  Decorate with flowers, berries, shells, or pinecones to theme up your succulent containers or vertical gardens. You can just pull out flowers once they have wilted or brown out and still have a beautiful creative piece.


The best pot/container for a succulent is a shallow terra cotta or clay pot with a large drainage hole.  The deeper the container, the more susceptible the plant is to rotting from wet soil.  A 13-inch or smaller shallow garden dish is the perfect container and can hold a nice selection of succulents.  This type of container is shallow enough that it won’t become waterlogged if left outside in the rain all summer.   If you have created a vertical garden (one that hangs on the wall), keep it flat for at least one month until the roots have established themselves.  Once the succulents have rooted you can hang it on wall.

Sempervivum globiferum
Sempervivum globiferum

Some of my many favorite succulents are Echeveria, Sempervivum, Sedums, Haworthia and Kalanchoe.  Move outdoors early to mid-June.  Most succulents can tolerate night temps of 50 degrees. Some varieties of Sempervivum and Sedums are cold-hardy and can survive our harsh winters.

Sedum ruspestre 'Angelina'
Sedum ruspestre ‘Angelina’
Rock Garden walls, crevices or slopes
Winter/cold hardy Sedums are best for this type of planting as they have shallow root systems and spread easily.  My favorite is a sedum called Angelina which has beautiful yellow flowers, and some varieties change leaf colors from green to gold in the fall.

Overwatering is the main reason succulents die.  The key to watering is restraint!  Remember they are filled with water.  They are the camels of the plant world. If the leaves are plump, don’t water.  If they look slightly shriveled or puckered it is time to water. Rain water is preferable to tap water.  Water-softened tap is not recommended because of excessive salt content.

Echeveria leucotricha
Echeveria leucotricha
Succulents like bright light, but most cannot tolerate intense, direct sunlight outdoors all day.  Morning or late afternoon sun is ideal.  Most succulents need only 3 to 4 hours of sun a day. Never place in a southern exposure outdoors.  The intensity of the light that a plant prefers depends on the species.  Keep in mind that succulents have very different growing habits, some grow very slowly and others will double in size in a season.

While optimal lighting conditions depend on species, there are some general signs that indicate your plant is getting either too much or too little light:

Too much light: appears “off color,” “bleached out”, or turning yellow. Your plant can scorch on a dark wall in full sun and will likely not recover.

Too little light: stretches out and appears leggy and will weaken plant.


If your succulents were outside, place them in the sunniest location in your home in winter. Best indoor location is an east, west or south windowsill. I also have a number of my succulents indoors under lights. I have 2 types of lights – the typical white grow- lights are fine, but I prefer the red and blue spectrum grow-lights specifically for succulents.

When your succulent garden is very dry, water it thoroughly. Every one or two weeks should be sufficient indoors depending on time of year. Succulents should be given just enough water so that they show no sign of shriveling.



These soft oval insects shroud themselves in a cottony covering. The presence of these cotton masses indicates infestation. Mealybugs dine on plant sap reducing plant vigor, distorting growth, and causing premature leaf shed. Minor infestations can be handled by dabbing the offending individuals with an alcohol soaked cotton swab. The alcohol dissolves their waxy protective coating leaving them susceptible to desiccation and other environmental stressors.

Twospotted spider mites
Twospotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae)

Spider Mites
Spider mites are all but invisible to the unaided eye. These pests are often found on the underside of leaves shrouded in their whitish webs. Spider mites also dine on plant sap and cause a distinctive stippling pattern on infested leaves. Copious amounts of webbing indicate a large infestation, which means drastic measures must be taken such as removing all infested leaves. If the infestation is minor a strong burst of overhead watering can help eliminate the mites. Mites are not insects, so insecticides are ineffective.


Brown soft scale
Brown soft scale (Coccus hesperidum)

These pinhead-sized insects appear as raised brown spots resembling marine shells. Like many other pests, they dine on the plant’s sap. Outbreaks of scale can be treated similarly to mealybug infestations.


During the growing season, a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10), which has been diluted to 1/4 strength, can be added to the water for each watering; or use specific fertilizer (foam) for succulents. Only use fertilizers on soil and not on the plant itself. My favorite is worm castings which will not burn the succulents and seem to cut down on pest infestations as well.


Thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana)
Mother of Thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana)

Sometimes it is very easy to identify the best way to propagate your succulents and other times it is not as obvious. However, before you start, the first thing to ask yourself is: What kind of plant do I have? If you don’t know, the easiest way to learn is to organize the information you know about your plant into categories. How is it shaped? Is it tall and thin, short and round? How does it grow? Does it grow all by itself, or are there similar tiny plants that poke up out of the soil near it?

Questions like these are the first ones to ask yourself when considering propagation. Some species can be propagated by separating pups from around the base of the plant. With others you can start a new plant by just placing one of the leaves on top of soil. If succulents start stretching and getting leggy, try pinching off the top, let dry out for a few days to callus over the end and then replant.

Moncarpic Succulent (Sempervivum kindingeri)
Moncarpic succulent (Sempervivum kindingeri)
Ever wonder why some die after blooming? Some succulents may be monocarpic. “Mono” means “once”, and “carpic” means “fruit”. Therefore, once the single flower has come and gone, fruit or seeds are set and the parent plant can die. A monocarpic succulent flowers only once and then dies.

Monocarpic is, in fact, a strategy of many plants to produce progeny. Most monocarpic succulents produce many new plants before they bloom. So by the time they are ready for the bloom, they’ve already created enough plants to replace themselves.