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North Hills Monthly

Get Your Hands Dirty with the Help of Master Gardeners

Feb 26, 2016 05:39PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch
Although the landscapes are snowy, walkways are icy, and anyone who steps outside can expect to be slapped by blustery cold winds, local nurseries are already displaying racks of starter plants. This must mean that spring is not far away!

Whether the thought of planting your own garden turns your thumbs brown or your brain blooms with ideas, local Master Gardeners are available to share their experience and garden wisdom with anyone willing to learn.

What is a Master Gardener?
Master Gardeners are individuals who have been trained in the science and art of gardening. These horticultural enthusiasts help regional gardeners and local landscapers grow great gardens and luscious landscapes. They help answer questions as simple as, “When and how do I plant flower bulbs?” to more complex questions including, “What is wrong with my tomatoes?” and “Why are my pine trees losing their needles?”

For Allegheny County resident Lisa Bernardo, Penn State Master Gardener Butler County Class of 2003, being outdoors cultivating her gardens, flowers and houseplants has always been a passion. “As a registered nurse, gardening offered me another outlet of caring,” she said. “So in 2002, when my schedule allowed it, I decided to pursue further education in what was formerly my hobby.”

After being accepted into and completing the requirements of the 40-hour basic training program and an additional 50 volunteer hours, Bernardo came away with an education in all aspects of horticulture including landscaping, vegetable gardening and insect control. Since 2003, she has maintained her Certified Master Gardener status by volunteering and taking continuing education courses within the Butler County community. “We help provide information to the public via phone or email helplines—the PSU Green Line is one example—speaking at public events, writing articles for print and online publications, and partnering with other community programs, gardens and educational facilities,” Bernardo explained.

“It’s a very interesting and rewarding program; there’s always something new to learn and, as a group, we learn from each other,” the Master Gardener continued. “What’s great is that we didn’t even realize what all we were going to gain from the program, including friendships, until we were in it!”

The estimated 60 Master Gardeners in Butler County all come from different backgrounds. “Some are retired school teachers and others have doctoral degrees, but we’re all the same in our passion and love for gardening, and we all have something to contribute,” said Bernardo. And while the group’s average age is more mature “due to the challenges of finding the right work/personal balance in life,” according to Bernardo, there has been more and more participation from the younger generation due to the recent focus on eating and living more organically.

Local Programs
Master Gardener-wannabes in the region should know that there are two Master Gardener programs available, one run by Phipps Conservatory and the other run through the Penn State University Cooperative Extension. The latter group, the Penn State Master Gardeners, is the volunteer education and training group that is trained by, and affiliated with, the national Master Gardener movement. This movement is connected, in 48 out of 50 states, to the individual state’s public agricultural extension service provided through public land grant universities.

The PSU classes teach experienced gardeners how to design, plant and maintain gardens in the sometimes challenging western Pennsylvania region, and it also provides guidance for Master Gardeners on how to share those skills with their communities.

As a graduate of the Penn State Cooperative Extension program, Bernardo helps serve the home gardening public by answering questions, speaking to groups, participating in civic beautification, maintaining demonstration gardens, and teaching plant sciences and horticulture. As she explained, “We are not horticulturists, but we are very good gardeners who have been ‘enlightened’ in every aspect of gardening! We are willing and able to educate individuals and groups in gardening topics such as plant selection, composting, soil improvement, pest control, vegetable and flower gardening, pruning, and so much more.”  

For more information on classes, workshops, presentations and fundraising events organized by Master Gardeners in the area, visit

For more information on Master Gardeners’ programs, visit and www.