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University of Minnesota Extension

Becoming a Master Gardener

After retiring from international careers, Scott and Jo Sindelar moved back to Minnesota, where Scott is beginning his first year as a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

Returning from abroad, Scott Sindelar arrives fresh to the gardens of his local community

2,400 Extension Master Gardeners volunteer across Minnesota, but like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, it’s a process to become one. Master Gardeners bring a lot of experience with them and are hungry for more.

Scott Sindelar knows a lot about world agriculture, having left his Minnesota home to work internationally with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 30 years. But when asked about his favorite plant just a year or two ago, he hadn’t exactly been a walking botanical encyclopedia.

“I like fragrant flowers that are good for pollinators,” he’d ventured. “Jo, my wife of 36 years, grew beautiful vegetables and flowers when we were in South Africa. We haven’t spent much time in a northern horticultural zone.”

But Sindelar, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was looking for another volunteer opportunity that was about more than knowing everything. He could be trained in horticulture. His unique skills were in getting people to work together in food and agriculture, through ideas and disagreements, for a common good.

While he was wrapping up a three-year stint India, he contacted the University of Minnesota Extension office for Carver and Scott counties. He and Jo planned to live on an area lake in their retirement, which was drawing near.

A strategically social butterfly

Fast forward to this spring, with Sindelar completing 16 classes from Extension’s Master Gardener curriculum, to interning (for a whole year), to becoming a full-fledged Master Gardener volunteer in Carver and Scott counties.

Sindelar has learned about many plants, as well as soil science and plant diseases, but hasn’t lost his focus on bringing people together for a common good. His tours in China and Thailand taught him to be resourceful and get things done. “I can marry up one person to do this with another group to do that,” he says. “Soil and water conservation, for example, need a lot of communication and coordination.”

He plans to do much more than select plants. His most burning question is, “How can Master Gardeners fit better into a municipality’s schools and public spaces?”

“Like Scott, people bring all sorts of talents and knowledge with them,” says Tim Kenny, director of the program. “Add a passion for gardening and you’ve got a recipe for volunteer-driven community engagement.”

A well-matched mentor goes a long way

“It's important for the intern to have a mentor,” says Jane Horn, a Master Gardener of 12 years who mentored Sindelar. “They’ve been through the University training, but showing up alone can be difficult. You never know what kind of questions you are going to get.”

Sindelar is a natural, says Horn. She learned from him, too, because of his own experiences with agriculture and talking to people in groups.

“We also share a love of traveling,” says Horn. The two presented on ‘Gardens of the World’ at a senior center in Belle Plaine. Sindelar showed his photos of gardens in India and South Africa, and Horn showed her photos from Croatia and Myanmar, and the famous tulips of Holland. “The seniors liked that,” says Horn. “We asked them to share which flowers they grew in their own homes and gardens. That kind of thing is so good for their memory care.”

When asked about his favorite plants, Sindelar can now name hundreds more, but his gut instincts haven’t changed. “I like fragrant plants that are good for pollinators,” he says, but adds, “Jo and I also like plants that are appropriate for life at the lake.”

The Sindelars, for all their international living, are still Minnesotans after all.

4 favorite flowers

Scott Sindelar likes flowers that smell good and feed pollinators. Here are four he recommends.

  • Dwarf Korean Lilac, ‘Palibin’
  • Russian Sage (pictured)
  • Firewitch Dianthus
  • Garden Phlox ‘Pixie Miracle Grace’

Steps to becoming an Extension Master Gardener

Extension’s Annie Klodd (center) trains Master Gardener course participants on growing fruit and vegetables.

Master Gardener volunteers are from all walks of life. They engage their community through gardening to promote healthy landscapes, healthy people and a healthy planet. Are you interested? Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Be selected by your county’s Extension Master Gardener program for an internship. Applications are due Oct. 1.
  2. Complete the Master Gardener core course online or in person at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Core course topics include:
    • Botany, soils
    • Trees, shrubs, vines
    • Lawn care
    • Weeds
    • Fruits and vegetables
    • Indoor plants
    • Pest management
    • Plant diseases
    • Insects, wildlife
    • Engaging diverse communities
  3. Share the wonders of gardening as an intern volunteering for 50 hours, while learning alongside an experienced mentor.
  4. Celebrate! Start the next calendar year as an active Master Gardener volunteer in your community.
  5. Volunteer at least 25 hours each year and continue your Master Gardener education.
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