Helping to end hunger… working with various community projects… garden photography.  All those subjects and more – as well as a warm, Midwestern welcome – were part of the education and experience that Mary Wilson, the State Coordinator of the MSU Extension Master Gardener Program, enjoyed at the 2015 International Master Gardener Conference.

The September conference was held in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is the town furthest west in Iowa and just across the river from Omaha, Nebraska. Over 800 Extension Master Gardeners (EMGs) attended, representing 39 states, two Canadian provinces, and South Korea - host of the 2014 Korean International Master Gardener Conference. 

Representatives of South Korea’s Master Gardener program – which trained approximately 500 people in 2015 – did a presentation of the program to a packed room.  “Their program is growing by leaps and bounds with about 15 extension offices now offering programs,” Mary says.  “They hope to be a model and a catalyst of Master Gardener programs in the Pacific area.  People were so excited and volunteering to help them.”

During the conference, Council Bluffs received record-breaking precipitation. Some 10 inches of rain fell over two days, creating lots of flash flood warnings. “Master Gardeners can brave any type of weather,” Mary says.  “The tours still went on.”

Mary describes the biennial conference as a “real enriching experience.”  There is something for everyone whether they are a new EMG or a seasoned EMG.  There are educational sessions, presentations and tours, as well as lots of learning and collaboration outside the sessions. “It’s also a way to see what different programs are doing, how the programs are run, and learn about horticulture in a different area,” says Mary.  

Sessions Mary attended were primarily on the professional development track, which focused on training and managing EMGs, but she was able to attend some unique session as well.  

Topics included:

  • Tips on growing and keeping EMGs.  
  • Identifying and recruiting people who might be interested in becoming EMGs.
  • How different locations price their classes or deliver their classes.   
  • Developing a leadership pipeline and how you develop leadership in general including roles, getting people to work together and to work around personality differences.
  • A presentation by Mark Hirsch, a photojournalist who suffered a head injury in a car accident and created a book based on his therapy assignment – to use his iPhone as a camera and photograph a tree every day of the year.   This presentation, Mary says, was “very moving.” 
  • Gary Oppenheimer, whose passion and mission is to help end hunger by using wasted food – saving extras from the field and in the garden.
  • Several of the sessions on working with community in community based gardens, with local food systems and with youth.  Many sessions had a food/hunger/nutrition aspect.
  • Using phone apps or QR codes on signs in demonstration gardens.
  • Eating insects – the next foodie craze to provide a source of protein.
  • Gardening for reptiles.

One evening was set aside for presentations for the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence, a seven-category competition where Master Gardeners can demonstrate their contributions to their communities. 

"It's really interesting to see what people in other communities are doing," Mary says.  She encourages everyone to visit the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence website to see the award winning projects, which run the gamut from workshops and research to projects that provide a community service, benefit youth, or address special needs.

The next International Master Gardener Conference is slated for July 10-14 in Portland, Oregon . Be sure to check out their website

While at the conference, Mary snapped this photo of Oakland County EMG Margaret Lavere who met up with her sister from Kansas and a brother from Nebraska at the conference.  All are enthusiastic Master Gardeners.   

While at the conference, Mary snapped this photo of Oakland County EMG Margaret Lavere who met up with her sister from Kansas and a brother from Nebraska at the conference.  All are enthusiastic Master Gardeners.