Summer Road Trip 2019: How the Extension Master Gardener Program Grew on Me in District 11


On the third stop of his road trip to visit all Extension districts, director Jeff Dwyer meets Greg Nowak, president of the Extension Master Gardeners of Wayne County, who shares his journey of joining the program and giving back to his community.

August 19, 2019

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Summer Road Trip 2019: How the Extension Master Gardener Program Grew on Me in District 11 transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Michigan State University Extension offered its first Master Gardener Program in 1978. Since then, over 31,000 residents from 80 Michigan counties have been involved in the MSU extension Master Gardener Program. In 2018, 3,507 extension master gardener volunteers provided over 157,000 volunteer hours and reported an additional 616,000 contacts with Michigan residents. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension and this is partnerships and peninsulas.

Jeff Dwyer: Joining me today is Greg Nowak, the President of the Master Gardeners of Western Wayne County. Greg, thank you for joining us today.

Greg Nowak:It's certainly my pleasure to be here today, Jeff. To be able to meet and talk with you and Richard Wooten. First and foremost, before I say anything, I really want to tell you how much I and other Master Gardeners sincerely appreciate what it is that you gentlemen are doing on a daily basis. It's what you're doing that makes it possible for us to enjoy what we have.

Greg Nowak: There's the old economic concept of how dollars will roll through the economy. I think every dollar that's invested, and I think invested is a good word, not just spent. Every dollar that's invested in the Master Gardener Program is a dollar that rolls through the economy and multiplies in different ways.

Greg Nowak:There really is a multiplier effect in terms of how it impacts the individuals who are involved in performing master gardener services for the community, the education, and ultimately the people who benefit. Your work is making this possible. It's easy to take that for granted on a daily basis. You know what it's like, but I hope you both have the opportunity to stop and reflect periodically on the significance in value of what it is that you're doing. It's really important.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you so much for saying that, Greg. I mean what I say when I do the intro to this program that I have the privilege of being the director of MSU Extension because you've been impacted clearly by the Master Gardener Program. But broadly, we have about 700 people all over the state doing equally good things.

Jeff Dwyer: I have learned even more in it being in this role for the last three and a half years. What an amazing organization it is. An amazing people that we have in MSU extension and in particular the Master Gardener Program. So let's talk about you for a minute. Tell me a little bit about your background and from that, what led you to the Master Gardener Program in the first place?

Greg Nowak:I'll start first just briefly with how my interest in gardening started because actually it started when I was a boy spending time out on my grandmother's farm. And her teaching me how to plant things and take care of them. Now, this is great that I've had the opportunity to give a nod to my grandmother.

Greg Nowak: For most of my career, I've been a human resources manager for the last few decades. I've worked for tier one auto suppliers in all around Metro Detroit. Fortunately, I was in the position to be able to retire a couple of years ago.

Greg Nowak: I have a couple dear friends who are Master Gardeners, advanced Master Gardeners, and very heavily involved in the program, Pat and Barb Johnson. Barb is a former Master Gardener of the Year in Wayne County. Pat has won the Unsung Heroes Award. They're involved in a variety of different projects. They do so much for the program. They had already tipped me off to this.

Greg Nowak: It's okay. When I first got involved, I thought I'm going to get involved and I'll take the course and I'll do what I do to get in a certain amount of hours and I'm sure all at least get the 40 hours a year and that will be fine. But this program has a way of drawing you in, and it draws you in with the people who are remarkable. Gardeners are incredible people.

Greg Nowak: I've found that you can get involved in this program as little or as much as you want to. It really all depends. There are opportunities available. It's just a matter of how much you want to be able to take advantage of them. I've been involved a comparatively short time.

Greg Nowak: Two years ago at this time, I was still taking the master gardener course. I was a week from being done. After that finished, then I got that done and I already set my sights quickly on moving on to the additional requirements to be an advanced master gardener and the additional training, the additional hours. It wasn't long. I got the rest of that done within about three months or so.

Greg Nowak: I got involved with the Master Gardeners of Western Wayne County and again opportunities that just become available. I had an opportunity to become involved as the membership chair for the group. I said, "Okay, that's a good way to get involved. It's not a big time commitment. I think I can certainly handle the level of detail. That will be fine."

Greg Nowak: So that brings you in just a little bit more. You get to meet a few more people and it's the people. That's really the thing about this, I'm telling you. I remember somebody asking me for the end of 2017. Someone there had said, "Would you ever see yourself being like the president or vice president of that?" And I flatly answered, "No way. There's absolutely no way. That's not what I'm here for."

Greg Nowak: Well, things have a way of changing. The more I got involved on the board with Master Gardeners and was making suggestions and we were able to take on initiatives and get some things happening, the more I became enticed by the possibility of being able to do other things.

Greg Nowak: And so when the opportunity rose to be able to run for president, how could I not? It was the opportunity to get in there and really do things. But along the way, I've really had the opportunity to do some wonderful volunteer efforts as well.

Greg Nowak: One of the first ones that, again, just put me deeper into that deep end of the pool. This goes back with my friends, the Johnsons. They have an outstanding program going on over in Canton where they have a hoophouse and gardens over there. We're growing over 1,200 pounds of vegetables a year that are going to different organizations, whether it's the local food pantry, whether it's groups that take care of people who are unfortunately subject to domestic violence.

Greg Nowak: You know that the results of your efforts is really doing something quite good. This is just another one of those things that came up. Had the opportunity to become a docent over at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Go through about 14, 15 weeks of training initially before you can even start. Then there's ongoing training after that.

Greg Nowak: But what we do is we get involved in conducting field trips for kids who have kind of a wide age, anywhere from kindergarten age all the way up to even some high schoolers. A lot of what we do is second and fifth graders. Being able to educate kids in this variety of subjects as you're taking them out on trails over at Matthaei, as you're taking them through the conservatory and the different biomes that they have over there, it's an incredibly rewarding experience.

Greg Nowak: As much as you know you're giving back to your community and the process, that's like you're getting so much back at the same time. It's an incredible, incredible experience.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a fantastic description of your master gardener journey, Greg. I'll speak for the organization and all of those that you've already impacted in a relatively short period of time. We're certainly glad you got sucked in step by step.

Jeff Dwyer: So for those that may be learning about master gardener for the first time through this podcast, you referred to the Master Gardener Program, you referred to the advanced program, could you just briefly talk about what's the commitment to each of those training opportunities? And then what are the expectations of you as a master gardener for contributing to the community in the ways that you're describing?

Greg Nowak: The master gardener course itself is a 14-week course, and it's designed to help people succeed. Even when you go in thinking that, "Oh, I know a lot about gardening. I've done a lot of things." It can be a humbling experience. It really is. But by the same token, you also wind up learning a lot. It expands what you know.

Greg Nowak: You have an assignment every week of 10 questions that have to be completed. It's kind of an open book test, if you will. And at the end of the course, you've got a hundred question exam, which is also open book but it can still be challenging even though it's open book.

Greg Nowak: Upon completion of that, when you want to move on to become an advanced master gardener, well first of all, you actually formally become a master gardener after completing the course and then having 40 hours of volunteer time. Beyond that, to become an advanced master gardener, you have to have an additional 25 hours of education and that will be an additional 50 hours, total of 90 hours of volunteer time to become an advanced master gardener.

Greg Nowak: One of the best unofficial educational parts of this is the time that you get to spend with people doing different volunteer activities. I have learned so much as a result of working with a variety of different people in different activities. That's a part they don't tell you about. It's truly significant and a remarkable experience. You get to meet so many wonderful people and make friends as a result.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a great description. So what should a listener do if they're in Western Wayne County for example, but this would apply anywhere in the state perhaps, if they're interested in the Master Gardener Program?

Greg Nowak: Well, it's easy enough to find information of the Master Gardener Program just by going online. You go to MSU Extension and that information is there. To find out about that, and also if they're interested in Master Gardeners of Western Wayne County, we have our website, but I think about all the information anyone could possibly want is online through MSU Extension.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a great reminder that people can go and just Google MSU Extension Master Gardener and it will all be right there. So a slightly different question for you, Greg, is what if listeners have a gardening question? Is there a way that they can get to the Western Wayne County group or to a master gardener to answer that question?

Greg Nowak: You can get to a Western Wayne County master gardener to do that. We kind of do that locally. There are some different farmer's markets where master gardener booths are set up, but I think a good more handy reference for a lot of people.

Greg Nowak: I continually refer people to the MSU Extension online website. You go to ask an expert. I've had a lot of experience using that myself and find that they are very good on getting you back answers on a timely basis. Particularly if you've got something that you've got a picture of that you've got a question about, attach that picture to your email and it helps them all that much more.

Jeff Dwyer: That's great and I appreciate you mentioning they ask an expert opportunity on the MSU Extension website. I can tell you, boy, that helps thousands of people a year who have all kinds of questions. And you're right, attach a picture and we've got experts that probably have seen that once or twice before, so it's really a great resource.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, Greg, you've covered a lot of territory with us today. Before we close, I wondered if you could maybe share a story about a favorite project you've been a part of as a result of Master Gardeners. You mentioned Matthaei Garden, but I'm certain from your description so far that there have been others. I wonder if you could share one of those with us.

Greg Nowak: Matthaei is a good one. One that is still very near and dear to my heart. In fact, I was there just yesterday and I'll be there on Sunday. It is over at the Canton Complex. They've got a historical area on the west side of town. That's where we have the hoophouse and the gardens that I had mentioned. I was out there yesterday doing just a little bit of work.

Greg Nowak: But what's also an awful lot of fun is next Sunday I'll be out at the Canton Farmer's Market and I'll be there probably from about 8:30 until 1:00 in the afternoon at the master gardener booth that we have. You shouldn't have so much fun helping people at the same time. It's like it should almost be illegal.

Greg Nowak: We have people who come up and are asking us all sorts of questions about different things going on with their landscaping, with their gardens, questions about what they should or shouldn't plant, where they should plant it, what's a problem with some kind of symptoms they have about something.

Greg Nowak: In a lot of cases, we've got information. We'll refer them to the MSU Extension, ask an expert line because there's just parts where we just say, "No, they are the experts. We're not. We're smart enough to know that." And that's another one of those areas where I've learned so much just by virtue of doing this with the people who I've done it with.

Greg Nowak: That's really one that comes to mind, that master gardener booth. And there are opportunities to do that at farmer's markets and other locations around the state. So that's not something that's just to our locale.

Jeff Dwyer: You're right, and that's a great example. Well, Greg, we're just so pleased that we've had a chance to get to know you through Master Gardeners over the last couple of years and I really appreciate you being here today and appreciate your affinity for MSU Extension and the Master Gardener Program and all that it does that. But as you well know, those programs don't happen without people like you. And so we appreciate it a great deal.

Jeff Dwyer: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I'm the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Greg Nowak. Thank you very much for being here today, Greg.