State Master Gardener of the Year Marsha Waite, left, talks with student Judy Howlett about what could be ailing a maple tree. - Jim Craven

Medford woman is No. 1 master gardener

Being a teacher and leader among master gardeners is akin to being a chief surgeon: You have to keep training and educating yourself on new discoveries and knowledge and, when people come in with a problem, you have to get it right the first time.

That's how Marsha Waite views her role.

In her dozen years as a master gardener and as manager of Oregon State University Extension's Plant Clinic, Waite has helped thousands of people identify pests, diseases, weeds and rodents. She also teaches integrated pest management in several counties of southwest Oregon, work that has just been honored by naming her the state's Master Gardener of the Year.

It's a huge honor for Waite, who volunteers more than 1,000 hours a year for the Jackson County Master Gardeners. Claudia Law, a member of the Jackson County group, won the same award just three years ago.

"It's rare for one county to get the award that often," said Waite, a Medford resident. "We have an enthusiastic bunch who work very hard — one of the best in the state. People in the valley are really interested in home horticulture. We have great extension grounds and get lots of support from the (extension) agents."

From early childhood on her family farm in Wisconsin, Waite became something of an expert entomologist, a skill she teaches and also uses to identify bugs people bring into the extension office.

"We have all the latest books, so we keep up with changes, like when they pull a new chemical off the market," said Waite. "We stress organic and cultural controls over chemicals. Prevention is our goal, so that we don't have so many problems later. Insects become immune to chemicals and so they make harsher chemicals, which are more harmful to our environment and personal health."

Waite offers programs for garden clubs around the region, trains advisors how to train new master gardener graduates in problem solving and hybridizes day lilies at the extension grounds. But the plant clinic is her first love and the first line of defense for the environment, thus the emphasis on knowledge and experience.

"I try to be really conscientious in giving out information that's correct. It's important to identify the problem accurately so people don't go spraying with things that aren't necessary and aren't good for the environment," said Waite.

"She's fabulous," said fellow master gardener Judi Howlett of Medford. "She's one of the reasons I'm so interested in the whole program. Her lectures are fun, entertaining and informative. She's a wealth of knowledge and I'm thrilled to work with her."

In addition to constant learning and persistent gathering of experience, said Waite, who is also a master food processor, the real key to becoming a true master gardener is you have to be willing to learn from the hard knocks, that is, from your mistakes.

She noted an irony about gardening: "Those who know the most are those who've killed the most plants."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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