Master Gardeners are Great, And They Deserve Better

If you’re looking for cat videos, birthday reminders, and a method for spying on old friends then Facebook is pretty useful, but for cold hard facts?

Not so much.

Well, actually we’re overstepping here. It’s really not Facebook. After all, Facebook is kind of like a blank sheet of paper. The paper doesn’t tell the truth or lies, it’s the person who writes on the paper. On the Garden Professor’s Facebook page we do a pretty good job of offering science based information to people. It’s not perfect, but it isn’t bad either. And there are certainly other good Facebook pages too, mostly associated with various Universities.

Another page that did a pretty good job was the Extension Master Gardener’s Facebook Page. This Facebook page is run by a group of Master Gardeners who generally do a great job of telling it like it is, but recently something happened and the posts have been…softer. And those that are science based seem to have some science that we would call questionable at best. For example, they posted links to articles which include information such as this:

“These are natural pest control agents. The bitterness of cucumber peels will ward off ants, moths, mites, wasps and silverfish. Lay cucumber peels in corners of the kitchen, on windowsills or in cabinets … wherever you are having a bug problem. Refresh them frequently, though — decomposing cucumbers will actually attract pests.”

And this

“It is widely supported that tomato leaves can be poisonous, as they’re in the nightshade family. Tomato leaves, however, are not dangerous if ingested in small quantities, and in fact can be used as an infusion, much like tea leaves.”

Wow. OK.

Is this information, which comes from popular press articles, really research based? We’re not sure….can’t seem to find it in the literature.

The thing is, until recently, The Extension Master Gardeners felt that it was appropriate to post links on Facebook to things that were science based, thought provoking and meaningful. For example, they weren’t afraid to share articles like this:

Here’s the funny thing, as far as we can tell, with very few exceptions these articles have been “unshared” by those in charge of the Extension Master Gardeners Facebook page (we checked last week — and we do acknowledge that facebook does some funny things — but we know these were shared and we now can’t find them) — and all of those articles came from one person, Sylvia Hacker.

That’s a shame because these articles make you think, and they’re based on science. I’m not going to say all of the conclusions are correct, but Master Gardeners are supposed to be thinkers and certainly have the mental capacity to read these articles while critically balancing the arguments presented against other things they’ve read. Additionally, Master Gardeners are often asked questions about this kind of stuff. Since they’re asked the questions, isn’t it appropriate to be conversant in what the public at large is hearing about the topic as well as what current mainstream science writers are saying about it?

Look, some people complain or make nasty comments about articles like this because they have strong feelings about certain things. For example they’re strongly anti-GMO or pro-organic. But the thing that separates Extension Master Gardeners from a gardening club is that they literally have a duty to promote science based information such as that contained in the articles which Sylvia posted. To back away from this duty by removing already posted science based articles on Facebook is to allow science to lose.

Sylvia Hacker was recently released from her responsibilities on the Extension Master Gardener Facebook page where, over the course of only about 2 years, she helped raise the number of likes from about 3,000 to over 13,000 because she thought it was important to be proactive and to spread relevant science based literature which the general public was reading and responding to – regardless of whether it was controversial or not. Here is the letter she received regarding her dismissal. We leave it up to you to decide whether her release was appropriate or not.


The Cooperative Extension Services across the United States are tasked with disseminating objective, research-based information. Some of your recent posts to the Extension Master Gardener Facebook page have not met that standard. Some have been needlessly confrontational while others have linked to popular press articles with insufficient scientific documentation. You noted in a message on the National EMG Social Media Team “that Extension isn’t timely, can’t respond to trends or current issues” and that its content is “too boring.” Given your apparent lack of respect for Cooperative Extension as a whole and its affiliated program, Extension Master Gardeners, I regret to tell you that you will be removed as an administrator of the Extension Master Gardener Facebook page.

Posted by Jeff Gillman and Linda Chalker-Scott

13 thoughts on “Master Gardeners are Great, And They Deserve Better”

  1. This is sad. As a master gardener for over 15 years, I wish that some of my fellow MGs were more open to reading publications other than Organic Gardening and Mother whatever, bashing GMOs/Monsanto and living the ‘organic’ life. Some MGs I know are great examples of providing science based information but others are less so. Feeling badly for Sylvia.

  2. I always thought that being a Master Gardener was NOT a popularity contest, but a responsibility to bring science based information to our clients. I’m not sure what Sylvia did wrong. We are supposed to be able to discern what is good information and what is based on “it worked in Uncle Joe’s garden.” Maybe the administrators of that site don’t feel we’re capable of telling the difference. Shame on them for not trusting us, or shame on them for not educating (REeducating?) those who can’t tell the difference. I have felt a growing lack of trust of MGs in recent years from the powers that be. Be blunt with us and tell us what you think we’re doing wrong, help us become better, but don’t denigrate this group of devoted volunteers. It’s a sure way to degrade the program and chase away those who have given so much service to their communities. And don’t promulgate this fluff about tomato leaves and such. That’s a good way to lose the respect of those who have looked to the Extension for help and sound advice for so many years.

  3. The problem with disseminating information by social media is that your audience is broad and posting scientific papers is a sure way of getting them to ignore you. The articles sited above include Slate, Forbes and the New York Times, accessible to the reading public and with a positive reputation as legitimate press. I’m not sure why the objection can be.

  4. Her comments that, “Extension isn’t timely, can’t respond to trends or current issues” and that its content is “too boring.” is too real. Too bad her efforts to change it were met with disapproval. We need Extension work to be more edgy, and promote the science based reason in agriculture that is getting drowned in modern day ideology. I think if more people had access to “controversial” information on things like organics and GMO that are rooted in science, their ideas would also change.

  5. Sounds as though the powers that be got their feelings hurt. They didn’t like the fact that Sylvia posted on the National EMG social media that materials weren’t timely and were boring. Hmmm.

  6. A horribly familiar garden world response. Glad that you are making it public as so much of this stuff is behind closed doors and no-one knows the reason someone is suddenly dumped or ostracised.

    And why does the garden world everywhere (I’m in UK) insist on dumbing down as if we’re all mentally defective?

  7. There is a place for the “dumbed down” information because not everyone is educated in horticulture or wishes to be. But even that should be science based. I thought the Extension MG Facebook page was primarily by, for, and about Master Gardeners, not the general public. Their own page states it “strives to serve the 95,000 Extension Master Gardeners.” We need and want the science based information, not the sort of thing found in magazines aimed at the casual gardener.

  8. I think that FACEBOOK has more readers of my limited knowledge of Gardening …. and we too would appreciate information that might not be science based. Basics!! My love of gardening did not start in a classroom or scientific books. I was raised on a farm where we learned a variety of things, sometimes, by trial and error. I have been gardening off and on for almost 70 years…..the last of which has been in the same garden I have had now for over 40 years. I appreciate new ideas … as long as they are properly identified….doesn’t matter where they come from. Let me use my own judgement as to what I might be interested in trying .

    1. The difference here is that Master Gardeners are required to use science-based information in making their recommendations. That’s why they are trained by university experts and considered university volunteers. There are plenty of websites and FB pages that will give you all kinds of unscientific information – they’re not hard to find. What’s hard to find – and what many gardeners want – is current, relevant, plant and soil science for caring for gardens and landscapes.

  9. Maybe Extension would be better off if we did a better job promoting the local help desk and Ask an Expert rather than relying on social media. I know we probably need a presence there, but for the hard science information we are supposed to be giving it may not be the best venue.

  10. I take care of our local MG Facebook page – both the public and the internal one. I shared many of the removed articles on the private site, thinking they would generate discussion. I do miss having the edgier articles shared.

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