Meet the queen bee of county master gardeners

  • By Andrea Brown Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, September 17, 2013 4:22pm
  • Life

Sharon Collman isn’t afraid of bugs.

She’s afraid of not having enough bugs.

The good, the bad and some really ugly ones end up pinned on display boards at her WSU Snohomish County Extension office in Everett.

“Beetles. Stink bugs. Bees. Anything that flies and moves,” she said.

Some are still moving. The office is a hotel for live colonies of ants, bedbugs and cockroaches.

Collman, an extension educator in horticulture and pest management, often hunts down the hemipterans herself or brings along a merry band of fellow bug hunters.

Bug-ology is part of being a master gardener.

Collman is the queen bee of master gardening. She helped start the Master Gardener Volunteer Program in Washington, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

What began as an ask-a-gardener service to handle urban plant problems has come a long way since the 1970s. So has Collman.

Early photos show the newly minted college grad in a geometric print dress with long, dark “hippie hair,” as she puts it. Short white locks are her trademark now, and she still wears some flashy threads when she isn’t chasing pests.

“I was the first woman to be an ag agent in Washington,” she said. “I was a master gardener and all the other things an ag agent did.”

Collman, who was working in King County at the time, is credited with building the foundation for master gardeners in the state and beyond. The volunteer program spread to other states and countries.

The term “master gardener” was coined from the German term “Gartenmeister,” which denotes top proficiency in horticulture.

About 2,500 people in Snohomish County have earned the title over the past four decades.

“We train about 70 a year,” Collman said. “We have homemakers to retired people, veteran gardeners, new gardeners and different ethnic backgrounds. It’s a cross-section of Snohomish County.”

The training is 12 weeks of classes, in addition to an online program and a hefty textbook to leaf through.

That’s just for starters. Master gardeners serve at educational events and are environmental stewards.

“We’re not a garden club,” Collman said. “There’s nothing wrong with garden clubs. Garden clubs do a lot of great projects. We do issue-based projects. The issues we are tackling now are important to the county and the communities they live in.”

Stormwater. Rain gardens. Natural yard care. Compost.

“Growing groceries,” she said. “That’s the one I spend most time on now.”

Not to be nosy, but what does her yard look like at home?

“I don’t have time to garden,” Collman said. “I’m trying to finish my dissertation I started 20 years ago. It’s like sweeping a dirt floor.”

Her topic: root weevils.

“They’re little insects that notch the leaves of plants, and people hate them and they spray them,” she said. “Everything you read is about one particular weevil and I knew there were others out there.”

The bug sleuth unearthed a new weevil.

“In a back yard. I’ve been saying that for years if we studied our own back yards we’d find new species all the time. Most research is paid for by critical need, driven by strawberries and particular crops, so nobody really deals with the things that happen in back yards,” she said.

“My goal was to find out what root weevils were out there, what were they eating and when were they present. You have to know which one you got in order to minimize the amount of pesticides we blast into the environment.”

She doubts the weevil will be named after her, but that’s OK. The academic title of “Dr. Sharon” will be good enough.

She has written about 300 pages on weevils. “Most of my time is spent shortening it.

“I thought a dissertation was supposed to be a big deal. A mammoth tome,” she said. “My professor is after me. He’s like, just finish it and get out of here.”

Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com.

Become a master gardener

The Master Gardener Volunteer Program requires 80 hours of training and a minimum of 60 volunteer hours as a community educator.

Training sessions are held once a year, starting in January.

Cost is about $245.

The program is open to everyone with an interest in gardening and a willingness to share their time and knowledge.

For more information: http://snohomish.wsu.edu/mg/garmg.htm or call 425-338-2400.

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