The High Country is growing fast: Between 2010 and 2018, Watauga was one of 15 counties in our state experiencing net growth of more than 15 percent. Newcomers are often surprised by the challenges of gardening on a mountain.

Paige Patterson, horticulture agent for Watauga County Cooperative Extension, decided to do something to help both new and established High Country gardeners cope. She and her team created an advanced training program for master gardeners that delves into the design and management of High Country gardens.

“People don’t realize how hard gardening on a hillside can be,” said Paige. “The wind, erosion and temperature shifts are different here. You have to really think through how to design your landscape. People coming from outside this area don’t always recognize the challenges they will face. Our master gardeners want to be able to help locals and newcomers enjoy their mountain gardens. So, we decided to create an advanced training program that focuses on the needs of our local landscape.”

This innovative program, only offered in Watauga County, is in addition to the initial training all master gardeners receive. The Cooperative Extension Service intensively trains master gardeners based on the extensive horticultural research conducted at N.C. A&T and N.C. State Universities.

That training pays off — last year, statewide more than 3,200 master gardeners helped nearly half a million North Carolinians with their gardening questions. They volunteered more than 210,000 hours of their time and donated nearly $8 million worth of volunteer and in-kind services.

The Watauga County master gardeners now have the option of completing an additional 48 hours of advanced training examining the unique needs of mountain landscapes. Last year, the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association recognized this innovative approach selecting Watauga county as their “Search for Excellence” awards recipient for their “Landscape Design Advanced Training” program.

I need to offer a bit of disclosure — Kit and I are both master gardeners. That’s how we met. I’m not being sentimental when I say I get more from being a master gardener than I give.

In addition to the classroom training, master gardeners get behind-the-scenes access to university research and the green industry. We are able to participate in state and regional workshops that bring experts from the southeast together.

The initial master gardener training is equivalent to an undergraduate course in horticulture. It’s a big undertaking, so most counties offer it on a limited basis. Watauga County will be conducting master gardener training on Tuesdays beginning in March. There’s an application process and an information session, which will be held on Jan. 28. More information is available from the Watauga County Extension office by calling (828) 264-3061.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email

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