California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The California Master Gardener program has released a major revision of its handbook for gardeners.

MG Handbook

In this column, we look between the covers to see if this book would be helpful to you.

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has been training Master Gardeners since 1980, and has produced many useful publications. UC Cooperative Extension “brings practical, unbiased, science-based answers to problems across California.” It serves California’s agricultural industry, mostly, but the Master Gardener program works with home gardeners, providing information and training in gardening, land and water management, and healthy living.

Many UC Cooperative Extension publications are rather technical, and oriented to farming on a large scale, but the California Master Gardener Handbook has been designed for both master gardeners in training and other serious home gardeners.

The first edition of the Handbook, which was published in 2002, struck me as a compilation of publications that were intended originally for farmers. That’s OK, because the advice for farmers is valid for home gardeners as well, if they skip sentences like this one from the Berries chapter: “Set heavy posts at least 2 feet into the ground at each end of the row. Set lighter posts about 20 to 30 feet apart in the row.”

The new second edition (2015) has some similar content, but a significant amount of new material is clearly aimed at home gardeners. All of the content is easy to understand, and well supported with clear photos and illustrations.

Dennis Pittenger, a veteran of the Master Gardener Program, edited the Handbook and also contributed several chapters; an additional 25 educators are acknowledged as authors of specific chapters. Much expertise is represented between the covers of this book.

The Handbook includes 756 pages, which can be categorized as follows:

  • General Horticulture (30% of the pages): Chapters include Introduction to Horticulture, Soil and Fertilizer Management, Water Management, Plant Pathology, Insects, Weeds, Pests, and Diagnosing Plant Problems.
  • Ornamentals (22%): Plant Propagation, House Plants, Lawns, Woody Landscape Plants, Landscape and Garden Design, and Poisonous Plants.
  • Edibles (40%): Home Vegetable Gardening, Grapes, Berries, Temperate Tree Fruit and Nut Crops, Citrus, Avocados.
  • Additional chapters: Overview of the California Master Gardener Program, Useful Conversions, Glossary, and Index (39 detailed pages!).

The Handbook complements UC Cooperative Extension’s online publications ( and Sunset’s Western Garden Book, which the Handbook mentions respectfully.

I’ve always thought of a “handbook” as a publication that fits in the hand, and is suitable for ready reference in the field. Indeed, such books have been called vade mecum (which is Latin for “go with me”). This 4.5-pound tome might be called, more appropriately, a gardening encyclopedia, but by any other name it would still be a valuable reference for a serious gardener’s library.


Both books are available on

California Master Gardener Handbook, 2nd Edition

The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide


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