Master Gardeners are trained volunteers who serve as educators in their communities. The Master Gardener program originated in Washington State to enable the Washington State University (WSU) Cooperative Extension to better serve the public-- specifically home gardeners.
In the early 1970s, interest in home gardening mushroomed. County Extension offices were overwhelmed with requests for horticultural information. Dr. David Gibby, then WSU Cooperative Extension Agent for King and Pierce counties, recalls that responding to the demand for information was an "enormous problem." He tried various methods of reaching the public, including extensive use of mass media, but each effort sparked an even greater volume of calls.
Dr. Gibby, Dr. Arlen Davison (a WSU plant pathologist), and other extension personnel discussed training knowledgeable gardeners to respond to the demand. Volunteers would receive extensive horticultural training; in return, they would help the Cooperative Extension provide the public with information.
The spring and summer of 1972 were busy with brainstorming, planning, and experimentation. The planning team selected the name "Master Gardeners" and devised a plan to evaluate the use of community clinics to provide gardening information to the public. Articles and publicity flyers announced that several Saturday clinics would be held at local shopping malls, conducted by extension agents and specialists. Dr. Gibby notes that at least 250 people came to the first clinic at the Tacoma Mall.
The next steps focused on developing procedures to train volunteers using WSU Cooperative Extension faculty as instructors. The first group to be trained came from King and Pierce counties. Recruitment publicity appeared in several local newspapers and in Sunset Magazine. Dr. Davison remembers that at least 300 people applied for the first class. One hundred twenty applicants were selected and trained in early 1973. Spokane County later trained another 50. The Master Gardeners were in business. They served over 7,000 clients that first year.
Today, 2,900 Master Gardeners are at work in Washington State. Thousands more work across North America as the program spread to neighboring states and provinces. In 1995, WSU trained Master Gardeners volunteered 101,335 hours and helped over 314,000 citizens with their gardening problems. The time volunteered by Master Gardeners was valued at $1,216,020. Master Gardeners currently operate in 35 of Washington State's 39 counties. Since the inception of WSU Cooperative Extensions Master Gardener program, the concept has spread to all 50 states and four Canadian provinces.
While the main activity of Master Gardeners has been to answer gardening questions at county Cooperative Extension offices or community gardening clinics, other opportunities exist for community service. From the beginning, the program diversified, reflecting the skills and individuality of the volunteers. Many Master Gardeners teach gardening classes, others write horticultural articles, and some operate home pages on the World Wide Web. Master Gardeners also address important social and environmental issues in their communities. They educate the public about the threat that fertilizers and pesticides can pose to water quality if used improperly. Some have led efforts to revegetate eroded stream banks with native plants. They help reduce the solid waste problem by teaching people to compost. Master Gardeners teach children's gardening classes that emphasize environmental stewardship and human nutrition. Master Gardener demonstration gardens test new vegetable varieties and donate excess produce to food banks. In some communities, low-income citizens learn to grow their own food and become more self-sufficient with the help of Master Gardeners. The possibilities are unlimited.
The Master Gardener program is more than a horticulture class or a garden club. It is a volunteer program that enables participants to serve their communities through horticultural education. It's also promotes personal growth. Not only do Master Gardeners increase their knowledge of horticulture, but they can develop communication, management, and leadership skills that can be used in all aspects of their lives. The Master Gardener International hosts a North American Continent conference every other year in various locations and acts as a clearinghouse for ideas and information. The United States is also divided into regions which hold Master Gardener conferences on a biennial basis.