On Saturday mornings the Issaquah farmers market is abuzz. People line up outside the city’s historic Pickering barn to buy big red wands of rhubarb, strawberries from Puyallup, and armloads of flowers. Music flows through—reggae, elementary school choirs, jazz.

Amidst the din and bright colors from the multitude of vendors and visitors, keen experts with nothing to sell at all set up their table. They wait while people bring things to them—baggies full of leaves, vials holding insects, and dozens and dozens of questions. These are Master Gardeners, trained by Washington State University and empowered by their communities to advise, serve, and instruct their friends and neighbors on gardening and the environment.

At the same time, just a few miles away in Redmond, a similar table is set up at the farmers market on Leary Way. And still others in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, at the Village Green market on Vashon Island, in Edmonds, in Port Orchard, and south in Puyallup.

These Saturday morning experts are not just at the farmers markets, they have tables at the Fred Meyer in Shoreline, outside a historic mansion in Ferndale, at the Lowe’s in Tacoma, and at the County Fairgrounds in Spokane. They are part of one of the longest-running, most successful programs ever to come out of Washington State University. Master Gardener programs not only train and certify thousands of volunteers state-wide, but they have branched all across the country into communities as far off as New York, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

For all that Master Gardeners are and do, once they were just a good idea.

In the early 1970s Washington State University extension agents Dave Gibby and Bill Scheer were new hires with joint appointments for both Pierce and King Counties. They divided their time between the Seattle offices on Queen Anne and the offices in Tacoma. While Scheer’s focus was commercial agriculture, Gibby was assigned urban horticulture—a weighty duty given the population base of more than 1.5 million.

“I had two days in one county, three days in the other,” says Gibby. “Each time I got to the other office, I would have hundreds of call back slips.” And when Gibby wasn’t available, people would turn to Scheer with their questions. “We tried to be of service to people,” says Scheer. “But we were overwhelmed with the demand.”

Why is my grass dying? When should I plant fruit trees? What’s eating my peonies? There was a large public demand for horticulture information, and the University knew it. The solution was Gibby. “They called me the ‘sacrificial lamb,’” he says.

Gibby grew up in Utah, in a large family that had a commercial nursery and greenhouse. Scheer was born in the Dutch East Indies, and after WWII went to school in the Netherlands, where horticulture was a major field of study, and so it became his. The pair are credited with concocting and honing one of the best public outreach ideas ever to come from Washington State University.

Gibby tried to address the gardening questions on television, on the radio, and in the newspapers. He would write up tip sheets and leave them next to the cash registers of nurseries. “All it did was make the problem worse,” says Gibby. Thanks to his outreach, those gardeners thirsty for information now knew where to find him. “Fifty to eighty calls a day became up to 500 calls a day,” he says.

Gibby would sit at his desk and cull through the piles of the messages, answering those who had called more than once, those whose names he recognized, and those who were prominent in the community. The rest he threw away. “I just couldn’t get to everyone.”

He started attending garden club meetings, hoping to preemptively address questions specific to the season. There between the pruning course and the refreshments, he found a patch of life-long gardeners who were already experts. In many cases, these were the people to whom everyone in a certain neighborhood would gravitate for help. He saw a solution. “I thought, ‘What’s the problem with having volunteers help out?’ ” he says.

So he went back to the extension office with the idea, turning to Scheer. They talked about the German system where a mastery of a certain field brought you recognition. Those who brewed beer were Braumeisters, those who were expert foresters were Waldmeisters, says Scheer. Why not create a program to train garden experts? They took the German notion of “Gartenmeister” and “We Americanized it,” says Scheer. “Master Gardeners. We knew people would be proud to have the title.”

Both men believed in the idea. But they had to sell it to their colleagues at the research stations.

“To my surprise, I received a hailstorm of criticism,” says Gibby. Though it was more than 30 years ago, he can still count off all the reasons his fellow extension agents and supervisors said it wouldn’t work: 1. Volunteers could not meet WSU’s standards. 2. They had to be licensed to provide advice on pesticides. 3. The public wanted the information when it wanted it—gardeners wouldn’t come to a planned clinic. And finally, “they said people would not volunteer,” he says.

But Gibby had worked with volunteers before. He had no doubt he could find gardeners willing to give their time to the public.

He proposed holding a single clinic, something at a public venue where WSU faculty experts on plants, disease, insects, and soil could be available to answer questions. “I had an ace up my sleeve,” he says. Of all the least garden-like places, he chose the Tacoma Mall. The mall administrators were thrilled to make room for the event and agreed to post fliers advertising it. Then he went to the Tacoma News Tribune and pitched a feature about it. Finally, he plugged the event on a local television program. And that first evening when the WSU experts set up their card table at the mall, “We got mobbed.”

That wasn’t enough, though. Gibby walked into the Seattle offices of Sunset magazine and approached writer Steve Lorton with an idea of plugging the volunteer program in the popular regional gardening magazine. Lorton was impressed with both the man and the idea. “He was tall, handsome, articulate,” says Lorton. “Sort of Jimmy Stewart out of a ’30s movie.

“He said, can you do this for me?” Lorton loved the idea. “It was just like lighting a stick of dynamite for me.” Beyond the idea of building an army of volunteer gardening experts, the magazine journalist liked the challenge of flying down to Sunset headquarters in Menlo Park and convincing his editor to print something immediately.

It wasn’t a hard sell. “Proc’s (Proctor Mellquist) eyes twinkled, and he said ‘Let’s do a spread,’” says Lorton. A two-page spread on short notice? It was unheard of. But the story fit with the flavor of the magazine. “In those days we were kind of a publication of community action,” says Lorton.

They needed art to run with the story, “so we made up this little sign that said ‘Master Gardeners wanted’ and hung it up over a card table at an Ernst (garden store).” Then they went out and collected pictures of some sick and hideous looking plants. “Then we wrote the story.”

On page 188 in the September 1972 issue of Sunset ran the piece titled “Wanted: home gardeners to become Master Gardeners.” The story said that WSU’s extension service was seeking experienced gardeners to be volunteer garden experts. Those who volunteered would get 55 hours of free training on subjects such as garden techniques, the care and proper use of garden equipment, and the use of pesticides. The story ended with modest hopes that “as the system develops, representatives will be placed in an increasing number of locations through the Puget Sound area and eventually in all the populated areas of the

Even to Gibby’s surprise, more than 300 people volunteered. He narrowed it down to 75 candidates in King County and 75 in Pierce. “It was a total mixed bag—retirees, a few professionals,” he says. “I looked for a passion for gardening, good communication skills, and some gardening expertise.”

In January of 1973, they started the classes, teaching in places like Northgate and the Kent library. Sharon Collman, who had a background in entomology, was among the first trainees. Gibby and Scheer taught most of the classes. It was challenging and interesting, she says, but she had no idea she was at the beginning of something big. Collman was also charged with setting up the first plant clinics where, once trained, the Master Gardeners could meet with the public and answer questions. “In the first season, we served 5,000 people,” says Gibby.

“Of course it worked,” says Lorton. With a maritime climate that could host all kinds of different plants, the Pacific Northwest is a gardener’s paradise. “Gardening wasn’t huge back then,” he says, “but there were a lot more gardeners here than in any place in the country.”

It may have been difficult to get support for the idea in the first place, but it says something that two extension agents in Washington, in the Puget Sound region, were able to get it started, says Scheer. Anywhere else, and it might not have happened at all.

Gibby left WSU in 1974 for a private industry job that was “too good to pass up,” he says. Collman, who had been working as a temporary extension agent, was hired to replace him and took over the coordination of the Master Gardener training. Scheer and other faculty continued to help with teaching, and soon Spokane County was starting up its own Master Gardener program.

The notion quickly spread across the state and then the country. According to a recent survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States has nearly 95,000 active Master Gardener volunteers. In the past year they donated more than five million hours in their communities. They gave nearly 700,000 pounds of produce to local food banks and spent close to 300,000 hours teaching gardening to children and young adults.

In Washington, 36 of 39 counties host more than 4,000 active Master Gardener volunteers. The bulk of them are in the higher density communities around Puget Sound.

“There really is no typical Master Gardener,” says Elaine Anderson, the Master Gardener coordinator for King County, which has over 700 Master Gardener volunteers, the highest number in state. “Other than they all love gardening and all have a real interest in volunteering in their communities,” they come from all walks of life. Doctors, dentists, truck drivers. “This year we even had our first 16-year-old in training,” she says. She is the youngest Master Gardener ever to be trained in Washington.

It almost didn’t happen, says Anderson, who screens the applicants each year to select the best candidates for the training. When Anya Puceta, a Seattle high school junior, called about joining, Anderson repeated what she had been told,that no one under 18 could participate. Puceta, 16, already had some experience gardening at the organic pea patch at her high school and was even assisting in instructing her classmates. “I wanted more information to support what I was doing,” she says. One of her mother’s friends is a Master Gardener, as is a neighbor. Puceta thought she could squeeze time for the 60 hours of training over 12 weeks between school and studying for her SATs.

When she was turned away because of her age, she was discouraged. “But I’m not one to give up very quickly,” she says. “Just ask my mom. It drives her crazy. ” She e-mailed and asked for specific reasons why she couldn’t participate. “I learned about liability,” she says. Then, with her parents’ promise to sign a waiver, she called Anderson back.

Anderson, impressed with Puceta’s persistence, took the issue to Tonie Fitzgerald, WSU’s statewide Master Gardener program leader, who double-checked the policies and encouraged the teen’s application.

“She was great,” says Anderson. “It was a delight to have somebody that young in the classes.” Though many of the volunteers were retirees, two AmeriCorps students in their 20s joined the King County class as well.

“I don’t come from a family of gardeners,” says Puceta. “At home we have a mid-sized, untended lawn. We just let it be.” But she has lately introduced a vegetable patch. “Let’s see,” she says looking into the yard. “We have nasturtiums and kale and fava beans, rhubarb, chives, and parsley.”

Now that the 2009 class of Master Gardeners has finished training, Puceta and her classmates are required to perform at least 50 hours of volunteer time within a year. She is hoping to help at plant clinics as well as offer presentations on organic gardening to people in urban neighborhoods who may not already have access to it. She also wants to work at one of the several demonstration gardens in King County, perhaps the fragrance garden at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, she says.

Plant clinics were the first focus for the Master Gardeners, but in the 1980s demonstration gardens began sprouting around the Puget Sound. Anderson points out the Bellevue garden, which was started in 1984, as one of the community’s great assets. “They built themselves up from a blackberry patch,” she says. Today, in addition to a regular diagnostic plant clinic, the garden holds a compost center, a children’s garden, and gardens designed for shade, drought, and native plantings. “Now they’re a kind of a model,” she says.

As is the newer xeriscape demonstration garden at the Riverfront Park in Wenatchee, says Fitzgerald. Besides offering a beautiful scene, the Master Gardeners selected plants like lavender and sedum that are especially drought tolerant. With the support of the county public utilities district, they are showing eastern Washington homeowners how to cut down on their water use.

Beyond the clinics and the gardens, much more is going on with the program. There’s more awareness of environmental impact, says Fitzgerald. In the 1970s, Master Gardeners’ focus was outreach. “Now it’s not so much changing the environment just to look pretty,” she says. “Now it’s a much more proactive program. We’re working with municipalities and parks,” as well as water conservation districts, historical societies, public schools, and nonprofit groups.

Master Gardeners are teaching their communities to identify and fight invasive plants and insects, limit unnecessary fertilizer and pesticide applications, hold surface water on their properties so it doesn’t pour into local streams and scour them of fish habitat, and even to landscape in a way that keeps homes warm in winter and cool in summer, says Collman, who now works as an extension agent in Snohomish County. “The issues we’re facing as a society, that’s where we’re putting our programming.”

WSU is lucky to have this army of dedicated volunteers, says Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “They really multiply our impact on urban and environmental horticulture,” he says. To arm them with solid science-based training, and then to send them out to educate others, it’s really a noble goal, he says. “It’s a nice marriage of our sciences and the needs of the communities around Washington state.”

While Master Gardener training in Washington is now county specific, the University is working to unify the core training program to provide the same access to the experts for everyone, whether they’re in the populated Puget Sound region or far off in Grays Harbor or Adams counties, says Bernardo. Now horticulture information is widely available—in the media, on the internet, he says. Still, the Master Gardeners progra
m is a model for its connections to the University and all its resources.

Also, thanks to their training, the volunteers are the experts’ ears and eyes, watching for infestations of disease, insects, and invasive plant species, helping natural resource agents and scientists cope with the changing environment.

Can they do all this in the 50 hours they’re required to volunteer to stay certified? Probably not, say the coordinators. But that’s of no consequence, since most of them go far beyond their required time. Of course they’re committed, says Fitzgerald. Gardening, for many of them, isn’t just a hobby, it’s a passion.“We are so lucky to have these people who want to learn and contribute to their communities, and they do it in the name of Washington State University Extension,” she says.

Now Master Gardener programs operate out of land grant universities in more than 40 states. In Mississippi they’re leading volunteers in projects to rebuild the public landscapes decimated by hurricanes Rita and Katrina. In Wisconsin they’re helping gardeners identify and protect local pollinators. And in Nebraska, they’re helping the Pawnee tribe revive its traditional corn variety, and through the corn, its agricultural traditions.

Though they never imagined the Master Gardeners program would be an international model or that it would reach so far into society, Gibby and Scheer knew it was a good idea from the beginning. “I felt if we primed the pump, it really would spread,” says Gibby. “I’m proud of what we started.”


Web exclusive

Slideshow of Master Gardener photos by Zach Mazur

Photos of early Master Gardener plant clinics in 1973


On the Web

Master Gardener program website