WSU’s Master Gardeners program became
a national—and global—model
Diana Pieti leads the way down the garden path, pausing to point out particulars. See the serviceberry, already blooming.
A stone’s throw from the white blossoms lies a xeric berm, which, at the end of April, has not quite awoken for the season. But hopvines are already creeping up an arbor nearby. Giant snowdrops—the tips of their arching, ivory, chalice-shaped petals tinged pale green—circle a tall tuteur trellis in a round raised bed also dotted with daffodils and tulips.
“It’s all just lovely, and it shows what you could grow here in the Yakima Valley with a lot of good color,” Pieti says, noting how the landscaped 1.2 acres often serve as a backdrop for graduation, engagement, wedding, homecoming, and prom pictures. “I’m very proud, very proud, of our garden.”
The Yakima County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, founded in Union Gap’s Ahtanum Youth Park in 2005, is just one of the projects established or maintained, or both, by Master Gardener volunteers, like Pieti. The Master Gardener program took root in 1973 through Washington State University Extension and has since grown into one of its longest-running and most successful public, educational outreach efforts.
Almost every county in Washington state is covered. There are 31 Master Gardener programs representing 35 of Washington state’s 39 counties.
But, says Jennifer Marquis, the Wenatchee-based leader of Master Gardener programs statewide, “it’s just not WSU anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Other states saw the value in doing this and jumped on board and adopted the program early on. Now, we’re in all 50 states and most recently in Puerto Rico as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea.”
No matter where they weed and water, rake and hoe, teach and learn and grow, Master Gardeners are the grassroots gardening authority in any region in which they work. Whether it’s the arid steppe of Yakima or the mild maritime climate surrounding Puget Sound—or varied landscapes around the country and overseas—they are incredibly knowledgeable. About soils. About pests. About what grows well at a particular elevation or in a specific hardiness zone, with its specific range of rainfall and average annual and seasonal temperatures.
“Volunteers in the desert of the Southwest have a much different skillset than volunteers in the Northeast or the Northwest,” says Tim Kohlhauff, a certified arborist and the urban horticulture coordinator for the Spokane County Master Gardeners, one of the longest-running Master Gardener programs in the state. “The idea is to give everybody research-based information about plants and add local knowledge unique to specific growing areas. There are so many different environments across the US and in the other countries where Master Gardeners are established that they have different styles of working and decision-making. On a local level, they know what works best in their communities.”
They are not only committed to cutting-edge, unbiased, science-based education but also dedicated to service.
In Colorado, where Master Gardeners sprouted in 1975, volunteers support a Grow and Give initiative, cultivating food for food banks, shelters, senior centers, and more. They donated nearly 135,000 pounds of home-grown food during the first three years of the program, which started in spring 2020.
“Grow and Give was our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katie Dunker, director for Extension programs at Colorado State University. “We saw a need in the community, and in keeping with our land-grant mission, encouraged people to start food gardens and donate what they could to neighbors in need.”
Master Gardeners launched in 1977 in Rhode Island, where volunteers also grow fruits and vegetables to fight food insecurity. They additionally work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to install native plants at parks and refuges, supporting habitat restoration. And, in 2020, they formed a task force to ensure that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion principles and practices flourish in their gardens and programming.
In Florida, where the program started in 1979, Master Gardeners emphasize water protection and conservation. Following Hurricane Ian, they distributed 100,000 donated traps to nearly 30,000 residents throughout the state, helping to curb a proliferation of floodwater mosquitoes.
“There was a lot of flooding. The water didn’t retreat. It just stayed there, and that’s where mosquitoes want to go in and breed,” says Wendy Wilber, Master Gardener volunteer program coordinator at the University of Florida.
Master Gardeners began in 1982 in Pennsylvania, and volunteers there staff a garden hotline, putting in more than 19,000 hours and answering more than 21,000 questions last year. They also partner with the National Park Service to beautify the Flight 93 National Memorial and Tower of Voices, pruning trees and shrubs and weeding garden beds.
“Master Gardeners give so much of their time and talents to make a real difference,” Marquis says. “I feel privileged that so many volunteers across Washington state, the country, and beyond choose to spend their seconds and minutes and hours delivering the message of Master Gardeners.”
The fact that the program started at WSU Extension “is super humbling,” she says. “We take care of the earth and the water and the soil and the trees that give us space to live, air to breath, food to eat, and water to drink.”
Planting the seed
WSU Extension’s flagship program, fittingly, grew organically.
Dave Gibby and Bill Scheer were new hires in King and Pierce Counties in the early 1970s, splitting time between Seattle and Tacoma. Scheer focused on commercial agriculture. Gibby specialized in urban horticulture. And the two new Extension agents shared a problem.
“Each time I got to the other office, I would have hundreds of callback slips,” Gibby told Washington State Magazine in 2009. “We tried to be of service to people,” Scheer added. “But we were overwhelmed with the demand.”
Media outreach worsened the situation. Instead of preemptively addressing gardening questions—on the radio and television, in newspapers and tip sheets left at local nurseries—it multiplied calls. “I thought, ‘What’s the problem with having volunteers help out?’” said Gibby, who discussed the idea with Scheer, along with the German system of recognizing master craftspeople, or meisters. “Master Gardeners. We knew people would be proud to have the title,” Scheer said.
They held a trial clinic at Tacoma Mall in fall 1972 and pitched a story to Sunset magazine to plug the event and forthcoming program. The piece ran in the September issue. Training started in 1973. There were so many applicants that would-be volunteers were turned away.
Gibby soon left WSU for private industry. Sharon Collman, one of Master Gardeners’ first trainees, took over training and helped grow the program. Soon, Spokane County started a program, which celebrates its own half-century mark next year.
“I think what both milestones show me is the folks who started the program 50 years ago had a really good idea,” Kohlhauff says. “Nowadays, it’s easy to Google information. But we’re still growing and engaging people. People still want to learn from people, people they know, people in their local communities. People still want to come to us with their gardening questions because they know they will get good science-based information and advice, person to person, community member to community member.”
From 1976 until his 1994 retirement, George Pinyuh served in Gibby’s former role, helping launch Master Gardener foundations, organizations that provide financial support for Master Gardener programs, as well as the WSU Extension Master Gardener Resource Center at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Collman focused on training and outreach. And Extension specialist and ornamental horticulturalist Bernie Wesenberg helped promote the program across the country.
“He traveled around the US and talked about the success of the program and provided tools and resources to other schools to get their programs off the ground,” Marquis says. “If it wasn’t for his contacts, the program probably would not have spread like it did.”
By 1996, Master Gardener volunteers were operating in all 50 states. Ten years later, a national committee formed to foster communication and collaboration among programs across the country.
“We try to coordinate efforts and share best practices, but it’s pretty organic,” Dunker says. “Master Gardeners is a very local program. That’s its strength. We’re not big administrators; we’re big doers. We’re a very large volunteer network.”
Plant clinics, among Master Gardeners’ earliest offerings, remain a mainstay. So are plant sales and demonstration gardens, like the one in Union Gap’s Ahtanum Youth Park. “It’s a teaching garden,” says Debra Kroon, immediate past president of the Master Gardener Foundation of Yakima County. Master Gardeners rooted here in 1980.
Just inside the garden’s main gate, a kiosk welcomes visitors. In back, a core group of volunteers gathers at lime- and lavender-painted picnic tables after long mornings of pulling weeds and raking leaves. “Our dirty dozen,” Skip Brockman calls them. He’s one of the bunch. So is Pieti.
Brockman built the half-dozen birdhouses that climb a weathered ladder in one corner of the garden. In another nook, an antique sink from Pieti’s old farmhouse hooks up to a garden hose—handy for cleaning tools and watering plant starts.
Stone pavers lead to an arbor fashioned from vintage doors. Concrete squares painted with brightly colored numbers present a path for hopscotch in the children’s section. The garden is divided into several other distinct areas, including raised beds, a woods walk, shade berm, and composting.
Mulching and composting are taught in workshops held in the garden, where volunteers cultivate more than 300 plant varieties. “I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot of work,” says Brockman, who completed his Master Gardener training in 2006 and helped build the garden paths. It’s also fun “working with people of different backgrounds for the benefit of others.” He enjoys “talking to the many people that frequent our classes and other functions.”
Classes also cover container planting, seeds, sunflowers, roses, orchids, herbs, cover crops, soil testing, tomato pruning, and more. Pieti, who completed her training in 1998, leads several sessions. So does Kroon, who finished hers five years later.
“My passion in life is promoting pollinator health and habitat,” Kroon says. “Serving as a Master Gardener … helps me follow that passion by teaching classes on gardening for pollinators while educating our public. It’s a win-win.”
Master Gardeners also partners with cities, schools, nonprofits, historical societies, and other entities. To run youth gardens and teach and engage with future generations of gardeners. To provide guest speakers for gardening and service clubs and classrooms. To manage community seed libraries. To beautify public parks and green spaces.
“We’re about way more than gardening,” Marquis says. “We’re about sustainable landscaping and environmental stewardship, soil health and clean water, pollinators, and the health and wellness of our communities. We can make a difference in these areas. We can connect the dots.”
These themes were highlighted during this year’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, which kicked off in April with a commemorative tree-planting at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center. Festivities continued in May with a gathering at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee hosted an event in June. So did WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon in July.
The celebration culminates September 27–30 in Tacoma at the annual WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference, sponsored by the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State. An International Master Gardener Conference was held in June in Kansas.
Flowering into the future
Marquis anticipates Master Gardeners becoming more diverse and putting even more emphasis on sustainable practices and societal issues in years to come. Another goal: strengthening partnerships with organizations having similar values to continue to expand the depth and breadth of Master Gardeners.
“We’re going to keep connecting people,” Kohlhauff says. “We’re going to keep growing the program. We’ve done long-range planning at the state level, and we see issues for the state of Washington that we think connect to horticulture and where we might be useful. Our plan is to develop programming around those areas to make an impact on our communities.”
From Washington state to Florida and beyond, “I believe Master Gardeners will be talking about climate change, ecosystems, and native plants a lot more,” Wilber says. “And that’s what we should be doing.”
To those ends, the WSU program has launched a five-year, $1.5 million fund-raising campaign to establish an endowed faculty chair. The new faculty member will teach horticulture to Master Gardeners, conduct research, create outreach tools, seek and strengthen partnerships, and represent the program locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally.
The success of the campaign is crucial. Master Gardeners “are perhaps more important than ever before,” Marquis says. “Facing challenges like climate change and food scarcity, people want to know about steps they can take to address concerns in their communities. Easy access to information on the Internet makes it hard to differentiate fact from fiction.”
Trained by university experts, Master Gardeners, Marquis says, “should be a go-to resource for communities seeking innovative solutions to their ever-changing gardening and environmental stewardship needs.”
Master Gardeners’ first trial of delivering gardening support to the public was in 1972
at a plant clinic at Tacoma Mall. (Courtesy WSU News)
Order a commemorative magazine that benefits the WSU Extension Master Gardeners and the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State.
Examples of the Master Gardeners in Washington state counties
Growing at school (Clark County Master Gardeners and school gardens)