He sought solace in the garden.

In the early 1990s, when he was going through treatment for cancer, Tim Kohlhauff found the time he felt “the best and connected or healthiest and most relief” was when he was in the garden—specifically the Japanese Garden at Washington Park Arboretum at the University of Washington.

Tim Kohlhauff (Photo Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

“I was not as worried when I was there and that had a sort of longtime effect,” he says. “I recovered, but I found I wanted to spend more and more time in the garden.”

Cancer brought him to gardening. Gardening brought him to Washington State University Extension Master Gardeners.

“It turned out to be life-changing,” Kohlhauff says. “I ended up changing my career and going into horticulture.”

He was living in Spokane by then and attending demonstrations, classes, and workshops hosted by the Spokane County Master Gardeners. Eventually, he says, someone told him, “‘You keep showing up for all of these programs. Why don’t you apply to become a Master Gardener?’ So I did, thinking this would be a great way to learn more about gardening.”

He completed the training in 2000 and, as he puts it, “just kept hanging around. It turns out it was really satisfying for me to be able to share all of that information.”

Not only do Master Gardeners take extensive training, they commit to volunteer hours to give back to the community. Most go above and beyond what is required.

Kohlhauff already held a bachelor’s degree in history from Walla Walla’s Whitman College. But he was inspired to go back to school. He sought associate degrees in applied science and horticulture at Spokane Community College. He also received certification as an arborist.

Soon, he landed a job as an arborist at a tree and plant health company, then began teaching as an adjunct instructor at SCC. He also worked as an arborist at what was then the Spokane Country Club, caring for trees on the golf course.

In 2008, Spokane County Master Gardeners offered him a part-time job. Four years later, he went full-time as the program’s urban horticulture coordinator.

It’s one of the state’s long running Master Gardener programs, started in 1974, the year after Master Gardeners was first established. Master Gardeners celebrates its half-century mark this year. The Spokane chapter celebrates its own fiftieth anniversary next year.

The program holds plant clinics Monday through Friday, March through October, and once a week in winter when, Kohlhauff notes, “we get a lot of house plant questions.” Yearlong, “People bring in plant samples, and we put them under a microscope to figure out what might be going on there. People also email us pictures.”

Master Gardeners visit community gardens in underserved neighborhoods to offer advice and tips as well as visit elementary schools, where they help educate future gardeners. “We give kids basic information. For example, one class on insects is called ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’ The takeaway is there are more good bugs and ugly bugs than bad bugs. Not all bugs are bad. Some are very helpful.”

No matter the topic, Kohlhauff says, “we always end our lessons the same way. Every kid plants a seed in a little newspaper pot that they can take home.”

An annual plant sale helps raise funds to support programming. “We have three or four fundraisers every year,” Kohlhauff says. “The plant sale is the main one. It requires the most labor and brings in the most income.” There’s also a “Cabin Fever” workshop in late February or early March to prep and inspire gardeners for the upcoming season as well as a fall bulb sale.

“We don’t make house calls,” Kohlhauff notes. “It’s a liability issue for our volunteers.”

But Spokane County Master Gardeners maintain a demonstration garden “to show people how and what they can grow here and to use it as a classroom, to explain pinching back tomatoes or harvesting garlic scapes.”

They also recently installed a water-wise, or low-water, garden to demonstrate and teach people about water stewardship. “It does have an impact,” Kohlhauff says, adding, “If you’re interested in learning more about gardening, come talk to us.”

Kohlhauff still finds solace in gardens. But, with all of the hours he’s spent volunteering and working with Master Gardeners, it’s difficult to find time to work in his own.

“I definitely have used the knowledge I gained through Master Gardeners in my home garden. And, for a while, my garden was going good. But I started to have less and less time for my own garden,” Kohlhauff says. “Sometimes, when I look outside, I feel a little bit guilty.”

Quick Tips from Tim
Grow evergreens on the north and east side of a house. “It reduces heating bills,” he says.

Plant small trees and woody shrubs a minimum of 5 feet from a house. This helps create defensible space in case of fire and also helps keep roots from damaging pipes and foundations.

Do you have a love-hate relationship with Oregon grape? “It’s native, and it kind of just keeps growing. It can be really hard to get rid of because you can cut it, but it can grow from a 2-inch root segment.”

Most soils in eastern Washington are low in organic matter. “If that’s true in your yard, adding organic mulch like leaves, wood chips, compost, or untreated grass clippings to your garden can improve the soil at the same time it is reducing water loss and protecting plant roots.”

Tomato blossom end rot, a disorder causing the end of the fruit to turn brown or black, is the most common problem home gardeners report to Spokane County Master Gardeners’ plant clinics. “Online information talks about this being caused by a calcium deficiency, but that’s not true in Spokane County, where most of us have calcium in our water. Overwatering or ‘see-saw’ irrigation, cycles of being wet and drying out,’ are the most common causes here.”

Use season extenders, such as cold frames or floating row cover, to protect plants in the spring and fall. Northeast Washington frequently has late spring frosts, and this type of plant protection can guard against losing tender plants.


Read more

50 years, 50 states (WSU Master Gardeners, Fall 2023, Washington State Magazine)

Master Gardeners in Washington counties (including Spokane County)

Growing at school (Clark County Master Gardeners and school gardens)

Videos: Celebrating 50 years of Master Gardeners