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Plant Palette

Master Gardeners Help Others Learn to Grow

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

The idea for the Master Gardener program began in 1971 with two overwhelmed horticulture educators from Washington State University Extension, David Gibby and Bill Scheer. Their jobs were to bring urban and commercial horticulture programming to the major metropolitan areas surrounding Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

They soon discovered that with the rapid growth of both the population and people's interest in home gardening, they were hard pressed to provide quality educational programs, as they were too busy answering questions that the public brought and phoned into their offices.

Gibby and Scheer looked for ways to tackle the onslaught of questions. One suggestion was to use TV and radio to address questions. They tried this, but it only served to let people know to take their problems to their local Extension office, making their problem ultimately worse.

One solution they considered was to train volunteers to answer some of the horticulture questions pouring in from the public. If this strategy worked, it would free Gibby and Scheer up to develop educational programs more extensive than the question and answer sessions they were struggling to keep up with.

As luck would have it, in developing their idea for trained horticulture volunteers, Gibby and Scheer realized they had both spent time in Germany, where titles are often given for earning proficiency in different crafts. Someone who had achieved the highest proficiency in gardening would be given the title "Gartenmeister". They Americanized the name as "Master Gardener" and now their idea for a horticulture volunteer program had a name.

Initially other horticulture specialists in the state rejected the idea of training volunteers to answer homeowner questions. Gibby convinced them to help conduct a pilot class at a local mall in 1972 to see if the public was remotely interested in attending horticulture classes. This pilot class was so successful that even the skeptical state horticulture specialists were convinced that the Master Gardener concept was a good idea.

The Master Gardener program grew in leaps and bounds following its initial success at Washington State University. Today there are Master Gardener programs in all 50 states, and several Canadian provinces.

The Master Gardener training program was first offered by University of Illinois Extension in 1975 under the leadership of Floyd Giles, an Extension Horticulture Specialist. The first pilot training class was offered near Chicago in Will County, and has since spread statewide.

To date, there are over 3,500 University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners statewide. They volunteer their time and expertise in fulfilling their mission of "helping others learn to grow". While they still field thousands of questions each year via phone hotlines, e-mail inquiries, and walk-in clients at Extension offices statewide, they have evolved to do even more.

University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners are grass-roots community- based educators. Their roots reach deep into their communities, and they are an enthusiastic and energetic group that believes in giving back and helping make their world a better place by sharing their love of all things garden-related. Master Gardeners teach classes, lead hands-on workshops, demonstrate gardening techniques in public gardens, and plan events designed to educate, whether it's a garden walk or seminar series.

Their assistance helps University of Illinois Extension expand its capacity to distribute horticultural information in communities. In 2009, University of Illinois Master Gardeners volunteered 180,990 hours through their local Extension offices. Using the value of $20.25 per volunteer hour in 2009 as given by the Independent Sector, this calculates to $3.67 million dollars worth of service given to Illinois communities.

The University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener program has been active in Macon County since 1987. Over 350 people have completed Master Gardener training to date, with 125 people still actively volunteering in Macon County.

Master Gardeners in Macon County provide horticulture education in a variety of settings, from the gardens surrounding Decatur Public Library to the Traughber Homestead Heritage Garden at Rock Springs and the weekly gardening segment on WAND-TV. Popular local events such as Gardening Insights Day, Plant Sale, and Garden Walk are attended by hundreds of people each year.

University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Training begins January 20, 2011 and meets weekly on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for eleven weeks. Cost of the training is $150 and scholarships are available. Master Gardener trainees agree to volunteer 60 hours of their time and talent in various community projects within two years of completing the course.

To remain active in the program following completion of the initial 60 hours, Master Gardeners volunteer at least 30 hours per year in community projects and complete 10 hours of continued education. There are dozens of different ways to contribute to the community through the Master Gardener Program, and plenty of time for friendship and fun as well.

For more information on the University of Illinois Master Gardener program in Macon County or information on upcoming events, call the Extension office at (217) 877-6042 or check us out on the web at www.extension.uiuc.edu/macon.

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