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Chicago Master Gardener

A blog for Chicago Master Gardeners providing information on volunteer opportunities, training, workshops and resources.
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Illinois Master Gardener Program Certifies Professional Volunteers

Posted by Ron Wolford -

They don't call it "Master" Gardener for nothing. Contrary to what some may believe, the Illinois Master Gardener program is not a program for casual garden hobbyists -- it's a knowledge-based horticulture program with a hefty time commitment both for the all-day classes that meet once a week from January to April, as well as the promise to volunteer 30 hours per year after completing the course.

However, the fact that 600 to 700 people become Master Gardeners in Illinois each year demonstrates that the time must be well worth the level of commitment.

"It is a big time commitment, but the people who are accepted into the program are serious about gardening and sharing their knowledge with the public," said Monica David, University of Illinois Extension coordinator for the Master Gardener program.

Automatic acceptance into the program may be another false assumption. "There's an application process. People who are interested in becoming a Master Gardener should contact their local Extension office. They are interviewed in the fall and begin the course in January. We're looking for people who want to share what they've learned with others," said David.

David said that five years ago they added an online course in order to accommodate people who work full time or for other reasons could not attend the classes in person. "I have about 60 people taking the online class each year. It's been very successful," she said.

MaryAnne Spinner who lives in Chicago took the online Master Gardener course. "The main reason I took it online was that I do quite a bit of traveling, and knew I would have to miss a couple of the in-person classes while out of town," said Spinner. "With the online program, we were given a couple of weeks to complete each unit, so I was able to work around my travel schedule.

"One thing that really surprised me about taking the course online is that I felt as if I were part of a 'community' of Master Gardener interns," said Spinner. "I thought I would miss the camaraderie that develops among individuals taking the course together, especially since I'm a rather social being. Sitting at the computer seemed like it would be a rather solitary venture, but Monica David encouraged all of the on-liners to communicate with each other via bulletin boards, and she was the glue that held us together, encouraging and mentoring us. I'm still am in contact with members of my online class, and have also found that I had no trouble making friends with the Master Gardeners who had taken the in-person course when I got to meet them at monthly meetings and other Master Gardener functions."

And, what about the commitment to give back 30-volunteer hours per year? David said that most graduates actually give much more than 30 hours. "They write newspaper columns, give talks at libraries and civic groups, host workshops, help diagnose plant diseases at walk-in plant clinics, work with youth programs in schools and with 4-H, scouting, and lots of other community programs."

Spinner's first sustained volunteer activity began in the summer of 2002 and continued for three years. She was as a part of a team of volunteer gardeners who maintain the plantings on the grounds at Lincoln Park Zoo. "Because of the large number of volunteers at Lincoln Park Zoo, it has been able to maintain its policy of charging no admission fee, unlike most urban zoos worldwide."

In 2003, Spinner became the founding manager of the Cook County/Chicago Master Gardener Electronic Plant Clinic which has led to appearances on a gardening radio show, and to a Q & A column that runs in a large number of community newspapers. She also writes articles for A Gardener's Place (online at, "To date I have written 16 articles on topics ranging from tomato blossom end rot to global climate changes," said Spinner.

"This year I became one of 10 Cook County/Chicago Master Gardeners to participate in a pilot Master School Gardener program," said Spinner. "We each serve as a volunteer resource person for a Chicago public school. I was assigned to Philo Carpenter Elementary School. I assisted the three teachers, coaching the student-gardeners in designing and planting their existing pizza garden, as well as a new sensory garden, and as of my last visit a week ago, the gardens were looking fantastic," said Spinner.

David said that the programs are based on funding, volunteer interest and the needs of the county. Master Gardeners volunteer within their own county, so David said that if there is, for example, a detention center in the community, the Master Gardeners in that county may develop an educational program there. She described an elaborately orchestrated program developed by the Garden Writers Association entitled "Plant A Row for the Hungry" that links Master Gardeners, garden plots, farms, and farmers' markets with food banks, providing fresh produce to needy families in Illinois. "The Plant A Row for the Hungry program is just one of so many programs that Master Gardeners participate in throughout the state of Illinois.

"This year we have an opportunity to raise additional funds for programs and scholarships in Illinois," said David. "Fine Gardening will donate $10 from each new one, two, or three-year subscription to the magazine. This is a great way for people to get a subscription to Fine Gardening Magazine and support the Illinois Master Gardener program without spending any more money." Information on how to subscribe to the magazine is available at or by calling 800-888-8286.

For more information about the Cook County/Chicago Master Gardener program including how to apply, contact Elizabeth Bruhns at or call 773-233-0476.

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