Register Online

Online Forms and Surveys

Read the Latest News

Contact Us

Nikki Keltner
Program Coordinator - Stephenson County
University of Illinois Extension
Highland Community College, Bldg R
2998 W Pearl City Rd
Freeport, IL 61032
Phone: 815-235-4125
FAX: 815-232-9006

Stephenson County Master Gardeners

Stephenson County Master Gardeners

Stephenson County Master Gardener History

Master Gardeners have been active in Stephenson County since at least the early 1990s. The first documented training in Stephenson County was in 1991, when a Freeport Journal Standard notice on January 4 indicated that the “University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Services in Stephenson County and elsewhere throughout northwestern Illinois are recruiting volunteers for a “Master Gardener” program.” Records indicate there were five participants in that class. Bill Beddow was a presenter for the training; his Master Gardener training was in 1984, so he seems to have trained elsewhere. The schedule for that year indicates that four of the twelve sessions were held in Ogle County. Ron Welling, a trained horticulturist, was among the trainees that year.  He and Mary Scheider, also a horticulturist, who trained as a Master Gardener in 1993, were very active in the program in the early years, teaching classes and providing advice to the public. According to Mr. Welling, Laura Wyatt, horticultural advisor for Winnebago County, also assisted in getting MG programs for Northern Illinois. During the first years, MG training was regional, taking place in Rockford, Oregon, and other sites. Training was somewhat less organized than today. For example, the 1991 training used a Virginia manual.


Leadership of the Master Gardener program in Stephenson County has changed over the years. Until 2008, the program was led by the County Director/Unit Leader. Long-time Extension advisor Bob Lahne oversaw the early programs. Mark Maidak served from 1995 to 2000, Barbara McDonough from 2000 to 2003, and Margaret Larson from 2004 to 2008. In 2008, Nikki Keltner, Extension program coordinator, took oversight of the program and is presently leading the program.


The Help Line has always been a vital part of the service provided by Master Gardeners. In the early days, Master Gardeners would go into the extension office once or twice a week to check for notes or samples submitted by people who were seeking assistance. They used a University of Illinois library of materials as well as their training to provide help. Later, Master Gardener volunteers staffed the Help Line desk during the growing season, providing immediate assistance to callers as well as responding to messages left at other times. Jerrie Lott has been a mainstay of the Help Line in recent years, not only answering questions but training new Master Gardeners to provide Help Line assistance.


The Joys of Gardening program has been a mainstay of the Master Gardening program for many years. It is the major yearly presentation of the Master Gardeners in Stephenson County. Records indicate that Joys began in 1997. The original program, an all-day educational conference now offered in February each year, provides continuing education and volunteer opportunities for Master Gardeners as well as gardening instruction for the general public. Joys of Gardening features a keynote speaker, such as hosta expert Mark Zillis, and breakout sessions taught by Master Gardeners, Extension Educators, and industry professionals. A highlight for many participants is the generous offering of free seeds, collected, sorted, and packaged by several dedicated Master Gardeners. Joys of Gardening is a much anticipated event by many gardeners in the area and has often introduced gardeners to the Master Gardener program.


To provide more gardening education, Joys of Gardening was expanded to a series of programs in 2005. These programs include a spring series of stand-alone classes offered at a variety of times. The Autumn Joys of Gardening half-day session usually presents a speaker followed by a choice of hands-on classes, such as making a dish garden or a fall wreath. In 2012, the Joys Series of Horticulture Education was recognized with a State Master Gardener Teamwork Award.


The Little Sprouts garden education program was an activity that utilized Master Gardeners to provide gardening education for young people. This program was begun in 1995 by Lisa Woessner and Kim Christman from the Stephenson County Extension Unit and ran during the summers until 2013. While not created by Master Gardeners, most of the teachers and helpers in the program were Master Gardeners. The program provided hands-on gardening education for preschool and elementary school children and won a State Master Gardener Teamwork Award in 2002.


The Stephenson County Master Gardener program has received other state awards over the years. A State Master Gardener Teamwork Award was also awarded in 2011 for the Native Plants Demonstration Garden planted at the Stephenson County Visitors Center.  In addition, individual Master Gardeners have received State Outstanding Master Gardener Awards. In 2003, these awards went to Ruth Eilers and Anna Erwin; in 2007, Helen Barrett, Paula Bennehoff, Carole Pinter, and Shirley Wennerstrom; in 2008, Barb Schaefer; in 2010, Jerrie Lott, Anita Duray, and Lu Clifton; in 2013, Bob Cole and Wes Robinson. Three Stephenson County Master Gardeners have received the Sustained Excellence Master Gardener Award: in 2002, Mary Scheider; in 2003, Ron Welling; and in 2013, Shey Lowman.


The program continues to provide new educational and rewarding experiences each year. In 2013, following a suggestion by Master Gardener Shirlee Iverson, a Master Gardener reading group was formed, focusing on books with gardening, ecology, and conservation topics. The group, the Bookworms, meets monthly for lively discussions. In 2014, highlights of the year’s activities were visits to Brightflower Farms, a commercial flower producer in Stockton, Illinois, and the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin.


From a beginning of five Master Gardener trainees, Stephenson County Master Gardeners have, over the years, provided thousands of hours of service and education to the community in the programs described above as well as projects at Krape Park, the Visitors Center, the Stephenson County Courthouse, area community gardens, county schools, and many others. They have, at the same time, made new friends and learned much themselves, enriching their own lives. Presently, Stephenson County has sixty Master Gardeners who continue this rewarding work.




Contributors: Ron Welling, Barb Schaefer, Ruth Eilers, Nikki Keltner, June Mellinger, Shirlee Iverson


Compiled and edited by Jill DeGraw