From humble roots: 50 years of the Extension Master Gardener Program in Washington


The program was founded by two Extension agents in 1973

David Gibby, left, speaks at the Extension Master Gardener Plant Clinic, 1973. (Photo courtesy)

PULLMAN, Wash. — Two Washington State University professors, overwhelmed by a flood of questions from the public about garden pests, plant diseases and soil infertility, just couldn’t keep up. It was 1973 and they needed support, fast.

David Gibby, King County Extension Agent, and William Scheer, Pierce County Extension Agent, launched a new program that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023: Extension Master Gardeners.

“The founders proposed to recruit local volunteers, teach them the best research and science-based information about gardening and horticulture, and provide them with answers to questions from the public,” said Jennifer Marquis, current manager of the WSU Master Gardener program.

Gibby and Shear found a receptive and eager audience. Their first volunteer meeting included an agenda that would still be recognizable to any master gardener today, with topics ranging from vegetable management to plant pathology.

Its current standing surpasses those initial numbers, with more than 100,000 volunteers serving in the Master Gardener program in the United States and Canada alone. In North America, nearly 9 million people have been positively impacted by Extension Master Gardener volunteers, and that number is growing rapidly as the program expands to other countries.

“We’re committed to building healthy communities,” Marquis said. “People enjoy learning about gardening, soil health and climate impacts from their neighbors, one-on-one. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the program has been so successful.”

“Basically, it’s a great example of a mass movement.”

Ask a current Master Gardener volunteer like Tana Hassart how she’s seen the Extension Master Gardener program make a positive difference in her community, and you’ll get a ready answer.

“During the flood season, there was a big problem with the runoff of contaminated water around Puyallup,” Hassart said. “Extension Master Gardener volunteers designed and built a catch basin that cleaned the water and dispersed some of the flooding.”

“Their work didn’t stop there,” Hassart added.

“This area learned a lot about rain gardening and they went to help another area that was facing the same problem,” she said.

“It’s a full circle we’re hoping for and one of the reasons the Extension Master Gardener program is even more important at 50 and beyond,” Hassart said.

Learn more about WSU Extension Master Gardener Program and how to become a master gardener. If you don’t have time to volunteer as a Master Gardener in your community, you can still help advance the mission.

— WSU CAHNRS From humble roots: 50 years of the Extension Master Gardener Program in Washington

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