PULLMAN, Wash. – Island County resident Don Lee of Coupeville has been named Master Gardener of the Year by the Master Gardeners Foundation of Washington State.
The selection was formally announced at the annual statewide Master Gardener Conference held at the Washington State University campus in Pullman, Wash.
Lee, a retired aerospace engineer, moved to Island County from California in 1989 and was accepted into the Master Gardener training program that year. He developed a strong interested in learning and teaching about the area’s native plants. Lee developed a reputation for his expertise that has resulted in his teaching Master Gardener trainees on the topic in Island and neighboring counties for nearly 15 years.
“When I first joined Master Gardeners in 1989, there was no mention of native plants,” Lee said. “Now, I teach a class to the new group every year. People have begun to realize these native plants make sense. We’ve got things growing right around us that fit the climate, need no watering in the summer and fit the disease patterns so you’re not dumping chemicals on them all the time. And, by and large, the deer won’t eat them either.”
Prior to becoming a Master Gardener Lee had gotten involved in the important issues of water supply and quality in Island County, and quickly connected his interest in native plants to the county’s water issues.
When the county commissioners created the Island County Water Resources Advisory Board, Lee was appointed and elected to chair the group. He and other committee members are working to implement their Watershed Management Plan which focuses on clean water to protect aquifers and salmon.
“Master Gardeners are involved by telling people not to rip up the plants along their shorelines,” he said.
Lee is also credited with leading efforts to form a local nonprofit 501c(3) organization and negotiating a transfer of control from the Seattle Rhododendron Society of the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens near Greenbank, a showcase garden for native rhododendron species. Today, Master Gardener volunteers, local garden club members, and the Whidbey Island Chapter of the Rhododendron Society of America are maintaining and improving the once-declining garden.
The application of his Master Gardener training and skills to help address critical local water issues was praised by Island County Health Services Director Keith Higman.
“Through his dedication and commitment of time, energy, and resources, Don Lee has been instrumental in protecting Island County’s precious groundwater resources through coalition-building, advocacy and community partnerships,” Higman said.
Island County Commissioner John Dean also acknowledged Lee’s exceptional contributions to the county as a Master Gardener volunteer.
“I am consistently amazed at the high caliber of volunteers that selfishly share their wealth of talent and experience with Island County government, but Don Lee tops the list of exceptional people who make huge contributions to the welfare of government and local natural resources,” said Dean. “He is not only a Master Gardner, but a Master Citizen and Master Leader, who the Board of Island County Commissioners owes a huge debt of gratitude.”
WSU Extension Natural Resources Program Director Don Meehan, who nominated Lee for the honor, faulted him on one point.
“We get his volunteer time sheets, and we know he’s underreporting,” Meehan said. “We know he is doing all this stuff because he is seen everywhere, teaching and guiding, pushing and prodding, cajoling and praising. He reports about 150 hours volunteer hours a year, be we estimate it’s more like 200 to 300 hours.”
WSU Extension founded the Master Gardener program in 1973 to provide scientifically-based horticultural and environmental training to volunteers, in return for their commitment to apply the training in volunteer service to the community.