From humble roots: Approaching 50th anniversary of Extension Master Gardener Program in Washington State

Overwhelmed by a substantial number of questions from the public on garden pests, plant diseases, and soil infertility, two Washington State University Extension faculty members simply could not keep up. It was 1973, and they needed support, fast.

David Gibby, Extension agent in King County, and William Scheer, agent for Pierce County, launched a novel program that will mark its 50th anniversary in 2023: Extension Master Gardeners.

Two people stand facing a person with a camera. Black-and-white photo.
David Gibby, left, presents at an Extension Master Gardener plant clinic, 1973.

“The founders proposed recruiting local volunteers, training them with the best research- and science-based horticultural and gardening information, and having them address questions from the public,” said Jennifer Marquis, current statewide WSU Master Gardener Program leader.

Gibby and Sheer found a receptive and eager public. 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 dwarfs those initial numbers: More than 100,000 volunteers now serve 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 figure is quickly growing as the program expands to other countries.

Jennifer Marquis stands in front of a gazebo.
Jennifer Marquis, statewide program leader for the WSU Extension Master Gardeners.

“We aim to build healthy communities,” said Marquis. “People like to learn about gardening, soil health, and climate impacts from their neighbor, peer to peer. That’s potentially one reason why the program has been so successful.”

“Basically, it’s a perfect example of a grassroots movement.”

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

“During the flooding season, there was a big problem with contaminated water runoff around a neighborhood in Puyallup,” said Hasart. “Extension Master Gardener volunteers designed and built a catchment basin, which purified the water and dispelled some of the flooding.”

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

“That neighborhood learned a lot about rain gardening, and they went on to help a different neighborhood that was experiencing the same problem,” she said.

“That’s the full circle that we hope for, and one reason why the Extension Master Gardener program is even more vital at 50 years and counting,” Hasart said.

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