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Gardening Information Takes Root in Clark County

PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University’s Master Gardeners have put their roots down all over Clark County.

Theirs is a grass roots program in more ways than one. Master Gardeners certainly can tell you how to grow a healthy lawn, but that’s just the beginning of their expertise and they have roots everywhere. More than 300 strong, they staff telephones to answer gardeners questions, they work at the Clark County Fair, in Clark County schools and maintain a demonstration garden at Ft. Vancouver Park.

Charles Brun, Clark County’s WSU Cooperative Extension educator, explains that not everyone can become a Master Gardener, but everyone is welcome to try.

Membership requires a strong commitment to gardening and to volunteer service. Here’s what it takes to become one.

First you have to pay $85 and take 50-60 hours of specialized horticultural education from Washington State University scientists and other experts. Then, over a two-year period you have to contribute at least 90 hours of volunteer service as a Master Gardener trainee. Then, you can be certified as a Master Gardener.

If you want to keep your certification, you must receive 25 hours of additional education each year and contribute 25 hours of volunteer labor in return.

Despite these demands, extension often has to turn away applicants because it can only train 60 each year. “We’re getting tremendous interest,” Brun says. “We turn good people away. I hate to do that, but we don’t have the space.”

In the year ending June 30th last year, more than 300 Clark County volunteers logged 15,000 contacts with Clark County gardeners to dispense gardening education. That includes answering telephones at the Clark County Cooperative Extension office, as well as other volunteer work. That’s a 25 percent increase over the previous year.

The volunteers staff a Brush Prairie extension office from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily, five days a week, 12 months year. “People from all over call in and get hort questions answered,” says Brun.

“One of the things we’re really famous for in Clark County is an organic demonstration garden at the Ft. Vancouver Historical Site,” says Brun. “That’s been written up in Sunset Magazine.”

Another popular program, in conjunction with 4-H, puts grow carts — mini-horticultural laboratories — and Master Gardeners in Clark County classrooms.

“Grow carts are nothing more than an indoor fluorescent light stand on wheels,” Brun says. The carts are designed to fit through classroom doors. “We go into third grade class rooms with these grow carts and the third graders put a bean in a pot and watch it grow.” Master Gardeners then visit classrooms and teach students about horticulture.

Master Gardener Coordinator Celeste Lindsay says the program operates with 18 grow carts. Theirs is an offshoot of a National Gardening Association program. “We’ve localized it for our own schools,” Brun says. “We have demand for more grow carts. They cost $500 a piece, so we’re always looking for more grant money to build or buy more.” Most of the carts currently in use were built by Master Gardeners, but they would like to replace them with commercially available models.

“A lot of these Master Gardeners are older, retired folks who really enjoy this interaction with young children,” Brun says of the volunteers who go into classrooms to share their excitement and knowledge about growing plants with inquisitive students.

Lindsay says the Clark County Fair Board now has a Master Gardener on the board and Master Gardener volunteers have been given responsibility for the floral building and the fair superintendent’s work for setting up and judging the floral displays and competition.

This effort alone requires 100 volunteers. They staff displays from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. for 10 days in a row each August.

Master Gardeners have taken on a new fair project, a permanent, edible landscape garden to show public where food comes from. “It features some unusual things,” says Lindsay. “It has several kinds of herbs, rhubarb, blueberries and edible flowers such as Calendula, pansies, and nasturtiums.”

Another project takes Master Gardeners to Vancouver’s Farmers Market where they are available to answer questions every Saturday from the first weekend in April through the last weekend in October.

No wonder Brun says Master Gardeners is getting to be a household name in Clark County!

As successful as its been, though, Brun sees changes in its future. Indeed, change already is occurring in information delivery.

“I think we’re going to see more and more information that’s now printed by Cooperative Extension appearing on web pages. The information system is changing and evolving.”

Brun said Master Gardeners already have bought a $2,500 Pentium computer and are looking for another. “About 150 out of 300 volunteers now have computer skills. We’re very proud of that,” Brun says. “They’re not only surfing the net, but they’re getting rudimentary word processing. In the future we will have Master Gardeners build web pages.”

No matter how Master Gardener volunteers dispense their educational information, they will continue to spread their roots throughout Clark County, helping residents beautify their property and grow healthy fruit and vegetables.

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Born in Desperation, Program Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Washington State University’s Master Gardeners program was born in desperation 25 years ago in Pierce and King counties. Governor Gary Locke is helping celebrate by proclaiming April 12-18, 1998, as “Washington State University Master Gardeners’ Week.”

Van Bobbitt, WSU’s community horticulture coordinator, says the program was propagated when the university’s Seattle-Tacoma area extension agent, David Gibby, was overwhelmed with gardening questions in the early 1970s.

Often Gibby would find 100 or more telephone messages from home gardeners when he arrived at his office in the morning.

The idea that volunteers trained by Cooperative Extension could answer most of the public’s gardening questions took root, but no one then imagined how successful the program would be.

Nothing speaks more eloquently of the program’s success than the simple fact that it has been emulated in all fifty states and four Canadian provinces. In Washington, some 3,000 WSU Master Gardeners serve 318,000 citizens, contributing more than 130,000 hours each year. Their service has been valued at $1.7 million a year.

Further, the concept has been applied to many other areas, such as Master Composters, Beach Watchers, Waste Warriors, Extension Livestock Advisors, and Master Food Preserver & Safety Advisors.

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