Master gardeners of the future: Evolving with the needs of the communities they serve

Since its establishment at Washington State University in 1973, the Extension Master Gardener Program has fostered thriving communities and supported a healthy planet through research-based education.

The world has changed significantly since the early 1970s. The program is now turning its attention to ways it too can evolve over the next 50 years and beyond, all while remaining relevant to the communities it serves.

“The Master Gardener Program must keep its pulse on local community needs, and how best to engage with those communities, big and small,” said Jennifer Marquis, statewide lead of the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. “The volunteers know the needs of their communities. They hear what people are talking about and worried about, and it’s the volunteers who will help us develop innovative solutions.”

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

Sustaining healthy and resilient communities

Five decades of cumulated knowledge and training have led to the development of nine stewardship priorities that WSU Extension master gardener volunteers regularly put into practice, with themes ranging from plant biodiversity to wildfire preparedness to water conservation.

As the program advances through its sixth decade, improving community health and wellness remains a priority. Volunteers are working on a new initiative — Healthy People, Healthy Planet — to engage with underserved communities, help them develop more green spaces near their homes, and teach the physical and mental benefits of gardening.

“Our program is a sociologic, grassroots movement,” Marquis said. “Everything we do has a social construct to it.”

Master gardeners’ core mission is leadership through education.

“We’re meant to be community-based educators who share science-based information, and it’s important to keep that as our focus,” said Deborah Smeltzer, WSU Extension Skagit County master gardener. “Many of us already do that, but there are always opportunities to do more.”

One such opportunity is through partnerships with local, community groups like land trusts, conservation districts, or master composter programs.

“Because of our limited resources, those partnerships will become more and more important,” Smeltzer said. “Going forward, we’ll need to find ways to collaborate and leverage resources so we can provide broader leadership to the communities we serve.”

Using research to encourage environmental stewardship

When the Extension Master Gardener Program launched in the early 1970s, climate change wasn’t on the collective radar like it is now.

“Today, there is anxiety about the effects of climate change, especially in the younger generations,” Marquis said. “What’s unique about the master gardeners is that they’re the non-regulatory ‘boots-on-the-ground’ people who provide research-based, university-generated knowledge. They can build trust with a variety of people while having conversations about the small things we can do to make a difference in the future.”

The Extension Master Gardener Program was built on a solid basis of environmental stewardship. Over time, volunteers have honed in on specific sustainable practices such as composting, planting pollinator habitats, and promoting biodiversity. They help communities understand how the choices they make in their gardens today could impact the future climate.

With local volunteers throughout Washington, the program is also well positioned to address climate change on a microscale, all while using research-based information.

“That’s the benefit of having the university connection,” said Spokane County Master Gardener Program Coordinator Tim Kohlhauff. “WSU provides information that’s relevant to different counties. There’s a lot of climate change information online but hearing it from a local person is unique.”

Jim Kropf, WSU Pierce County Extension director, echoes that sentiment.

“Being supported by a land-grant institution and delivering current, research-based information brings us credibility,” he said. “Following the research keeps us believable in the community.”

A changing climate will also mean consistent updates to resources and tools, ideally in the form of comprehensive teaching materials that can be shared among counties statewide.

“As weather patterns alter with climate change, our planting guides are going to become obsolete,” Smeltzer said. “We will need to revamp them and make them more versatile. We’ll need to stay ahead of the game and develop climate change strategies. The world is changing, and home gardeners are seeing it.”

To get ahead of serious environmental problems, the program will need to pivot to an even more proactive stance, Smeltzer added. Having a core group of people who are capable of developing climate change-focused curriculum will be key.

Helping communities be wildfire-ready

A hotter, drier future brings with it an increased likelihood of destructive wildfires throughout the state. Master gardeners in eastern Washington have a robust set of fire-resistant landscaping resources that will become more utilized west of the Cascades.

“We haven’t had to deal with wildfires too much in Skagit County, but that will likely change,” Smeltzer said. “I’m already thinking about the handouts and other resources we’ll need to have readily available.”

Creating defensible space in the home landscape is key to reducing the risk of loss due to wildfire. In collaboration with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, master gardeners have developed resources explaining different categories of vegetation that homeowners can incorporate into their landscapes to build defensible space.

“Master gardeners are uniquely positioned to help people landscape in areas adjacent to their homes,” said Al Murphy, a Chelan County master gardener and retired forester and fire ecologist. “They know the categories of vegetation that will drastically reduce the probability of a home burning.” 

Master gardeners’ wildfire preparedness resources will only become more beneficial in a future of rising temperatures and increased drought. Putting in the work now is critical.

“By landscaping now in a more fire-resilient way, we can minimize the danger of losing properties or homes to a future wildfire,” Kohlhauff said.

Getting ahead of food scarcity

According to the EPA, around one-tenth of U.S. households experienced food insecurity during 2020. That figure will likely be exacerbated as climate change takes its toll on crop production. Master gardeners have positioned themselves in several ways to meet this challenge.

A person in a hat reaches into a raised  garden bed full of lettuce and other plants. Other garden beds surround them.
In demonstration and community gardens throughout the state, volunteers will continue teaching people how to brace for potential food supply chain interruptions by growing their own food.

In demonstration and community gardens throughout the state, volunteers will continue teaching people how to brace for potential food supply chain interruptions by growing their own vegetables, berries, and other food.

Community gardens in Yakima, Wash., were developed in partnership with the Latine community to feed families in the area. Meanwhile, in Pierce County, master gardeners volunteer in school gardens and collaborate with the SNAP-Ed program to teach children how to garden at their own homes.

“A lot of our classes are oriented toward encouraging people to think about food scarcity before it becomes an issue,” Kohlhauff said.

Volunteers will also remain committed to helping alleviate food scarcity in their communities by donating the produce they grow in their demonstration and community gardens. In 2022, the program donated more than 80,000 lbs. to food banks statewide, and community members reported saving $42,000 by growing their own food.   

Master gardeners will also continue focusing on their goal of encouraging healthy environments for pollinators, which are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat, according to an estimate by the USDA.

“Supporting pollinator health is a thread that runs through a lot of what we do,” Kohlhauff said.

Volunteers already offer pollinator-friendly plant lists and tend several demonstration gardens with pollinator-attracting plants throughout the state. In Skagit County, volunteers have converted part of their demonstration garden into a pollinator-friendly zone and highlight the importance of these organisms in their lectures and curricula.

“Master gardeners must continue spreading the word about how reliant the human race is on pollinators,” Murphy said.

Going forward, the program will also continue to promote biodiversity in the garden.

“You can’t talk about pollinators without talking about plant biodiversity,” Smeltzer said. “We’ve been looking at how to make sure you have the right mixture of plantings to attract pollinators and how they help facilitate and sustain plant biodiversity.”

A yellow and black butterfly lands on a purple flower.
Master gardeners work to encourage healthy environments for pollinators such as butterflies.

This focus helps communities prepare for a future of climate unpredictability.

“It’s important to make our landscapes and urban natural environments more diverse and more likely to survive a new pest, hot temperatures, or storm systems we’re not used to,” Kohlhauff said. “Gardening with those techniques will help us in the long run.”

Monitoring new invasive species — whether insects, diseases, or weeds — will also be essential to combatting climate change.

“If many people are looking out for invasive species, that can help us meet the challenge of climate change,” Kohlhauff said. “As our environment changes, more of these plants or pests will show up and potentially impact native plants.”

Right plant, right place

Looking ahead to a hotter future, master gardeners will continue drawing attention to water conservation while encouraging those in their communities to make appropriate planting choices.

“Plants that are totally acclimated to their environment are much more stable, and their ability to withstand climate change is much stronger,” Murphy said. “Planting the right plant in the right place, and managing it appropriately, is very important when it comes to being wise with water.”

On the west side of the state, Skagit County master gardeners have already developed extensive drip irrigation throughout their 1.5-acre demonstration garden, showing home gardeners how to preserve water for the future. Many volunteers also use rain barrels to catch water in the garden and teach different methods for mulching, which helps retain water in the soil. 

Master gardeners also offer lists of plants, including natives, that do well in drought conditions. Some counties have created examples of drought-tolerant xeriscape gardens. The Waterwise demonstration garden in Spokane County is easily viewed from the street and includes walking paths for exploring various native and drought-tolerant plants. Volunteers plan to add more plants and create informational signage so garden visitors can learn what grows well in the area.

A xeriscape garden with rockery, plants, and wood chips.
In Wenatchee, Wash., the Chelan-Douglas County master gardeners have partnered with the Chelan County Public Utility District to create the Riverfront Park Demonstration Garden, which provides a beautiful example of xeriscaping to passersby.

Kohlhauff hopes the garden will continue to serve as an example of how local citizens can prepare for climate change.

“We’ve always encouraged people to adopt different types of gardening techniques or different ways of looking at their landscapes before there’s really a problem,” he said.

In Wenatchee, Wash., the Chelan-Douglas County master gardeners have partnered with the Chelan County Public Utility District to create the Riverfront Park Demonstration Garden, which provides a beautiful example of xeriscaping to passersby.

“Master gardeners will need to keep encouraging communities to plant native vegetation,” Murphy said. “Everything is natural and native to the earth. Where on Earth is a different question.”

Reaching a wider audience through technology

Master gardeners have modernized their program over the last 50 years, incorporating technology to effectively reach their communities. The pandemic acted as a major catalyst to further ramp up use of online platforms like Zoom, which allowed the annual WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference to go virtual. The conference will continue in that format biennially, breaking down potential barriers of travel time and expense and allowing more people to participate.

The online option is a change that’s likely to stick around, especially if the program hopes to reach more community members and recruit additional volunteers. 

“I don’t see us ever going back,” said Cathi Lamoreux, a Spokane County master gardener and vice president of the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State. “I don’t think there will ever be a time when you don’t get to choose between in-person plant clinics, online meetings, and classes.”

Two people look at a computer together with their backs facing the camera.
Master gardeners have modernized their program over the last 50 years, incorporating technology to effectively reach their communities.

Soon, computer literacy may even be a requirement for all incoming master gardeners.

“COVID-19 demonstrated that volunteers have to be more technologically nimble,” Smeltzer said. “Showing that we’re up to speed on the latest tech will help attract more people to our program.”

For some, Zoom has fostered a sense of connection with volunteers in other counties, providing a cohesiveness to training and other aspects of the program that they hope will remain.

“I feel more connected to other master gardeners statewide,” Lamoreux said. “As a volunteer who lives in eastern Washington, it can feel isolating because there are fewer of us.”

“I feel like now we’re becoming a state Extension Master Gardener Program as opposed to individual county master gardener programs,” added Debra Benbow, a WSU Extension Chelan-Douglas County master gardener.

Another opportunity for future growth is the program’s use of social media. Traditionally, posts have targeted an older demographic, missing a chance to reach younger, more diverse audiences. 

“Our use of social media needs to morph into whatever platform is being used,” Lamoreux said.

Utilizing additional social media platforms and expanding the reach of those platforms already in use will help volunteers provide accurate, research-based information. The program also plans to increase its YouTube video production and is working hard to keep the website fresh with new information.

“I envision the website as the go-to place for gardeners,” Benbow said.  “We can use it as a resource for continuing education classes and to refer them to our YouTube videos.”

No matter the platform, tech will continue to help master gardeners effectively disseminate resources to their communities well into the future.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Lamoreux said. “If the program doesn’t embrace the latest technology, it will go away.”

Representing the communities it serves

Historically, the Extension Master Gardener Program has tended to attract white, retired individuals with spare time to give. Altering that status quo will require challenging conversations around ethnicity, race, and gender, but lasting change is needed if the program wants to truly represent the communities it serves. 

“As gardeners, we frequently encounter the power of diversity in our work,” said Tana Hasart, a WSU Extension Pierce County master gardener. “If we compare our communities’ composition to that of many of our master gardener programs, it’s evident we have work to do when it comes to creating a more inclusive and diverse organization.”

The program is already working to reach a younger demographic through its partnerships with 4-H and Future Farmers of America, but there’s still room to bring in a wider range of volunteers.

A fence with 10 wooden strips of different heights attached to it. The strips each have a painting of a person on them. The people vary in eye color, hair color, and skin color.
Artwork in the demonstration garden at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

“We’re attracting a younger audience to the training, but our volunteer opportunities haven’t adjusted enough,” Marquis said. “Our recruitment and training processes need to be evaluated. Changing the culture of a program that’s been around for 50 years will take a lot of brave, hard, heart work, but I think we’ll get there.”

For some volunteers, younger generations are key to a modern, vibrant future.

“I hope the younger people who are coming into the program will guide us, and I hope we have the wherewithal to listen to them,” Lamoreux said. “The program needs to evolve.”

Another way the Extension Master Gardener Program plans to increase accessibility is by offering more volunteer options outside of the traditional 9-to-5 working hours.

“Because of the limits of our current offerings, we don’t attract young people, but we should be,” Smeltzer said. “We have to address their needs by offering trainings on weekends or evenings, rather than the middle of a weekday.”

In Pierce County, demonstration gardens are open one Saturday per month so that interns can log volunteer hours outside the typical workweek. Hasart hopes to increase these sorts of opportunities in the future.

“Offering alternatives for volunteer hours and continuing education and trying to eliminate barriers whenever we come across them is important,” she said.

Again, technology will be instrumental. Most of the program’s training is now available online, allowing people with different life circumstances to participate. Since going partially virtual, the program has seen a dramatic increase in participation and diversity.

“Offering online classes makes us more available to potential volunteers who can save money and time by completing their training from home,” Kropf said. “It helps us become more representative of our county’s demographics, whether it be age, gender, race, or ethnicity. We must adapt to the way they want to learn.”

Additional diversity, equity, and inclusion training and a book club centered on inclusivity are other options for increasing diversity. Some counties are already conducting diversity workshops as part of their continuing education offerings. This year, Skagit County master gardeners conducted their first new intern training session about navigating cultural differences.

“It turned out to be a terrific discussion, and people were engaged,” Smeltzer said.

As the program evolves, volunteers hope to see diversity seamlessly incorporated.

“We must look for ways to weave equity and diversity into the fabric of what we do, and not just view it as an extra siloed responsibility or activity,” Hasart said. “To be a sensitive organization that acts on its values, we need to step forward into that work.”

Hasart’s ideas for improvement include reexamining methods for recruiting interns, looking at how volunteers approach and integrate with diverse communities in the regions they serve, and brainstorming ways to incorporate garden practices from other cultures.

“We need to actively demonstrate — in word and deed — that we’re a welcoming organization,” she said. “We need to show how we integrate people from diverse communities, how we mentor them, and how we learn from them.”

No longer a secret

“Periodically, I hear people say that Extension and the master gardeners are WSU’s best-kept secret. We don’t want to be a secret anymore!” Kohlhauff said. “We have great information; we just need people to know we’re here for them.”

The program plans to bolster its visibility by hiring an endowed faculty chair who will be fully dedicated to the program. A successful campaign would make the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program the first such program in the world with someone in this role.

“An endowed faculty chair will elevate our reputation and be a game changer for our program,” Marquis said. “This person will ensure that our curricula and other resources are continuously updated, and that new research is passed on to volunteers. They will also support the telling of an impactful story, leading to increased revenue generation and a broadening of our statewide team.”

The endowed faculty chair will deliver innovative horticulture and environmental stewardship education that volunteers can pass along to those they teach, solidifying the program as a go-to resource for communities seeking innovative solutions.

A young white-petaled dogwood tree with trees, grass, and cloudy skies in the background.
As a symbol of future growth, a tree was planted in April at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

The endowed faculty chair is just one piece of the exciting future that lies ahead for the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. After 50 years of development into the community resource it is today, the program now turns its attention to expanding its reach through a future centered on diversity, climate change resources, innovative technology, and more.

As a symbol of future growth, a tree was planted in April at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center during the first of four regional 50th anniversary celebrations. With the dedication of talented volunteers, the tree and program will continue to thrive.

“This program has come a long way in 50 years,” Smeltzer said. “Now, we’re strategizing for the future while remaining flexible, nimble, and adaptable.”