Seeds of a movement: 50 years ago, Master Gardeners began with WSU-trained volunteers
For 50 years, Extension Master Gardeners have nurtured healthier, more resilient gardens and communities across North America.
Celebrating the program’s golden anniversary in 2023, WSU Extension faculty and volunteers built a grassroots movement rooted in locally based service.
It all began in 1973 in Washington state, when two WSU Extension faculty members, David Gibby and Bill Scheer, enlisted volunteers to meet the gardening public’s growing demand for answers.
With interest in home gardening on the rise, Extension educators like Gibby, an urban horticulture agent for King and Pierce counties, and Scheer, a Java-born Dutch immigrant covering commercial horticulture for Pierce and King counties, faced an overwhelming number of public inquiries on garden topics.
“We put horticultural hints on the air, we visited television programs, and they always generated increased interest,” Gibby said.
Hundreds of calls per day poured in, recalled Don Tapio, a King County Extension assistant in the early 1970s.
“The more questions we answered, the more questions it seemed to generate,” he said.
“What was necessary was to somehow get something that could respond to that kind of pressure,” Gibby said.
Memories of service work in Germany sparked an idea for Gibby, who quickly enlisted Sheer as a partner and sounding board: well-trained volunteers could help manage the load. The memory also inspired a name.
“Dave had been in Germany as a Church of Latter-Day Saints missionary, and Bill had worked in Germany to perfect his language skills,” said Judy Scheer, Bill’s widow—Scheer died in 2019 at age 84. The pair were both familiar with Germany’s Gartenmeisters—individuals awarded a prestigious title for high proficiency in horticulture. “They wanted a name that was meaningful.”
“My dad had an innate love for the natural world,” said Julie Scheer Johnson, Bill’s daughter. “He expressed that love through horticulture, and in part through creation of the Master Gardener Program. It was important for him to help others learn about and connect with what sustains us.”
Trial run at Tacoma
When the two agents shared the idea with colleagues, many were skeptical. Pierce County-based Extension ornamental horticulture specialist Bernie Wesenberg, however, was an early believer, aiding their efforts to establish the project.
“He was aware of how well volunteers could work,” Gibby said, “so I got his support almost immediately. He was encouraging, and he would jump in trying to get people to agree.”
“Bernie and David would talk back and forth on the idea of training people,” said Sharon Wesenberg, Bernie’s wife. “Bernie knew it was a good program.” Wesenberg passed away in 1993 at age 60.
To prove the concept, Gibby arranged a trial gardening clinic that could show what trained experts could accomplish with the public. Held in fall 1972 at the Tacoma Mall, the clinic was a huge success; lines of inquisitive gardeners formed in front of the specialists. Gibby had placed newspaper articles and television advertisements to drum up publicity, arranging for Sunset Magazine editor Steve Lorton to cover the clinic in a story, “Wanted: Expert Gardeners to Become Master Gardeners.”
“I got 300 volunteers within a few days of the article coming out,” Gibby remembered. “So, the two main questions were answered: Will people come to a clinic? And will people volunteer? The question now was, can we get them up to snuff?”
Out of hundreds of applicants, 150 were accepted for the first WSU Extension Master Gardener class. Training took place in the spring of 1973 at the Renton Library and the Tacoma Grange Hall. The course was rigorous, with candidates required to pass a state pesticide exam.
“Every single one of the people who volunteered passed the test with flying colors,” Gibby said.
Excitement grew as the first groups of trained volunteers put their knowledge to work in public clinics.
“They couldn’t wait for the first person to come in, or for the 20th or the 30th or the 50th,” Gibby said. “You could see them getting joy back from those they had served. What was really exciting was that the people who were served would tell their neighbors. Neighbors would gather and talk about the fact that there was a resource there. I don’t think I realized the scope from the very onset that this would have.”
Grown in Washington
By the end of 1973, Gibby left WSU for a job with the Weyerhaeuser Company. Scheer continued in commercial horticulture and taught volunteers throughout his career. Sharon Collman, Gibby’s assistant, assumed leadership of the fledgling program.
“I joined in the middle of the very first class,” Collman said. “I volunteered, thinking I would fold envelopes or something. Dave said, ‘I really need a publicity program. Can you get some publicity out?’ I didn’t have a clue how to do that, but I figured it out. We were at every possible public event talking about master gardeners.”
The early program drew as many as 100 students to all-day classes held weekly for a dozen weeks. The course covered every topic that volunteers were likely to encounter, from plants to pruning to pathology. Training classes were initially held in King and Pierce counties. Snohomish and other west-side counties followed soon after, with Spokane County developing independently.
“We’re one of the oldest programs in the country,” said Pat Munts, a Spokane master gardener for two decades.
Interest in the counties grew so quickly the trainers had a hard time keeping up.
“We would start in Whatcom County on Monday morning, and end up in Clark County on Friday afternoon,” Tapio recalled. “Sometimes we would do two counties in the same day: talk about being tired on Friday afternoon. We could hardly move!”
The program spread quickly for two reasons, Collman said.
“It solved a problem for the county agents, and the demand by people wanting to volunteer in their communities also pushed it along,” she said. “The number-one way people prefer to get information is from their friends, neighbors, and peers—people like themselves. The program trained people to answer questions for themselves. It also raised the visibility of Extension.”
In 1976, George Pinyuh was hired as urban horticulture agent in King County, Gibby’s former role, holding this position until his retirement in 1994. Pinyuh played an important role in the program’s development; his management of King County Master Gardeners allowed Collman to focus on community outreach, horticultural program development, and training.
Among many accomplishments, Pinyuh trained many volunteers and helped launch county and state Master Gardener Foundations as well as the WSU Extension Master Gardener Resource Center at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Pinyuh died in 2013 at age 81.
As the Master Gardener Program grew, Extension specialist Wesenberg helped spread the word nationally, visiting many different states to showcase the idea.
“Bernie was so excited about the program,” Gibby remembered. “He talked about it all over the country. If it was spread by anyone, it was Bernie.”
“He really promoted it,” said Sharon Wesenberg, whose favorite memory of her husband’s work is a family trip to Hawaii, where Bernie shared the genesis of master gardeners with staff at the University of Hawaii.
“It wasn’t long before it spread beyond Washington,” she added.
California’s master gardener programs launched in 1980; South Carolina’s in 1981, The University of Hawaii’s program began in 1982, as did Pennsylvania State Extension’s proejct. Today, Master Gardener programs are found in all 50 states, in Canada, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and most recently, the United Kingdom.
Changing answers, evolving programs
“Answering questions and teaching is the best way to learn,” said Robert Barker, a volunteer for more than 28 years with Whatcom County Master Gardeners.
Started in 1976, the Whatcom program has trained more than 1,200 master gardeners over nearly five decades. From a single public clinic, their effort has expanded to a presence at the local farmer’s market, the county library, and a rolling event at the program’s demonstration garden.
“It used to be that the community contacted us,” Barker said. “Now, it’s much more that master gardeners are contacting the community.”
In 1995, as a recently retired Cornell University provost, Barker joined the program at age 67. He remains an active master gardener today at 94.
“It has been, and still is, a constant learning experience,” Barker said. “As environments change, the answers that you found five years ago may not be right answers tomorrow. Quite a few of the questions I’ve dealt with in the last year have had different answers than the ones I’ve answered before.”
Over the decades, master gardener programs have evolved to meet the needs of their communities, broadening into issues of sustainability, and serving a wider range of ages and audiences.
“We were instrumental in a sea change of attitude that started to occur in the ’80s,” said volunteer Ann Haldeman, a member of the King County program’s class of 1974. “People were more concerned about the environment. They were more concerned about how to do the right things for their planet.”
“It went from being mostly flowers and shrubs, to food gardens, and now we’re moving into working with climate change, and understanding even broader ideas than that,” Munts said.
“We’ve had great people doing great things,” said Tonie Fitzgerald, former Master Gardener Program Leader for Washington. During her tenure, roughly 2008-2014, volunteers taught gardening and horticulture skills at women’s prisons, and adaptive gardening for people at rehabilitation centers and nursing homes; they offered youth and environmental education.
County programs were still growing, and Fitzgerald helped standardize training and practice to ensure volunteers were making their most effective impacts.
In recent years, Barker witnessed the rise in public, rented gardens, and the growth of school gardens, tended by pupils with help from master gardeners.
“There’s more awareness of ideas like soil analysis and the use of compost than there was in the beginning,” he said. “We’ve been in drought now for years, and we’re trying to get people to conserve water. It’s a changing situation.”
Her father would be pleased to see master gardeners helping to mitigate major challenges such as climate change, said Julie Scheer Johnson.
“This program was ahead of its time,” she said. “It trains people from every walk of life to teach other teachers.”
The fruits of Extension-inspired volunteerism have spread across the continent. Today, there are more than 86,000 certified master gardener volunteers providing research-based advice and information in all 50 U.S. states.
“The idea of using volunteers to get something done in society has spread to other topics besides gardening,” Gibby said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what good the Master Gardener Program could do.”
“It’s just the most remarkable volunteer program, I think, that’s come around in a long time,” Munts said.
The WSU Extension Master Gardener Program will celebrate its 50thanniversary with a series of public events, starting April 8 with a kickoff gatheringat the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center. Additional celebrations follow in spring and summer at Prosser, Wenatchee, and Mount Vernon.
The celebration culminates with the WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference, Sept. 27-30, at Tacoma, where attendees will mark 50 years of the Extension Master Gardener Program, learn the latest in gardening techniques and discoveries, and grow skills and knowledge to help other gardeners be successful.