Washington State University Extension Master Gardeners have been educating people for 50 years. Today, they use decades of accumulated training and knowledge to help build healthy communities.
Master gardener volunteers work across nine different themes of stewardship. They share information on local food for health and wellness, water conservation, and wildfire preparedness. Volunteers address climate change, minimize polluted runoff for clean water, and build healthy soil. Master gardeners also help native pollinators thrive, promote plant diversity for varied, natural ecosystems, and increase access to nearby nature to benefit members and communities.
Plant clinics provide learning opportunities
Each of the nine themes is reflected in the free plant clinics that are the backbone of the Extension Master Gardener Program. Clinics are places where volunteers visit with new and experienced gardeners about sustainable gardening practices.
“Our clinics create learning opportunities for both Extension master gardener volunteers and the community members who seek out our services,” said Jennifer Marquis, statewide program leader for WSU Extension Master Gardeners. “Volunteers engage in conversations with new and experienced gardeners about sustainable gardening practices.”
Clinics look different across the state but exist in every county program, large and small. In urban areas, they may be held at WSU Extension facilities, some equipped with their own labs and scientific tools. In rural areas, master gardeners may set up a booth at a farmers’ market or host advertised events at libraries or other community gathering spots.
“No matter how they’re set up, we all share the idea that home gardeners can come to us and get their questions answered with science-based information,” said Tim Kohlhauff, a WSU Extension coordinator in Spokane County and longtime master gardener.
The program is what led Kohlhauff to his career. He started as a volunteer, and enjoyed helping the public with gardening and landscape questions so much that he was eventually hired part-time with the program. That led to a full-time role with WSU Extension.
“I still help our volunteers in the clinic and assist on tricky problems,” Kohlhauff said. “People know that we’re going to give them good information without trying to sell anything or push an agenda. Sometimes the answers may not be what they want to hear, but I think they trust us to give them as unbiased an answer as we can find.”
Because of its dense population, King County has a large number of plant clinic options for the public.
“We have 26 clinic groups,” said Gary Scheider, a volunteer since 2012. “Some of these groups are in two places, so we were open in 41 clinic sites. In 2022, we were able to open every clinic we wanted to have open.”
In recent years, master gardeners across Washington had to adjust to unforeseen, external circumstances, including the COVID-19 shutdowns that hit in 2020.
“At the onset of COVID-19, we looked around and realized our in-person clinics were not going to have an opportunity to open in 2020,” said Penny Kriese, a volunteer since 2011. “On my back burner was the idea of moving from a single person answering emails to a more complete clinic with multiple master gardeners answering emails. We had master gardeners who were looking for something to do while being at home, and who loved to do research.”
The service proved so popular, they continued answering emails even after returning to in-person clinics.
“I feel very excited that we’ve been able to provide this service,” Kriese said. “I’ve had people in other counties reach out to me, so now we’re trying to figure out a way to document the process and make it scalable and flexible enough for others to use.”
Discovery and demonstration gardens
In addition to clinics, Washington’s master gardeners help their communities through demonstration gardens. In these outdoor classrooms, which are open to the public and maintained by master gardener volunteers, pollinators have a food source, people can learn about ways to save water, the public has a place to enjoy nature. Food grown in demonstration gardens is often used to teach the public how to grow their own food, and can also help feed people in need.
One beautiful demonstration garden is in Skagit County. The Discovery Garden started as an idea in 1994, with the first plantings completed in 1996 at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Wash. The garden is open to the public every day from dawn to dusk, with the goal of showing home gardeners different ways to garden in northwest Washington.
“The garden is the showcase of the Master Gardener Program,” said Jerry Sells, a volunteer since 2003. “It’s used for training purposes, and all trainees have to spend a certain amount of time there.”
“We’re very proud of what we do here,” said Deborah Smeltzer, a volunteer since 2012. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to support our community, to provide science-based information and education to home gardeners that visit, and to figure out the needs of the community when it comes to growing living things and creating a sense of environmental stewardship, something that’s also very important to us.”
The garden includes about two-and-a-half acres of demonstration areas.
“One of the great things about this garden is we have these small vignettes that are representative of different types of gardening,” said Sandra Swarbrick, a volunteer since 2009. “If someone has a particular gardening style that they’re interested in, we have 29 different areas, and you can walk around and see the variety of plants that are used in those environments.”
In Pierce County, the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, located at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, has a dedicated food garden where volunteers learn and teach about vegetables that grow best.
“We have a large food garden with many pounds of fresh food that go to the local food bank,” said Jim Kropf, WSU Pierce County Extension director.
“We grow food for our food insecure neighbors,” added Janice Kampbell, a volunteer since 2000. “It gets transferred immediately from harvest into the arms of the Tacoma Catholic Workers, who are our neighbors, and they prepare meals from that food year-round.”
In addition to traditional garden vegetables, the Pierce County volunteers also grow fresh herbs.
“Herbs are really popular at food banks because they aren’t something they often receive,” Kampbell said. “The chef at Tacoma Rescue Mission loves if we come with basil, summer savory, oregano, and thyme because it lets him flavor food using his gifts of creativity.”
Producing food for those in need and teaching the public how to grow their own food are increasingly important to master gardeners, but they are only a small part of the statewide endeavor. Every county includes programs that reflect at least one of the nine themes. From wildfire preparedness and water conservation to helping native pollinators and soil health, master gardeners use their talents improve their communities.
Preserving resources through xeriscaping
Master gardeners are also adapting to a changing climate and declining availability of resources. In Wenatchee, Wash., master gardeners collaborate with the Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) to promote xeriscaping, a landscaping or gardening process that reduces the need for irrigation.
“We are demonstrating that with very little water, you can have a very beautiful garden,” said Terry Anderson, a volunteer since 2007. “Folks can incorporate these techniques and lower their water bills. The mulch we use keeps our weeds down, showing folks how to avoid pesticides. It’s helping the environment for all of us.”
“One of the reasons Chelan PUD was interested in xeriscape is that many customers must use treated domestic water for their irrigation; they don’t have access to river-type water,” said Susan Gillin, a retired Chelan PUD employee. “By conserving water through waterwise landscaping, customers save money and preserve a valuable resource. A xeriscape garden itself is a great promoter because people walk by here all the time. We and the master gardeners have used the garden for onsite workshops, but I think the biggest impact is just the public coming by.”
Helping incarcerated youth
In addition to helping local gardeners use less water, master gardeners are teaching youth how to grow plants.
The WSU Extension Benton-Franklin Counties Master Gardener Community Garden team and other volunteers helped the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center build a raised bed garden over a decade ago. The garden has grown to include several raised beds, an indoor grow area, and an outdoor hoop house to jump-start spring growth.
Each year, youths from the center grow around 4,000 cool and warm season vegetables for transplanting, some for their own families’ gardens at home but many for gardeners in need in their community.
One of the most important aspects of the program is providing youth with opportunities to be outdoors, said Bill Dixon, who directs the master gardener side of the project. Good behavior earns them garden privileges.
“Before participating in the program, some of the youth had never planted a seed or didn’t know what to do with it,” Dixon said. “Now, they get to see that there are people who care about them.”
Food grown in the gardens is also donated to food banks around Benton and Franklin Counties.
Respecting history, looking forward
For master gardeners, using science-based information to help communities through growing food, teaching youth, providing ideas for saving on utility bills, and offering information in a variety of accessible outlets is vital. Engaged volunteers draw more people into the program and will help sustain it now and into the future.
In the 50 years since WSU Extension Master Gardeners planted the seeds of a program to help Washington communities thrive, they have grown and adapted to today’s world. Looking to the future, master gardeners will continue to inform and help people.
“The biggest impact that master gardeners have had in my community is that we are a go-to resource,” Anderson said. “If there is a problem, you can go to the master gardeners, to our diagnostics people, and if they don’t have an answer, they will get you one.”
Thanks to Marianne Ophardt for contributing to this story.