WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center launches the Master Gardener Program on September 2, 1972.

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 11/30/2007
  • Essay 8390
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On September 2, 1972, Washington State University's cooperative extension agents unveil a Master Gardener Program at Tacoma Mall and seed an international urban-horticulture institution. The program will grow into a high-visibility phenomenon. As of 2007, there were more than 4,000 Master Gardeners in Washington state and the model has been adopted in almost all U.S. states and several Canadian provinces, with one chapter in England. Master Gardeners, under the aegis of WSU's Puyallup Research and Extension Center, has moved far beyond plant clinics to include organics, water quality, growing food for food banks, and helping homeless shelters grow their own food. Demonstration gardens in several Western Washington counties test a wide range of growing conditions.

Seeds of Success

The Washington State University (WSU) nationally acclaimed Master Gardeners Program evolved from the frustrations of two overworked WSU Cooperative Extension agents, David Gibby and William Scheer. In 1971, Gibby, an urban horticulture specialist, and Scheer, who was working with the commercial vegetable and fruit industries in King and Pierce counties, were inundated with “intense” public demand for information on plant problems. (Master Gardener website).

They were media-savvy and first tried radio, TV, and other mass media to disseminate information, but that only further publicized the program “and brought more work” (Scheer). Engaging volunteers to help was among the solutions proposed, but officials at WSU’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center were not sympathetic. “It was a struggle with our administration. It was something new, you know” (Scheer).

To prove the efficacy of the idea, Gibby cobbled together a pilot demonstration at Tacoma Mall on a summer Saturday in September. “The mall was happy with anything that increased traffic and they put up placards” (Gibby). He not only alerted the local media, but scored a major publicity coup when he interested Sunset magazine writer Steve Lorton in covering the event. “This month and next, the Agriculture Extension Service at Washington State University hopes to recruit Sunset readers who live in Western Washington to a special project scheduled for next spring,” said the story’s lead.

Huge Turnout

Gibby was hoping for perhaps 30 prospects, but the two-page spread in the West’s premier home-garden-travel magazine helped attract more than 500. Gibby whittled the list to 300 and some 200 ultimately completed the first training sessions, which were held at the Renton Library and Tacoma Grange Hall in February and March 1973. “Areas covered in the training included general botany and plant physiology, soils and fertilizers, turf problems, basic entomology and insect control, concerns in growing vegetables and fruits, ornamentals, plant pathology or plant disease control, weeds and week control and concerns of pesticides, their use and misuse and laws concerning them” (Gibby-Collman).

The volunteers were given 60 hours of university-level instruction and committed to give back 50 hours to the community. Some suitable title was needed for the graduates. Both Gibby and Scheer had worked in West Germany, and the German honorary title “gartenmeister” became Master Gardener. Television gardening personality Ed Hume became an Honorary Master Gardener and one of several supporters in the media.

Fecund Climate

Sharon Collman, who took over the program from Gibby in 1973, said, “I was working 60-80-hour weeks. We went to every county fair, every festival.” And the extension agents found the region had one huge green thumb. “There are hard-care gardeners, very much so,” Collman said. “It’s partly climate. A lot of horticulturalists want to come here because we can grow such a wealth of plants.”

Gibby needed some money to underwrite the program -- $500 and change – but the Puyallup station administration initially said “no.” Plant pathologist Arlen Davison, however, convinced it to approve the venture and Davison would remain a strong upper-echelon supporter. Despite the program’s enormous success, the state’s budget woes in the early 1980s curtailed the program and it began charging the volunteers $150.

Collman, later transferred to Snohomish County, said, “Urban horticulture has been a hard sell, particularly in difficult budget years. ... But they’re getting so many numbers, and it’s their one really big-visibility program, big for an agricultural college in an urban area.”

Collman expanded the program, as did her later successor, George Pinyuh, who is credited for, among other accomplishments, creation of the WSU Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Resource Center at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.

The Master Gardener Program has become an institution, exploring and expanding horticulture, and nature in its broadest sense, successful far beyond its pioneers’ expectations. It is active in almost all counties in the state, in most states in the nation, in several Canadian provinces, and even one chapter in England.

In 2007, there were more than 4,000 Master Gardener volunteers in Washington state, some with 20 to 30 years of service. Collman said, “It was important that we don’t use volunteers, but involve them, engage them. That’s why our retention rate is so high.” Demographically, in Washington state, 65 percent of the volunteers are over 55, though they have ranged from 16 to 80. About three-fourths are female. Total hours donated in 2005 was 204,593, Collman said. According to the program’s Web site, the volunteers contribute “3.5 million in donated time, about the same as having an additional 65 county faculty positions.”

Sources: Frank Chesley interview with William Scheer, November 17, 2007; Frank Chesley interview with Sharon Collman, November 16, 2007; Frank Chesley interview with David Gibby, November 27. 2007; “Early History from 1973,” Master Gardener Program website accessed November 15, 2007 (; David Gibby and Sharon Collman, "Master Gardening: A Challenge with Rewards," University of Washington Arboretum Bulletin (UW Arboretum Foundation) vol. 36, No. 2 (summer 1973), pp. 6-7; “Wanted: Home Gardeners to Become Master Gardeners,” Sunset magazine, September 1972, pp. 188-189.

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