50 and fabulous

WSU Extension Master Gardeners celebrate half century of service

Four Master Gardeners gather under a shady tree

Nancy Crowell

DO THEY ASK "HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?" – Skagit County Master Gardeners Elaine Richards, Paul "JW" Paterson and Sandra Swarbrick catch up with former Skagit Master Gardener Becky Stinson, who made the trek from Kitsap County to see the program and visit old friends.

"I didn't realize Master Gardeners did so many things!" Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said as she addressed the standing-room only crowd in the Sakuma Auditorium at the Washington State University Extension Northwest Education and Research Center on Memorial Highway last Thursday. The audience chuckled knowingly, as Janicki listed some of the many community outreach programs handled by the volunteers. She had been reading the 50th Anniversary commemorative Master Gardener magazine prior to speaking and referred to one of the stated priorities – teaching firewise landscaping practices. As a person with historic forestry industry lineage, she recognized this as an important effort even here in Western Washington due to our changing climate.

Several speakers addressed the Master Gardeners past and present, from seven different Washington counties, gathered for the 50th anniversary celebration.

Dignitaries, including Janicki and Dr. Vicki McCracken, WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences associate dean and director of Extension, spoke of the amazing impact Master Gardeners have on their communities. WSU opened two labs for visitors to tour, while Extension Director Carol Miles expressed her respect for and gratitude to Master Gardeners.

A member of the class of 1973 was in attendance, as well as newly minted class of 2023 Master Gardeners. Thursday's event was one of four being held across the state to celebrate 50 years of volunteers.

The Skagit Master Gardeners partnered with the Salal chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society and the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation to welcome visitors to their adjacent gardens. In addition to these local gardens, Master Gardeners from Island, San Juan, Snohomish, Kitsap, Pierce, Whatcom, Jefferson and Kittitas counties attended and many had information booths within the Discovery Garden.

How it all started

The Master Gardener program was begun in 1973 by Extension agents David Gibby of King County and Bill Scheer of Pierce County, tasked with supporting both commercial horticulture producers and home gardeners. They found they were unable to keep up with an unmanageable demand for information from the public. As a land grant institute, WSU had established the Extension originally to help farmers. But there was a growing interest in gardening in the '70s and helping educate the public about science-based best gardening practices also fell to them.

Recognizing they didn't have enough time between the two of them to help farmers and answer the public's questions, they conceived the idea to train volunteers in science-based best gardening and pest management practices to answer the public's questions. Gibby had encountered highly trained horticulturists called "Gartenmeisters" during a visit to Germany, so he suggested they name their volunteers "Master Gardeners."

Faculty at WSU Extension were less than enthusiastic about training these volunteers. Gibby and Scheer successfully proved the demand for this kind of program by setting up a free plant clinic at the Tacoma Mall and inviting the skeptical faculty members to answer questions from the public. There was such a huge turnout for the event, the reluctant instructors were readily convinced of the value of the program.

Over 600 people applied and some 300 were chosen to go through that first training.

Fast forward 50 years and the Master Gardener program has been replicated in all 50 states and Canada. Volunteers cover a wide range of community outreach. Program priorities are now focused on a future where climate change is the reality and offer the public information on: pollinators, local food, soil health, plant biodiversity, nearby nature and clean water. Education and outreach takes many forms, including the free public plant clinics upon which the program was founded.

Information on Skagit County Master Gardener programs: skagitmg.org.


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