It began in Washington: WSU Master Gardeners 50th anniversary kicks off April 8

Now an intercontinental movement, the Extension Master Gardener Program began in Washington in the early 1970s. Above, several early program pioneers answer questions in a western Washington clinic in 1973. Clockwise from rear are David Gibby, Bernie Wesenberg, Timothy Smith, and Arlen Davison.
Now an intercontinental movement, the Extension Master Gardener Program began in Washington in the early 1970s. Above, several early program pioneers answer questions in a western Washington clinic in 1973. Clockwise from rear are David Gibby, Bernie Wesenberg, Timothy Smith, and Arlen Davison.

Now an intercontinental volunteer movement, the Extension Master Gardener phenomenon began right here in Washington, 50 years ago.

To kick off their golden anniversary, WSU Extension Master Gardeners are going back to where it started with a public celebration, 1 p.m. Saturday, April 8, at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, 2606 West Pioneer Avenue. Three other regional gatherings follow this spring and summer.

“Our 50th celebration is a time to reflect on the past and envision our future,” said Jennifer Marquis, statewide program leader. “All volunteers from across the state are invited, especially those who’ve been with the program since the 1980s and earlier.”

Five celebrations, one golden year

Mid-1980s: volunteers demonstrate floating row covers at a gardening workshop.Scanner

The April 8 kickoff at Puyallup includes a commemorative tree planting, talks from special guests, university representatives, and volunteers of past and present, as well as a tour of demonstration gardens on site. Light refreshments will be served. 

Regional celebrations continue May 20 at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) at Prosser; June 10 at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center (TFREC) at Wenatchee; and July 13 at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) at Mount Vernon.

The celebration culminates with the WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference, Sept. 27-30 at Tacoma, where attendees will mark the anniversary and learn the latest in gardening techniques and discoveries.

Seeds of a movement 

Master gardener volunteers demonstrate a range of ornamental and edible plants, native gardening, composting, and garden design at community gardens. Above, Clallam County participants show off fresh produce.

Master gardeners are Extension-trained volunteers who share information on horticulture and environmental stewardship with their communities through clinics, demonstration gardens, and local partnerships. 

The program is the brainchild of David Gibby and the late Bill Scheer, WSU Extension agents who served Pierce and King Counties in the early 1970s. Supported by a group of Extension colleagues, Gibby and Scheer conceived the idea of training expert volunteers to meet an ever-growing volume of questions from the gardening public.

The first class of volunteers trained in spring 1973 at the Renton Library and Tacoma Grange Hall. The movement quickly spread across Washington, nationwide, and beyond. Today, master gardeners can be found in Canada, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. 

Changing with their communities

David Gibby, left, speaks to news reporters during a trial clinic held at the Tacoma Mall in fall 1972. The expert-led event paved the way for the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program’s launch the following year.

In Washington, more than 4,000 master gardener volunteers provide over 330,000 hours of service annually, educating upwards of 300,000 of their neighbors while providing 60,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks. More than 100,000 master gardeners are active nationwide.

From an original focus on home horticulture, volunteers have broadened their scope to address environmental and societal issues including food security, water conservation, and climate change.

“Our communities face real challenges,” Marquis said. “Master gardeners help people learn what they can do in their own spaces and take action.”

The program is currently raising funds for its first-ever endowed faculty chair, who will develop new partnerships, tools, and curricula that help volunteers become a more accessible, diverse resource.

“Master gardeners are volunteers who serve because they believe in their communities,” Marquis said. “They are friends and neighbors who have the power to make a difference in small ways that ultimately add up to big ones. Grassroots movements can make real change, and master gardeners exemplify that in Washington.”

Learn more about the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program and how to get involved at mastergardener.wsu.edu.

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