Five Things You Didn’t Know About . . . The History of Master Gardeners

Compiled by Marsha Mercer, Certified Master Gardener

If you are thinking about joining the 2018 class of Master Gardeners, you may enjoy learning more about our history!

1) In 1971, before Master Gardeners were even a gleam in anyone’s eye, Washington State University assigned two extension agents to the Seattle and Tacoma metro areas. Their job: to help the public with their urban and commercial horticulture questions. And did they get questions! The overworked agents put on radio and TV gardening Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 6.24.23 AMshows, but that only drew more people to the Extension offices. The agents brainstormed how to handle the crowds. How about recruiting and training volunteers to help backyard gardeners?

2) Master Gardeners has a German connection. The extension agents wanted a distinguished title for their volunteers. They had worked in Germany and knew that Germans give titles for proficiency levels. The top level in horticulture is “Gartenmeister,” which they anglicized as “Master Gardener.”

3) The university higher-ups initially nixed the idea of training volunteers. Undeterred, the agents sponsored a gardening clinic at the Tacoma Mall in 1972. They publicized it on TV and in local papers and invited “Sunset Magazine” to send a writer. Eager gardeners swarmed the clinic, and the magazine published an article titled, “Wanted: Expert Gardeners to Become Master Gardeners.” MGNV Veggies-jane longan

4) Me! Me! About 600 people applied for the new training, and about 200 actually completed it. The first sessions lasted eight hours a day once a week for five weeks, followed by subject matter exams. The curriculum included ornamental plants, lawns, vegetables and fruits, control of plant diseases, insects, weeds and safe use of pesticides. Master Gardeners caught on, and the program soon spread across the country. Today, some Master Gardener training courses are largely online with field trips and hands-on experience.

5) Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 6.15.19 AMIn Virginia, nearly 5,000 Master Gardener volunteers helped educate their communities on sound horticultural practices in 2017.  They volunteered 411,250 volunteer hours – the equivalent of 202 full-time employees – and the estimated economic value of their time was $11.1 million, according to Virginia Cooperative Extension.


Gibby, D., Scheer, W., Collmen, S., Pinyuh, G., & Fitzgerald, T. (2008). The Master Gardener Program A Wsu Extension Success Story Early History From 1973 [pdf]. Puyallup, WA: WSU Master Gardener Program.

Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program. (2018). Retrieved May 7, 2018, from


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