On Thursday, Kurt Laidlaw sits at Tacoma’s Broadway Farmers’ Market, advising about slugs. On Saturday, Irene Reed offers gardening wisdom to visitors at Fort Nisqually. On Tuesday, George Frey spends hours in a Puyallup demonstration garden, weeding and fixing the greenhouse. On Wednesday, Cyndy Dillon and Maureen Rinehardt man the desk at the WSU Extension’s office on Pacific Avenue, diagnosing plant problems.
On any given day of the week, you’ll find volunteers all around Pierce and Thurston counties giving hours of their time to teach others about gardening. They’re the Master Gardeners, an army of nearly 400 from all walks of life who share two passions – growing plants and sharing knowledge. They’re part of a program that’s just turning 40 years old, has spread to every corner of the nation and beyond and started right here in Pierce County.
“I wanted to get into the Master Gardeners to learn (about gardening) for myself,” said Irene Reed, who with 25 years is one of the program’s longest-serving volunteers in Pierce County. “I didn’t realize how much a part of my life it would become. The biggest reward is that I get to teach others ... you don’t know how to feel good until you help others.”
Based out of Washington State University’s Extension and co-funded by local counties, the Master Gardeners program began in 1973 at the Tacoma Mall. Extension agents David Gibby and Bill Scheer had started a TV and radio public education program in Pierce and King counties as a response to growing interest in urban horticulture. The extension office ended up getting so many plant questions that Gibby and Scheer had no time to deal with anything else. Inspired by studies in Germany, where the concept of a craft “master” was still strong, the two horticulturalists decided to train knowledgeable volunteers who could then go out and help their communities. After a trial clinic at the Tacoma Mall, the initial call for volunteers attracted more than 600 responses, of whom 200 went through the first training session in 1973 at the Renton library and Tacoma’s Grange Hall. The goal then, as now, was to connect the community with science-based university horticulture knowledge through committed local volunteers.
Since then, the Master Gardeners program has grown like a well-fed tomato plant. The program has spread into 35 of Washington’s 39 counties, and into every state in the country. Countries such as Canada, Korea, Japan and England have created programs inspired by the WSU Extension model, and international Master Gardeners conferences are held. Locally, it also has inspired programs such as Olympia’s county-based Master Recycler Composter.
And it all goes to benefiting the local community.
“The Master Gardeners program offers research-based advice for home gardeners,” said Nicole Martini, Pierce County’s Master Gardeners coordinator and the only paid staff member in the program here. “We’re not anecdotal, not an informal garden club that’ll tell you to put coffee grounds on your lettuce. We’re incredibly science-based.”
The integrity shows in what volunteers are required to do to become Master Gardeners. To be certified, they must undergo 12-15 hours of practical and online training every week for several months from WSU horticulture faculty. They have an exam, and are required to reapply and gain 10 hours of continuing education each year. They’re given access to the land-grant university’s latest research, as well as that of other universities (such as Oregon State University) with similar climates.
And then they start giving back to their community. First-year Pierce County Master Gardeners are required to give 60 hours of service though work in demonstration gardens or community gardens, or staffing the many plant-advice clinics that Pierce County offers at markets, hardware stores, fairs and the Extension office itself, which is open for inquiries every weekday. They give talks at events, answer emails and help in schools. Every successive year, they give at least 25 hours of service. Some give hundreds.
“They’re amazing people,” Martini said.
Irene Reed is one of Pierce County’s longest-serving Master Gardeners. She trained in 1988, having developed an interest in gardening once her kids left home, and hasn’t looked back. She has helped the program develop and watched it change.
“It went from having just a few clinics to being everywhere in the community,” said Reed, whose main job these days is to train and help other Master Gardeners to set up clinics, as well as staffing them herself when necessary, plus giving gardening workshops and talks.
Reed also has seen the focus change through the years. “I’ve seen us change from telling people what chemical to use to asking why on earth would they use a chemical?” she smiles. “We’re more interactive and proactive.”
Martini agreed. “Each county focuses on local needs. Here, our two main issues are water quality – encouraging people to reduce pesticides, which run into Puget Sound – and food security, growing your own produce.”
The Master Gardeners program also differs from county to county depending on volunteers and need. In Thurston County, which began its Master Gardeners program in 1974-75, there are only two clinics – at the Extension office and at Olympia Farmers’ Market – but there are three demonstration gardens, including one devoted to composting. The program works hand-in-hand with the county-based Master Recycler Composter program, which was modeled on it.
“It’s definitely grown,” said Thurston coordinator Cori Carlton. “In the last three years, we’ve also seen a heightened interest in growing vegetables at home, and our demonstration gardens show how to do that.”
On a Thursday morning in May, Reed stops by the clinic at Tacoma’s Farmers’ Market on Broadway, checking in with volunteers Kurt Laidlaw and Patricia Siebens to see whether they have everything they need. Their set-up – banners, canopies, eye-catching red table-cloth, reference books – is another thing Reed has helped to improve. While Laidlaw chats to a client about non-chemical slug control and Siebens notes down a query she just handled about trees, Reed explains why she has given so much of her time to the Master Gardeners program.
“I love standing up in front of people and talkin’. I never thought I would love that,” she said. “I get others to do it. I love to teach: I figure if I don’t know something I can always learn it and teach it to others, thus really learning it myself. And I like the people.”
Reed added that after her husband died last year, having Master Gardeners friends to help her through was “a saving grace. It gets us out of the house, out of ourselves,” she said.
George Frey, who clocks in around 500 hours a year for the group, said much the same thing as he proudly shows visitors around the demonstration garden in Puyallup, with its tactile-and-colorful children’s garden and examples of everything from grasses to black bamboo to a strawberry-lined kitchen bed.
“I’m retired, and like working in the yard,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Of course, being a master gardener can mean handling some rather obvious questions. The oddest query Reed ever had was a women asking what the black oily stuff was all over her plants.
“It’s sooty mold, of course, it grows on the feces of aphids,” Reed explained. “You’d think most people would know. But this woman was convinced it was residue from the McChord planes.”
The most common queries Reed gets are how to grow good tomatoes (she advises putting them in hot places such as driveways or greenhouses) and how to get moss out of your lawn (“I ask, why would you want to do that?” she said. “Then I tell them how.”) You get funny questions, too, like the man who wanted to know how to grow radishes all tied up in bunches, or the woman from a southern state who was worried when all her trees started dropping their leaves in autumn.
Do the master gardeners ever get a question they can’t answer?
Plenty, Frey said. “People think, you’re a master, you must know everything. We don’t. But we know how to find the answer.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org/arts