The first Master Gardener program began in Washington State, in King and Pierce counties, in 1972. Leaning up to that time, David Gibby and Bill Scheer, Area Extension Agents for urban and commercial horticulture in those counties, were overwhelmed by the volume of requests for information about gardening coming into the offices. Gibby’s efforts to use forms of mass media to answer questions more efficiently only seemed to result in an increasing number of telephone calls asking for individualized information.
Gibby thought of finding gardeners who would be able and willing to answer the public's questions, and came up with the idea of trading specialized training in horticulture for a commitment to spend a specified number of hours doing volunteer outreach work. He sought and obtained the help of Extension agents, specialists, and administrators at the state university in planning and testing both a training program for volunteers and a format for plant clinics at which they would provide information to the public.
An appropriate and distinguished title would also be necessary. As both Gibby and Scheer had worked in Germany acquiring language proficiency and understanding of the culture, they knew that Germans bestow titles for hard‐earned proficiency levels in various crafts. The top proficiency level in horticulture is denoted by “Gartenmeister,” which they anglicized as “Master Gardener.” This title would be appropriate for volunteers who had received extensive training.
The volunteer concept was discussed many times before it was taken to various subject matter specialists at the Western Washington Research and Extension Center (WWREC) in Puyallup. The specialists initially rejected the idea of training volunteers.
To test the viability of the concept, Gibby, in 1972, organized a trial clinic at the Tacoma Mall featuring specialists to see if the public demonstrated interest in receiving gardening information. In preparation, he wrote articles for the Tacoma papers and aired spots on television. The results were far better than specialists had expected. They were now convinced and committed to help train volunteers. Gibby was now able to take the project to the next level. In the meantime, Scheer continued his work in commercial horticulture, but helped teach MG classes for the next 20 years.
As time progressed, the program received the credibility and recognition it well deserved. The Master Gardener Program was so successful in Washington State that it spread to neighboring states and across the country and is now in place in 49 of 50 states, the District of Columbia, several Canadian provinces, and in South Korea.
The Louisiana Master Gardener program was started in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1994 as a means of extending the educational outreach of the LSU AgCenter's Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. This pilot program was so successful that Master Gardener programs were started in 1998 in all of the major metropolitan areas of Louisiana. Master Gardeners currently assist extension offices in about 90% of the parishes in Louisiana.
Today, thirty parish-level Master Gardener Programs serve audiences across Louisiana. Master Gardeners answer telephone calls, teach school groups, lead garden tours, represent the LSU AgCenter at garden shows, develop demonstration gardens, train 4-H’ers and otherwise assist in parish Extension Offices. Master Gardeners, under the direction of local Master Gardener Coordinators, provide tens of thousands of hours of volunteer assistance to AgCenter Extension programs annually.
Once certified, Louisiana Master Gardener volunteers join a much larger network of volunteers known as the Extension Master Gardener (EMG) Program. There are more than 83,000 EMG volunteers making the Extension Master Gardener Program one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country.