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About forty-five years ago, two Extension Educators in the state of Washington met to brainstorm ideas and solve a problem they both shared.  David Gibby and Bill Scheer were both Extension Educators in the Seattle metropolitan area and were looking for ways to handle the overwhelming public demand for information about urban horticulture.  

Rapid population growth and a burgeoning public interest in backyard gardening had spawned more need for outreach then either educator could provide single-handedly.   Of the various approaches considered to address this need, the gentlemen decided to develop a program that recruited volunteers and provided extensive training in horticulture.  Once trained, those volunteers could assist extension staff in providing outreach and education to effectively address the needs of exploding ranks of home gardeners. 

Gibby and Sheer laid the foundation for the program we now all know as the Master Gardener Program.  Today, the Master Gardener Program trains volunteers to be effective community educators in horticulture across all 50 states and several Canadian provinces. 

Since its inception in 1972, the program has rapidly grown in popularity and each state has developed extensive training curriculum specific to local climate, soils and vegetation. The Master Gardener program began in 1975 in Illinois under the direction of former Extension Horticultural Specialist, Floyd Giles.  It started in the northern, more urban counties and has expanded to nearly every county throughout the state involving volunteers from both urban and rural communities.

Although 45 years of work has resulted in extensive, state-specific curriculum to answer horticulture questions, county extension offices still receive a significant number of requests on an annual basis.  Every year, the Horticulture Hotline at the Champaign County University of Illinois Extension Office receives several hundred phone calls from community members with horticulture-related questions.  Those questions are answered almost entirely by our Master Gardener volunteers.  It is a wonderful, free-of-charge service which directly addresses the public need that Gibby and Scheer originally tackled.  Without the help of our volunteers, the Horticulture Hotline service would not be possible. 

Master Gardener volunteers have become an integral part of U of I Extension, providing outreach and education that extension staff alone could not begin to address.  In our local extension unit, which includes Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion Counties, volunteers provide educational presentations to civic groups, work directly with children and seniors on gardening projects, conduct annual garden walks for hands-on learning, grow produce for donation, plan and participate in monthly continuing education programs and maintain a number of local community gardens.

Across the four county unit, Master Gardener volunteers maintain community gardens with a variety of focuses.  Some of these spaces are educational with an emphasis on therapy such as the gardens at Champaign County Nursing Home, the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center and Crisis Nursery, as well as the US Department of Veterans Affairs Healing Garden in Danville.  Other community gardens are set up as demonstration gardens, such as the Douglas Discovery Garden in Danville, The Onarga Library Idea Garden, The U of I Arboretum Idea Garden and the Atwood House Garden and Bunker Hill Herb Garden at Kennekuk Park in Danville.  Please take time to visit one of our community gardens this coming growing season and don’t hesitate to ask a Master Gardener any of your horticulture questions.

If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardener, no prior gardening experience is needed.  You will begin with a 12 week training course that includes over 60 hours of instruction on everything from fruits and vegetables to bushes and trees.  The course covers a wide range of topics in horticulture including soils, fertilizers, insects, diseases, and cultural practices, such as pruning.  It’s taught by Extension Educators, University Staff, and other horticulture experts in our area.  It offers an exceptional overview of all aspects of horticulture and prepares you to work and learn side by side with others that have similar interests.

U of I Extension is currently accepting applications for the January 2018 class.  Applications are available for pickup at our office on Country Fair Drive in Champaign or online at:  http://go.illinois.edu/2018MGSignUp.

Ryan Pankau is Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties.