Illinois Extension Horticulture and the Master Gardener Program

Parkland College Horticulture Instructor, Theresa Meers, teaches Master Gardener Trainee, Margaret Briskin, about succulents at tour of the Parkland greenhouses during the 2019 Master Gardner Training Course.

Recently, an Illinois Extension colleague of mine was gracious enough to share an extremely rare find from the early days of horticulture extension and outreach at University of Illinois.  The publication dates back to 1915 and is focused on gardening with native prairie plants.  I found it utterly fascinating to read this piece of literature and think about the context to which native and perennial plants were presented to the early 20th century audience.  It was a message all too similar to what Illinois Extension Horticulture Programs present today. 

It was equally fascinating to think about how Illinois Extension was different at that time and how we have grown in the last 100 years.  A major milestone in the history of the Illinois Extension Horticulture Program was the foundation of the Master Gardener Program in the mid 1970’s.  Master Gardeners launched a new era of more diverse outreach efforts by providing a core of trained volunteers to extend scientific knowledge to the public at much larger scale.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who have a love of gardening and a passion to share it with others.  Each year, over 2,500 Master Gardeners help Illinois Extension provide outreach to communities around the state. Without these incredibly valuable volunteers, Illinois Extension would miss countless opportunities to connect with folks interested in learning more about plants and gardening.

The journey to become a Master Gardner begins with a 10-week training course designed to prepare volunteers for their efforts teaching others about the world of gardening. During training, attendees have the opportunity to learn about gardening from University of Illinois educators and other horticulture specialists from around the state in a way that is both interesting and practical.

The course is designed to be specific to Illinois gardening, using a comprehensive manual that was developed and refined by University of Illinois Extension over the past 4 decades.  Classes are geared for all levels - from beginners to more experienced gardeners - and include both hands-on activities as well as lectures. 

Trainees attend class one day a week for ten weeks and each session covers a different garden-related topic such as Small Fruits, Plant Diseases, Insects, Annual and Perennials, Vegetables, Trees, Shrubs and many others. 

The program focuses on teaching trainees where to find the answer to gardening questions as opposed to memorization of facts. This stress-free approach, along with opportunity to connect with fellow gardeners is exactly what makes the Master Gardener program so popular in Illinois.

One of the most rewarding parts about being a Master Gardeners comes from the friendships made with fellow gardeners. Master Gardeners volunteer at a variety of different community garden projects. They grow vegetables for the local food pantry and work with veterans, children and other diverse groups. They plant and care for the Idea Garden on campus, hold a Garden Day Workshop each March at Danville Area Community College, coordinate educational garden themed classes each month, organize an annual plant sale in May and Garden Walks in June. They also research and answer questions from the public through the Extension Office Horticulture Hotline. No matter where your talents lie there is truly something for everyone!

University of Illinois Extension offers Master Gardener Training Classes at the end of January 2020 in the Champaign and Danville offices.  Classes in Champaign will meet on Wednesdays, while Danville classes will meet on Tuesday. 

For additional information please contact Tabitha Elder in the Champaign County Extension Office 217-333-7672 or Jenney Hanrahan at the Vermilion County Extension office in Danville at 217-442-8615, or visit