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Local Master Gardeners honored at state level

Extension Master Gardener Michelene Koch received an Outstanding Master Gardener Award at the 2021 Master Gardener Conference. She was one of eight local volunteers honored with state awards. Michelene is well known for her passion for the work she does and the team she leads at the Morton Giving Garden.

PEKIN, Ill - Each year University of Illinois Extension's Master Gardener program recognizes a group of outstanding volunteers who combine their love of gardening with helping others to make a positive impact in their communities and the state. Locally eight Extension Master Gardeners from the Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell Unit were honored with these state awards.

“We have such a talented and dedicated group of Master Gardeners; to be recognized among them, as well as from the state awards committee, is especially meaningful.” explained Tara Heath, Extension horticulture program coordinator.

First time award winners are honored with the Outstanding State Master Gardener Award for their accomplishments, leadership, initiative and follow-through, collaborations, and continuing education. Bill Baker of Green Valley, Bill Johnson of Dunlap, Michelene Koch of Tremont, and Peggy Shane of Princeville were selected for this award.

Master Gardeners who have previously been honored with an Outstanding Award are eligible to receive the Sustained Excellence Award. Those recognized for this honor were Louise Bassett, Jennifer Bass, and Larry Stratton all of Peoria along with Chuck Crider of Dunlap.

Sustained Excellence Award

Louise Bassett, Peoria

In 2012, Louise became an EMG and then three years later was recognized with the Outstanding Sate Master Gardener Award. She has been involved with a wide variety of projects and leadership roles throughout her tenure. One of her major projects she currently leads is the butterfly habitat at Wildlife Prairie Park. This project involves coordinating volunteers, leading several different types of educational opportunities in the habitat, and facilitating the upkeep of the structure and gardens inside and around the structure.

Other project sites include Illinois Central College demonstration garden, Jubilee College butterfly garden, and the annual plant sale.

“She is always ready to share her knowledge, her love of nature, her readiness to help and her friendly leadership style which conveys a warm and welcoming feeling with everyone she meets.  Louise is without a doubt one of the most talented, dedicated, and knowledgeable Master Gardeners and is an excellent example of the organization that is our University of Illinois Master Gardener Program,” explained Patricia Melaik, EMG.

Jennifer Bass, Peoria

Jennifer Bass has been a Peoria County Master Gardener for seven years.  Since that time, she has worked on a myriad of gardening projects and received the Peoria County Master Gardener of the Year Award in 2017. She has provided valuable time and expertise to projects at Illinois Central College gardens, Wildlife Prairie Park 4-H garden, City of Pekin community gardens, and the annual plant sale.

“Some of the work I am most proud of have been rejuvenating the hosta garden and helping fellow EMG Phil Adams create the Japanese Garden at ICC,” noted Jennifer.

Chuck Crider, Dunlap

Chuck Crider spent a lifetime as an educator and influential gardener in the Peoria community before joining the Master Gardening program nine years ago. He worked many volunteer hours applying his gardening expertise to showcase projects like Luthy Botanical Gardens and the demonstration gardens at ICC.

He has served in leadership roles at both the county and unit-wide levels, which have made a significant impact in the retention of new Master Gardeners.

“His extensive expertise, commitment to education and leadership has had a significant and lasting impact on our program and community,” Bill Johnson noted in his nomination.

Larry Stratton, Peoria

Larry has been serving the community through his EMG volunteer role for 17 years. He contributes hundreds of hours each year to answering questions from the public through the Gardening Helpline, as well as at outreach events such as the Peoria Home Show, Riverfront Farmers Market, and annual plant sale.

“He has been the leader of Gardening Helpline, where he has for years mentored numerous Master Gardeners and provided valuable insights and solutions to gardeners throughout the community,” explained award nominator Bill Johnson. “He has an insatiable appetite for continuous learning and has developed deep expertise in many areas, which he has been always willing to share. He has become the “go to” person for answers to the most difficult problems that our Master Gardeners encounter.”

Outstanding State Master Gardner Award

Bill Baker, Green Valley

Bill didn’t waste any time jumping into volunteer work with the Master Gardener program following his training in 2016. He and his wife Kathy volunteer together on projects such as Plant Bingo and the Green Valley Community Garden. Bill has served in leadership roles with the Tazewell County EMG group and provides bee keeping expertise to both the EMGs and the public.

Bill is also noted for several educational programs he coordinated including a local tree walk.

Bill Johnson, Dunlap

In addition to the EMG training, Bill has expanded his horticulture related certifications for chainsaw safety, rain gardens, and pesticide application for turf and landscape. He has held several leadership roles in the Peoria County EMG group and volunteered with at a variety of EMG projects throughout the unit: Dream Center Peoria Community Garden; Wildlife Prairie butterfly habitat, 4-H garden, the new pollinator garden;  and the new community garden established at Advanced Medical Transport headquarters.

“Bill has a zest for learning and a willingness to give back to the community and the environment,” stated award nominator Patricia Melaik, EMG.

Michelene Koch, Tremont

Michelene Koch has been an EMG for 10 years. Her most recent EMG project includes leading the crew of volunteers at the Morton Giving Garden. She has also volunteered at the community gardens in Tremont, Tazewell County Health Department WIC garden, ICC demonstration gardens, and as a horticulture judge for the 4-H Show.

“She is an energetic, hardworking individual who has been willing to help out with additional projects and has volunteered to support the Master Gardener training programs to encourage other individuals to become a Master Gardener,” noted fellow EMG Janine Donahue.

Peggy Shane, Princeville

Peggy Shane became a Master Gardener in 2013 and has been faithfully involved in numerous projects ever since. She has served in leadership roles such as Secretary to the Peoria County EMG board and the county awards committee chair, in addition to volunteer work on a wide variety of projects such as the St. Jude Parish Church and School Gardens, which was bestowed with the Keep Peoria Beautiful Award in 2019. She has assisted at the Peoria County Master Gardener training sessions, the annual plant sale, Riverfront Farmers Market, and mentored EMG interns.

These eight Extension Master Gardeners are a great example of the amazing work done throughout the community by the 150 volunteers serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. To learn more about becoming a Master Gardener or learning from one, visit the local Extension website at

SOURCE: Tara Heath, horticulture program coordinator serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties

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