Master Gardener Elaine Weil works with children on planting plants

For the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener program, the last four decades can be measured by the millions of volunteer hours given to help bring horticultural help to communities across the state.

This past year marked the 40th anniversary of the Illinois Master Gardener program. With over 3,000 members today, Illinois Master Gardeners have given more than 2,309,348 volunteer hours, a value of over $46 million, to the state.

The program began in Illinois in 1975, under the direction of Floyd Giles, a former Extension horticultural specialist and state Master Gardener coordinator. That first program was conducted in Will, DuPage, and northern Cook counties. Training of the first volunteers took place in Wheaton, and the first Master Gardener office operated out of the Des Plaines post office.

Today, Master Gardener volunteers—who come from farms, small towns, suburbs, and cities—offer numerous educational opportunities related to gardening in nearly every county in the state.

The mission of the Illinois Master Gardener program is “Helping Others Learn to Grow.” After 60 hours of training in topics such as vegetable and flower gardening, insect problems, and plant diseases, the volunteers participate in programs throughout their communities. Some of those opportunities may include speaking at garden clubs, civic groups, or schools; answering calls or emails at garden help desks; establishing demonstration gardens that serve as educational tools; and educating citizens on how to establish community gardens.

Monica David, state coordinator for the Illinois program, points out that the programs vary by county depending on the needs of the community and the Master Gardeners themselves. “There isn’t a cookie cutter volunteer project in every county,” David explains. “Some counties focus on youth gardening and some stress answering questions that come in to the local Extension office. Each county is a little different.”

David says people who may already have an interest in gardening, but who especially want to give back to their communities are those who become Master Gardeners. “It’s not always people with a horticultural background, because we do train them. It’s people who are interested in helping people and working with the public that come to the program,” David says.

Before joining the Master Gardener program 16 years ago, David was in the field of medical microbiology for nearly 25 years. “I decided I wanted a switch, so I went back and got a master’s degree in horticulture with an emphasis on plant diseases. A job was open in the program and I’ve been here ever since,” David says.

After serving as the Illinois Master Gardener program state coordinator since 2003, David will retire on Dec. 31.

David explains that while the program tends to attract most of its members from the “retired crowd,” there has been an increase in people from younger generations signing up. “It’s a lot about people who really want to further their education, too,” she says.

During the 2015 Master Gardener State Conference in O’Fallon in September, a celebration was held to celebrate the anniversary and present awards to projects from across the state.

A few examples of teamwork award winners include:

  • “Trees are Terrific” Arbor Day Program (Cook South Suburban) - Eight Master Gardeners contributed 272.5 volunteer hours presenting 23 “Trees are Terrific” Arbor Day programs from 2009 through 2014. The volunteers adapted the Extension website Trees are Terrific to become a face-to-face and hands-on program for pre-K through first grade at nine separate schools.
  • Vermicomposting in the Classroom (Jo Daviess County) - A team of Jo Daviess County Master Gardeners have been implementing Vermicomposting in the Classroom since Earth Day 2013. The team travels to one elementary school per year bringing hands-on materials for third graders to experience, learn about, and create compost bins with red worms.
  • The Gardens at SIUe (Madison-Monroe-St. Clair Counties) - Unit 22 Master Gardeners took over the planting and maintenance of these gardens as well as educational efforts. In 2014 Master Gardeners donated over 900 volunteer hours to plant and maintain the Shakespearean Garden, the Presidential Walkway, the Prairie Portal, and a butterfly garden.
  • Healthy Gardening Food Pantry Project (Marshall-Putnam County) - This project was an outreach program to benefit and aide in educating and assisting 18 rural communities within this small multi-county unit on the health benefits of home gardening with the focus being on those in need at local food pantries. Phase one began with Master Gardeners teaching basic vegetable gardening classes in five different locations. Phase two involved distributing containers, plants, seed, and soil to people at all five food pantries.
  • Discovery Garden (McDonough County) - In 2013, a small garden committee met to begin planning and developing the Discovery Garden on the Extension grounds. This garden is made  up of 18 individual gardens including a front window garden, sedum garden, bulb garden, daffodil and daylily garden, rainbow garden, butterfly garden, sod test garden, front sign garden, shade garden, hummingbird garden, ornamental grasses garden, test plots, nursery garden, sun garden, fruit trees garden, hydrangea garden, a Chief garden for natives, and a high-tunnel garden. These gardens show the public best gardening practices and successful varieties.
  • Self Help Garden Club (Whiteside County) - The Self Help Garden Club serves developmentally delayed adults living in group homes and/or on their own among the community. The goals of this project are to educate these consumers on food production and to increase their awareness of healthy eating.

For a full list of this year’s award winners, visit the U of I Extension Master Gardeners' website.

The first Master Gardener program began in 1972 in Washington state. Because Extension specialists received so many requests for gardening information, the program was created to allow Extension specialists and faculty to train volunteers in exchange for a commitment to spend a specified number of hours doing volunteer work in the community. The program has since spread to all 50 states and several Canadian provinces.

For more information on volunteer opportunities and how to become an Illinois Master Gardener, visit our website