Building on momentum of decades of success, investing in the future

Fifty years ago, in 1973, Washington State University launched the Extension Master Gardener Program.

From humble beginnings, it has grown into a thriving presence across the entire state, with more than 4,000 master gardeners now serving Washington alone.

Master gardeners are WSU Extension-trained volunteers who share information on horticulture and environmental stewardship with their communities through clinics, demonstration gardens, and local partnerships.

Not only does the Master Gardener Program have far-reaching impact, but the program is continually evolving, adapting to today’s most pressing needs, such as water conservation and food insecurity.

“Our communities face real challenges,” said Statewide Program Leader Jennifer Marquis. “Master gardeners help people learn what they can do in their own spaces and take action.”

Looking forward, the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program is seeking investment from its loyal base of enthusiasts to create an endowed faculty position that will help ensure a healthier, greener, more sustainable future for all the communities it serves.

The entrepreneurial early days

WSU’s Master Gardener program was the first of its kind in the nation.

David Gibby, left, speaks to news reporters during a trial clinic held at the Tacoma Mall in fall 1972. The expert-led event paved the way for the Extension Master Gardener Program. Coverage helped draw hundreds of volunteer applicants.

It all began when two WSU Extension faculty members, David Gibby and Bill Scheer, enlisted volunteers to meet the gardening public’s growing demand for answers.

With interest in home gardening on the rise, Extension educators like Gibby and Scheer faced an overwhelming number of public inquiries on garden topics, and they decided to offer a class to train volunteers to help.

The duo quickly discovered that they were on to something: their first class attracted more than 300 applicants. One hundred and fifty were accepted into that first training session—and the Master Gardener Program was born.

Read the full story of the entrepreneurial early days of the Master Gardener Program, Seeds of a Movement.

Or watch the video.

Today, the 4,000 master gardeners in Washington state provide more than 330,000 hours of service annually, educating upwards of 300,000 of their neighbors while providing 60,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks.

In addition, the phenomenon has spread to other states, with more than 100,000 master gardeners active nationwide.

“Master gardeners are volunteers who serve because they believe in their communities,” Marquis said. “They are friends and neighbors who have the power to make a difference in small ways that ultimately add up to big ones. Grassroots movements can make real change, and master gardeners exemplify that in Washington.”

A new era of service

The Master Gardener Program is currently raising funds for its first-ever endowed faculty chair, who will develop new partnerships, tools, and curricula that help volunteers become an even more accessible, diverse resource.

Thanks to an ongoing groundswell of philanthropic support from thousands of Master Gardener aficionados—who have donated more than $62,000 over the past year to the new endowment fund, with gifts ranging from $5 to $30,000—the program has a strong foundation for building a new era of service.

To kick off fundraising for the fund, the Master Gardener Program featured new endowment during this month’s CougsGive day-of-giving on April 12. With a $2,500 challenge gift, $9,400 was raised from 65 gifts on that day alone.

In addition, the Master Gardener Program has received several gifts through donor advised funds, IRA, and real estate gifts. Among the program’s leadership donors are the Wesenberg, Collman family, and Scheer families.

By establishing the endowed faculty chair, the Master Gardener Program will have a permanent funding stream to hire a dedicated expert who will:

  • Teach new and existing WSU Extension Master Gardeners cutting-edge horticulture and environmental stewardship in perpetuity,
  • Create tools that support volunteer outreach such as publications and fact sheets,
  • Represent the program locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally,
  • Partner and collaborate with like-minded organizations to leverage program strengths, and
  • Conduct meaningful research and develop robust curricula that will build upon our program and find solutions to address difficult challenges like climate change.

Learn more about making a gift to the Master Gardener Endowed Chair Fund here.

Another popular way to give is to the Master Gardener Program is the “$5 for 5 Years” campaign, which has encouraged the Master Gardener community to pledge $5 per month for five years. For more information on how you can sign up for the $5 pledge, contact Chalayne Foster,, or download the pledge form here.

All are welcome to join in the 50th anniversary celebrations taking place this spring and summer at Prosser, Wenatchee, and Mount Vernon.

The celebrations culminate with the WSU Master Gardener Advanced Education Conference, Sept. 27-30, at Tacoma, where attendees will mark 50 years of the Extension Master Gardener Program, learn the latest in gardening techniques and discoveries, and grow skills and knowledge to help other gardeners be successful.