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History of the NC Extension Master Gardener Program

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Written by:
Bob Kellam, Master Gardener volunteer – Wake County
Larry Bass, Extension Specialist and NC EMG Program Coordinator (retired)

1970’s and 80’s: The Beginning

In 1972, as the result of an increasing number of inquiries from the public on horticulture and gardening issues, the Washington State Cooperative Extension began a series of plant clinics, staffed by volunteers, at a shopping mall in Tacoma. By the following year, the clinics had become so popular that a training curriculum for volunteers was developed and “Master Gardener” programs were established in two Washington counties. Over the next several years, the program spread across the U.S. and into Canada.

The first appearance of the program in North Carolina occurred in 1978 in New Hanover County with the establishment of a garden “hotline” staffed by volunteers. Durwood Baggett, the county Extension director at the time, had recently visited an Extension office in Florida and had been impressed by a new program underway there that trained volunteers in horticulture practices so that they could communicate research-based information to the public. Baggett had also been fielding an increasing number of non-traditional horticulture questions in New Hanover and recognized the potential benefits of a cadre of trained volunteers.

At about the same time, Wake County Extension Director Victor Lynn and agent Larry Bass decided to develop a training curriculum for volunteers, and the first class of Master Gardener volunteers in the state was graduated in 1979. In the same year, New Hanover County expanded their garden hotline into a full Master Gardener program.

Bass moved to NC State in January 1980 to become the first statewide Extension Master Gardener Program Coordinator. In 1982, there were five North Carolina counties (New Hanover, Wake, Durham, Forsyth, and Buncombe) with organized programs. The early programs offered consumer hotlines, plant clinics, and provided speakers for local schools, garden clubs, and civic organizations.

1990’s: Rapid Growth

By 1990, twenty-one North Carolina counties were participating in the program with a total of 509 volunteers, providing more than 16,000 hours of volunteer service. In April of that year, Wake County hosted the first statewide training conference for North Carolina’s Master Gardeners. At that meeting, Dr. Billy Caldwell, the interim Director of NC Extension, appointed an advisory committee of Master Gardener volunteers to explore the possibility of an independent state association, similar to those of the 4-H and Extension and Community associations, to support and advocate for the state program. The committee met several times over the next year, developed a set of bylaws for the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association, and elected interim officers at the second state conference hosted in May 1991, by Forsyth County in Winston Salem.

The stated purpose of the Association is to aid in improving the effectiveness of its members as Extension Master Gardener volunteers, raise issues for the improvement of the program, facilitate communication among its members, undertake fundraising, and sponsor education and training activities in partnership with county programs and Cooperative Extension. Statewide conferences have continued to the present day, bringing together Master Gardener volunteers from around the state for supplemental training, networking, and the sharing of information.

Between 1990 and 1996, the number of counties participating in the program grew from 21 to 59, with more than 1,800 volunteers donating more than 45,000 hours to N.C. Cooperative Extension. A 1996 survey of county agents with Extension Master Gardener program responsibilities, conducted by Bass and Robert Mustian, found that more than two thirds felt the program should continue to be supported and that the work of the Master Gardener volunteers in answering calls and staffing workshops freed up a significant amount of time for them to handle other pressing matters.

For the first 15 years of the North Carolina program, counties either developed their own materials or used a Virginia study-guide for the training of new Master Gardener volunteers. In May of 1994, however, with the support of the NCEMGVA, and under Bass’s leadership, the first edition of the NC Extension Master Gardener Manual was officially published. The manual was updated in 1998, during Erv Evans tenure as state coordinator. Between 2014 and 2017, the manual was revised and re-designed under the leadership of Dr. Lucy Bradley, NC State Extension specialist for urban horticulture. Now known as the Extension Gardener Handbook, it is available free online. Beautifully formatted, full-color hardback editions of the Extension Gardener Handbook may be purchased from UNC Press.

2000’s: Diversification

During Evans’ tenure (1996-2008), the North Carolina program continued to grow, and the responsibilities at the county level to diversify. By 2007, the number of Master Gardener volunteers statewide exceeded 3,000, with 80 counties having some type of program. The statewide conferences had expanded to 3 days, offering tours and workshops as well as educational sessions.

Extension Master Gardener programs also expanded during this period, moving into the development of demonstration and teaching gardens, inauguration of a Junior Master Gardener program for children, and establishing partnerships with organizations including:

  • Habitat for Humanity (helping new homeowners learn how to plant and maintain their landscapes),
  • Youthful offenders programs (offering supervised horticultural work to juveniles ordered to make restitution), and
  • Senior assisted living facilities (horticultural therapy and adaptive tool training).

During this period, county programs became involved in the development and management of arboretums and botanical gardens. In 2000, the Forsyth County Master Gardener volunteers assumed responsibility for The Arboretum and Gardens at Tanglewood Park in Winston-Salem, a seven acre site that had been in decline for several years as the result of inadequate county funding and manpower. The Arboretum now boasts 26 themed gardens as an educational resource for the public and green industry professionals.

During the annual conference in Raleigh in 2007, Dr. Jon Ort, Director of NC Extension, announced the establishment of the NC Extension Master Gardener Endowment, a fund to be maintained by the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation at NC State in support of the statewide program. Durwood Baggett, the New Hanover County director who had inaugurated the first garden hotline in 1978, was on hand for the celebration.

In 2008, with Evans’ retirement and Dr. Bradley’s assumption of the state coordinator role, the number of NC Master Gardener volunteers approached 4,000 with programs in 87 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The partnership between NC State Extension and the NCEMGVA was strengthened in 2009 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding that clarified roles and responsibilities, particularly in regard to the planning and conduct of the statewide conferences. NCEMGVA and Extension also partnered in 2009 to develop a Master Gardener volunteer special license plate available from the NC Department of Transportation.

Over the last several years, there have been a number of significant developments in both the breadth and diversity of the EMG program. Under Dr. Bradley’s leadership, the internet footprint of the program has greatly expanded with, an intranet site which provides counties with tools to improve their administrative operations as well as to share event calendars and networking. Online resources have been updated and search algorithms improved to make it easier to find research-based information to answer inquiries and a major revision of the EMG training manual, now known as the Extension Gardener Handbook, was completed in 2017.

In collaboration with NCEMGVA, agent training opportunities have been added to the statewide conferences with training funds provided by Extension to encourage more county agents to attend the meetings. NCEMGVA has also expanded its offerings, adding online registration and membership renewals and a searchable membership directory to its website, as well as establishing a competitive grants program and the Madeline Collier Landscape Garden Design Competition. A 2012 donation campaign for the Extension Master Gardener Endowment, led by NCEMGVA and supported by 21 counties, raised more than $15,000 to fully vest the fund.

2010 – Present: Increasing Impact

In 2012, Extension granted the Extension Master Gardener program “signature program” status, putting it on a par with 4-H. County programs have continued to grow and mature with expansion into local food, community gardening, youth education, and environmental stewardship. Examples include:

  • Catawba County EMGs partnering with a local medical center to develop a “Healthy House” and gardens to prevent and treat childhood obesity;
  • Burke County EMGs weaning themselves from city water, installing cisterns to collect run-off from their Extension Center to irrigate their community gardens;
  • Union County EMGs developing a Woodland Garden in an area previously subject to stormwater run-off from the Extension complex; and
  • Wilson County EMGs designing and constructing a Children’s Secret Garden, to teach children an appreciation of gardening and outdoor education.

In 2015, a separate State Coordinator position was created at NC State to support development of the Extension Master Gardener program. Since 2008, the responsibility for coordinating the state program had fallen to Lucy Bradley, Extension specialist for urban and consumer horticulture. Lisa Sanderson was hired and held the position through 2017. In 2018, Charlotte Glen joined the state program as the NC Extension Master Gardener Program State Coordinator.

Each year over 3,500 NC Extension Master Gardener volunteers donate more than 200,000 hours of volunteer service and directly reach over 450,000 North Carolinian residents: staffing gardening hotlines; offering workshops on best gardening practices; hosting plant clinics and organizing school gardening programs. They maintain demonstration and teaching gardens, propagate plants for fundraising, provide scholarships for youth; and manage community gardening initiatives. Most importantly, they continue to be involved and engaged with their communities, helping North Carolina grow.

Learn more about the history of the Land-Grant University system, Cooperative Extension and the Extension Master Gardener program in the United States.