How the Master Gardener Program Started 40 Years Ago at WSU Extension

{Editor’s note: As described in this blog post, WSU Extension established the first Master Gardener program in 1972, with the first public training in 1973. Today Extension Master Gardener programs exist in nearly all 50 states. For more information, see the EMG White Paper or find an Extension Master Gardener Program near you. To learn how the Master Gardener program ties into the history of the nation’s land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension Service, see Exploring Our Roots: A Short History of Extension and the Master Gardener Program. }

Some Early Days in Extension

Donald Tapio "Some Early Days in Extension"
Donald Tapio recalls some early days at WSU Extension and how the Master Gardener program began.

I welcome the opportunity to share some history of Extension prior to the Development of the Master Gardener program. I cannot think of anyone more appreciative of Master Gardener volunteers than I, since I was involved with Washington State University (WSU) Extension prior to the development of the Master Gardener program.

My career with WSU Extension actually began in the summer of 1969 when I was hired as a summer work-study student in the Pierce County Extension office in Tacoma, WA. I was assigned to work with a horticulture agent who was very pleased to have me in the office to take the hundreds of calls that came each week from home gardeners. WSU was well aware of the demand for home gardening information and soon installed a “Dial a Garden Tip” service with daily messages on seasonal pest problems and options for their control.

Answering Hundreds of Gardening Questions Per Day

After graduating from WSU, I was hired by WSU Extension as a Horticulture Program Assistant in Seattle. Home gardening calls coming into the King County office averaged over 100 per day. Most days I never got off the phone for more than a short lunch break. In addition to the incoming calls, there were dozens of letters and plant samples delivered to the office on a daily basis. A year later Mr. Johanson retired and I was asked to work in the Pierce County office in the mornings and the King County office in the afternoons.

WSU made it clear that I would never receive agent status without an advanced degree. Just as I was leaving for graduate school, a young woman came into the office and after a long discussion made the remark that she thought my job and extension work would be so much fun. That individual was Sharon Collman and she was hired by WSU to fill my position. (You will read more about her in another blog post. She was one of the first teachers in the new Master Gardener progam.)  After completing my graduate degree I was hired as the horticulture agent in Snohomish County.

While I was gone, WSU hired Dr. David Gibby as the horticulture agent for King and Pierce counties. He was a true visionary in recognizing that in many respects Extension was simply “bailing out the ocean.” The demand for home gardening questions and information was so great it was nearly impossible to do any programming beyond answering the telephone. WSU Extension in King County at the time had 8 incoming telephone lines and we had one individual who was a switchboard operator to direct calls.

Master Gardener Program Trains Volunteers to Teach Others

Soon after his arrival, Dr. Gibby made his historic trip to Puyallup where there were discussions with a number of specialists and agents on the idea of training volunteers who would then conduct diagnostic plant clinics in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. I am convinced that no one at that time was aware that the Master Gardener program would become what it is today with thousands of volunteers throughout the state or nation-wide. The concept of training volunteers to teach others seemed to be the answer to addressing the need for home gardening education and the program was quickly adopted throughout the nation.

Master Gardener training in these early days was much different then. There was no charge and no textbook for the classes. However, I vividly recall as an instructor, lugging around boxes filled with publications for the class. (Many agents were assigned station wagons during those years since we hauled so many publications to various meetings. Both the springs and shock absorbers on these vehicles were usually shot from the weight of the publications!) At the end of training, an individual from the Washington State Department of Agriculture would come in and give a closed book exam. Those passing the exam became licensed pesticide applicators, which qualified them to provide recommendations for pesticide use. We quickly learned that many, many volunteers had great anxiety over taking a closed book exam and did not do well.

The evolution of the Master Gardener program continued as more and more counties throughout the state adopted the program. Those of us involved as instructors would schedule our training so that we were presenting in a different county each day beginning with Whatcom, by the Canadian border, and ending in Clark, on the border with Oregon. Once trained, most counties utilized their newly trained volunteers to staff plant clinics. As more and more volunteers became trained, volunteers were able to expand their educational outreach through presenting programs, writing news articles, and developing demonstration gardens.

Appreciation for the Work of Master Gardener Volunteers

I know that I speak for many agents in saying we simply cannot imagine Extension work today without Master Gardener volunteers. The amount of time invested in training and managing volunteers is paid back more than a thousand fold. I continue to be in awe of how innovative, enthusiastic, and dedicated Master Gardener volunteers are in carrying out the mission of WSU Extension. I am convinced that Washington State University will continue to be recognized nationally for the impact and success of the Master Gardener program in making our communities better and more beautiful places.

Donald D. Tapio
WSU Extension Regional Specialist
Grays Harbor/Pacific Counties Extension

“Reprinted with permission from the July 2009 issue of Seeds for Thought, the newsletter of the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State.”  Parts of this have been abridged with permission from the author. To see the entire article go to: