University of Illinois Extension master gardeners from DuPage County touch up the Clock Tower Garden at Wood Dale, Ill. The program has expanded to nearly every county in Illinois and now includes about 3,400 active master gardeners.
University of Illinois Extension master gardeners from DuPage County touch up the Clock Tower Garden at Wood Dale, Ill. The program has expanded to nearly every county in Illinois and now includes about 3,400 active master gardeners.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The popularity and impact of the Master Gardener program extends well beyond a small plot of vegetables grown in the backyard.

The University of Illinois Extension’s program touches the lives of city and rural dwellers of all ages and has become the go-to source for the expanding community gardens efforts and other locally-grown food initiatives.

“We are as much in the public face as 4-H is anymore and especially in urban environments,” said Monica David, Extension specialist and Illinois Master Gardener coordinator.

“The old standard 4-H with the country kids is still very, very big, but there is a huge following of people who are interested in horticulture all over the state, but especially in urban areas.”

The program started in Illinois in 1975 with its first training sessions in DuPage and Will counties.

Since those beginnings, the program has expanded to nearly every county in Illinois and now includes about 3,400 active master gardeners. There also is a coordinator in nearly every county.

Becoming a master gardener is a process that involves both education and a commitment to service, both of which are embraced by its participants.

The process begins with an individual submitting an application. They then go through a background screening and, if all goes well, are accepted into training.

Training is held every January through March at about 17 locations throughout state. Online training also is available.

“The face-to-face classes run for about 10 to 12 weeks, usually one day a week for a full day and they get six hours of training for a total of about 60 hours,” David said. “The training is done by state horticultural specialists and Extension educators, so we really pride ourselves on giving them what we feel is a good foundation, a good education.”

Topics include botany, soils and fertilizers, diagnosis, plant diseases and insects, weeds, integrated pest management, living with wildlife, vegetables, herbs, fruits, lawns and other topics.

“When they complete their 60 hours of training, they become a master gardener intern. Within two years, they must return 60 hours of volunteer time through their local county Extension office,” David said. “Once they complete the two-year internship, they become an active master gardener.

“Those folks return 30 hours every year of volunteer time plus 10 hours of continuing education. They are required to take education every year to remain knowledgeable and to complete their certification.”

Although master gardeners are required to have 30 volunteer hours annually, David said there are some who contribute 1,000 volunteer hours. The volunteer work is arranged through the county Extension office.

“They do a wide range of projects. Many counties have a speakers’ bureau, which means they might go out to a Lions Club or Kiwanis or a retirement community to give a talk on anything they want. It might be roses, native plants or whatever,” David said.

“Master gardeners also staff office phone lines, so many of our counties have master gardeners there to take calls or respond to emails to answer their gardener questions, especially in some of the larger offices.”

Some volunteer to write newspaper columns and are on television and radio programs to deliver information to the public.

Among the main focuses of the program is to educate children, including working with 4-H clubs, schools, libraries, Girls Scouts and Boys and Girls clubs.

“They may help schools put together gardens for the children to go out and learn, so that would be part of the program,” David said.

Also included in the long list of groups that master gardeners work with are nursing homes, as well as Alzheimer’s facilities.

“Gardening therapy is something that elderly people really benefit from. Master gardeners come in and either give classes or help them plant a garden. Often times, the produce from the garden can be used in the nursing home,” David said.

“We have master gardeners working with at-risk kids and Easter Seals kids. We also have master gardeners that work in jails with inmates.”

Community gardens are rapidly growing across the state, and master gardeners are providing their support and knowledge to the programs.

“Everybody wants to learn how to grow their own food, and master gardeners are helping set up community gardens and educating people about how to grow their own food. That’s a huge program and another emphasis,” David said.

“The community gardens movement is just exploding. We have a huge program in Chicago called the Peterson Garden Project. It’s the biggest community garden project in the city and is run by U of I master gardeners.

“In southern Illinois, they have a program that all of the counties down there have adopted called Gift Gardens. They are community gardens and are trying to get each community to start a Gift Garden and bring children into growing foods.

“That’s a really popular program that’s starting to spread in southern Illinois, as well. Youth are a big emphasis now along with community gardens.”

“Plant a Row” is another project of which master gardeners are an integral part. Extra produce is grown and donated to local food banks and churches that provide food for the needy.

Master gardeners also are involved in demonstration gardens.

“We have quite a few of those around the state. For example, we have demonstration gardens in Bloomington, one in Champaign, we have a couple in Springfield that show people how to grow, what to grow, and the master gardeners will do programs there,” David said.

Historic gardens are a relatively new project that is conducted under the guidance of the program.

One example is Sarah’s Garden on the grounds of the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington. A group of 89 master gardeners volunteered 5,300 hours over the last five years and also mentored 124 4-H club members, who served 718 hours working on the garden.

“They did research to make the garden completely historically accurate,” David said.

“We also have one at a Lincoln facility at Springfield, where they have researched and they grow the plants that were grown back in the time period of that garden and then they give programs and educate the public about it.”

Master gardeners are involved with farmers markets as well, hosting booths to answer questions about local food and to provide other information.

With increased interest in locally grown foods, the Master Gardener program is grown in popularity through participation and demographics.

The average age of a master gardener is between 59 and 62, although 30 and 40 year olds now are becoming involved, as well. “We like to see the young people coming in,” David said.

The number of participants has remained steady over the years with about 500 to 700 enrolled in training annually.

There were 3,000 master gardeners in Illinois last year, 3,500 this year and 4,000 are expected next year.

“The people who go through our training are very passionate about what they do,” David said, when asked about the program’s popularity.

“People come into the program wanting more educational information, but we really want them to be somebody who will share with the public. The volunteer aspect is as important as the educational aspect.

“The people that are in our program are really anxious to share their knowledge and make a difference. Many of them are passionate because they want to help other people, but they are also very in-tune to the environment and changes in the environment, so they want to be proactive about helping people grow the right types of plants, conserve water, recycle — people are really passionate about all those things.

“They’re also passionate about helping people get good food, locally grown food and so they’re passionate with that, as well.

“As far as the public goes, there’s so much information available now that we didn’t have 20 years ago.

“Everybody can go to the web and find information, but we’re very careful that the information that we give out is research-based and so I think the public has begun to really realize that if they want good accurate information that’s backed up by research, that Extension master gardeners are a good source.”