By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
Over the past 25 years, more than 3,500 people across the state have worked for the University of Georgia and never received a paycheck.
As graduates of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Master Gardener Program, they all volunteered their time to assist county Extension Service agents.
People who sign up for the program get 40 hours of training from UGA Extension Service faculty. After at least 50 hours of service through their local Georgia Extension office, they're certified as Master Gardeners.
After the training, they use their new expertise to help with community education projects.
The program recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. A celebration held January 14 at the New Perry Hotel in Perry, Ga., brought together past graduates and county Extension agent trainers.
Georgia's Master Gardener program first began in the spring of 1979 when Butch Ferree, then head of the UGA Department of Horticulture, traveled to Washington state to learn about a popular new urban extension outreach program, said Marco Fonseca, coordinator of the Georgia Master Gardener Program.
"The program was created by urban extension agents in Washington state who, inundated by homeowner requests for horticultural information, developed the idea of a training volunteers to help them," Fonseca said.
By doing this, costs were kept to a minimum, he said, but the returns were invaluable by providing a service the community needed.
Program result of a trip north
In the fall of 1979, Ferree began promoting the program in the Metro-Atlanta area. Under the leadership of Dekalb County horticultural agent Newton Hogg, three urban county agents in Dekalb and Fulton counties organized and conducted the first Georgia Master Gardener training program. The first class graduated 140 Master Gardener volunteers.
"We graduated over 100 people per year for the first 15 years," Fonseca said. "Then the program began to explode. Over the past few years, we've graduated 400 volunteers each year."
The first Master Gardeners' training manual was a three-ring binder filled with 10 chapters of UGA horticulture training materials. The handbook has since evolved into a 25 chapter, 600-page manual.
"Our Master Gardener graduates are thoroughly trained by UGA experts," Fonseca said. "But the true essence of the program is the work and dedication of the volunteers. They are committed to serving their communities through projects that promote their love of gardening and teach others to protect and preserve the environment."
Presenting classes, answering phones
In 2004, Master Gardeners in Georgia volunteered more than 150,000 hours of their time. Their projects ranged from garden demonstrations to "lunch and learn" lectures and plant-doctor clinics. They also answered hundreds of consumer phone calls.
The newest part of the Master Gardener program is a training designed especially for school teachers. The Teacher Master Gardener Program is a condensed program offered during the summer. Teachers are taught how to develop lesson plans centered around horticulture.
"The teachers then go back and coordinate the installation of school gardens that are used as teaching tools," Fonseca said. "We've had 150 teachers participate so far."
The traditional Master Gardener program classes are currently on-going. Teachers who are interested in the summer program for educators should contact Krissy Slagle, Georgia Master Gardener program assistant, at (770) 229-3368 or email her at (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)