By Marco Fonseca
University of Georgia
In 1979, University of Georgia horticulturist Butch Ferree traveled to Washington to learn about a popular outreach program in that state that was spreading throughout the nation’s land-grant colleges. Thirty years later, a similar program has helped more than 7,000 Georgians become gardening masters.
After returning to Georgia, Ferree, then head of the UGA horticulture department, brainstormed with UGA Cooperative Extension agents Newton Hogg and Gary Peiffer from Dekalb County, and Randy Drinkard and Robert Brannon from Fulton County. What they created is today the Georgia Master Gardener Program.
The first class was held that fall. A few of those first graduates, like Becky Blades, Lin McKnight and Jean Givens, still volunteer their expertise.
This year, the Georgia program celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Gardening is a major part of the program, but the heart of the program is volunteering. Master Gardeners are trained to assist UGA Extension agents with community outreach education. They help by planting and maintaining garden demonstrations, leading lunch and learn lectures, holding plant doctor clinics and working with senior citizens, 4-H’ers and Junior Master Gardeners.
Each year, Master Gardener volunteers log on average more than 175,000 hours. In 2008, this equaled a value of $3.3 million to the state. Master Gardeners consistently lead the state as producers and donors of vegetables to the Plant a Row for the Hungry project.
Seventy-five people earned lifetime Master Gardener status in 2008.
To honor this group of volunteers, Governor Sonny Perdue proclaimed March 21 as Master Gardener Day in Georgia.
(Marco Fonseca is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist and the state Master Gardener program coordinator with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences)