Florida’s Master Gardener Program Hits Milestone: 5 Million Volunteer Hours Served

  • By:
    Mickie Anderson – (352) 273-3566
  • Source:
    Tom Wichman – twichman@ufl.edu, (352) 392-1831 x331

Tom Wichman
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While hitting its 30th anniversary mark this year, Florida’s Master Gardener program has another reason to party: Its volunteers recently reached a milestone, logging more than 5 million hours since the program began.

There are some 4,000 master gardeners in Florida, in 58 of the state’s 67 counties.

The program began in 1972 in the state of Washington, when a county extension agent felt guilty about not being able to answer every call that came in. So he decided to train a cadre of volunteers to help.

Florida started its program in 1979, and it’s been chugging along strong ever since. According to the most recent calculations, the program’s volunteers have donated 5.4 million hours, worth some $83 million to taxpayers.

Here’s how it works: Interested participants go through at least 50 hours of training sponsored by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and local county extension offices that includes a smattering of everything from gardening to nematology to soil testing.

After the training, new master gardeners must serve at least 75 volunteer hours within the first year of certification and 35 hours in subsequent years. To renew their certification after the first year, they must undergo 10 hours of annual training.

Master gardener duties include everything from manning the desk in the county extension office to fielding questions from callers or walk-in clients.

“I think master gardeners have one of the toughest jobs in extension,” said Tom Wichman, the program’s state coordinator. “The questions that come in are very diverse.”

John Robinson, a master gardener in Escambia County since 1992, can tell you all about that.

He’s logged more than 20,000 volunteer hours, and says the questions can be doozies.

Clients have brought in giant spiders and pygmy rattlesnakes, he said, sometimes live; sometimes not. There are always questions to be answered about tomatoes. And turfgrass causes consternation for many who’ve moved to Florida for the first time and are trying to start or maintain their first St. Augustinegrass lawn. “They see their neighbor do something, and they wonder if they should do it, too,” he said.

Other master gardener duties might include tending a demonstration garden, teaching residents how to prune trees or grapevines or how to start a garden.

Norma Samuel, a horticulture extension agent in Marion County, supervises a team of roughly 130 master gardeners.

Her volunteers each serve on a committee with different responsibilities, such as running a speakers’ bureau and maintaining a demonstration vegetable garden. One volunteer came up with an idea and secured funding for a mobile plant clinic that volunteers take to county events and use to distribute educational information on a host of gardening-related topics.

“Oh, they’re a tremendous resource to us,” she said. “They pretty much do anything an (extension) agent would do.”

The next Master Gardener program training begins in many counties in February and Wichman says you don’t need to have a green thumb to be a great master gardener. Much of the training focuses on teaching volunteers how to find the information they need.

“There’s no prerequisite as far as having to have plant knowledge,” he says. “Just the willingness to learn and to share what you learn with others.”

Would-be master gardeners should contact their local coordinator.

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