Published on 06/12/14

UGA Extension volunteer program celebrates 35th anniversary

By Sharon Dowdy

For the past 100 years, Georgia gardeners have relied on their local University of Georgia Extension agents for advice on everything from how to treat for Japanese beetles to which tomato variety makes for the best ‘mater sandwich. But answering all of those gardening questions could be a little overwhelming if it weren’t for a group of dedicated trained volunteers.

Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteers have helped UGA Extension agents answer calls and deliver educational programs for the past 35 years.

2,321 gardening experts volunteer their time

Last year 435 new Master Gardener Extension Volunteers joined Georgia’s 2,321 veteran volunteers. In 2013, this dedicated group donated 196,663 hours in Extension offices across the state. They answered 457,190 phone calls, gave 9,055 gardening presentations to civic clubs, made 2,538 home garden visits, wrote 741 newspaper articles and presented 4,959 plant clinics.

“The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteers have been especially vital over the past few years of drastic budget cuts in Georgia Extension,” said UGA Extension Associate Dean Beverly Sparks. “Last year alone, they worked the equivalent of 100 full-time employees.”

It started at Washington State

The idea of training gardening experts to volunteer in Extension offices was the brainchild of Extension agents from Washington State University. In exchange for specialized training in horticulture, the gardeners promised to do volunteer outreach work. That was more than 40 years ago, and the program has since spread across the U.S. and into Canada and South Korea. In Georgia, the program began in Atlanta in 1979.

Becky Blades of Cobb County was in that first class of volunteers, and she’s still an active Master Gardener. She found out about the Master Gardener program by reading the “Market Bulletin,” a state-wide agriculture publication produced by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“Obviously things were different way back then: we didn’t have a textbook; or name tags, or mentors, or ongoing county projects to plug into. I have been volunteering (and learning) ever since,” said Blades, who along with her husband, Jerry, has led a Junior Master Gardener class at Midway School since 2006.

Teaching children to appreciate horticulture

Collectively, Georgia’s volunteers presented 5,724 children’s programs, like the Junior Master Gardener program, last year. Gardening with youth is one of five initiatives the program has identified as focus areas. The other four are environmental stewardship, home food production, the value of landscapes and the health benefits of gardening.

Before becoming a volunteer, Blades relied on her UGA Extension agent for gardening advice.

“I loved being able to call and have gardening questions answered and receive publications in the mail on the subject,” she said.

Blades enjoys expanding her gardening knowledge so she can help Cobb County residents who call on the Extension office.

“In fact, what I enjoy most about gardening is that there is always more to learn. If you get tired of growing annuals and perennials, you can move on to flowering trees and shrubs or herbs and vegetables. You can never know it all. I love being able to help others get started,” she said.

To find out more about the Georgia Extension Master Gardener Volunteer program, go to or call your Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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