Cultivating Expertise: Inside the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program – Episode 002

Have you ever wondered what a Master Gardener is?  What exactly do Washington State University Master Gardener Program volunteers do? In this episode, we talk about how the program started, how Extension Master Gardeners serve their communities, and how much Extension Master Gardeners love their "job."
episode 2 social media graphic with photo of Jennifer Marquis, WSU Extension Master Gardener program leader

Episode Description

Have you ever wondered what a Master Gardener is?  What exactly do Washington State University Master Gardener Program volunteers do?

Our guest today is Jennifer Marquis, Statewide Program Leader of the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program.  We talk about how the program started, how Extension Master Gardeners serve their communities, and how much Extension Master Gardeners love their “job.” 

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Welcome to the Evergreen Thumb. I’m your host, Erin Landon, a Washington State University Extension Master Gardener since 2015, and a certified permaculture designer and modern homesteader. I’m here to share up-to-date research-based horticulture and environmental stewardship knowledge to help you grow and manage your garden and to share what the WSU Extension Master Gardener program is all about.


WSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers are university-trained community educators who have been cultivating plants, people, and communities since 1973. Are you ready to grow? Let’s dig into today’s episode.



Welcome to The Evergreen Thumb, episode two. Our guest today is Jennifer Marquis. Jennifer is the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program Director. With more than 15 years of experience working with Extension Master Gardener volunteers to achieve strategic vision in support of the WSU Extension purpose to advance knowledge, economic well-being, and quality of life by fostering inquiry, learning, and the application of research, she is humbled and honored to be a part of a program that is committed to protecting our natural resources and engaging people to empower communities. Jennifer, welcome to the show.


Thanks for having me, Erin. This is exciting.


So why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Master Gardeners?



Wow, how far back do you want me to go? Let’s see. I have been with WSU for…

Since 2007, how many years that is, specifically with the Master Gardener program. When I was young and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I earned my bachelor’s degree nonprofit management because I thought it would give me opportunity to work in a lot of different fields. At the same time, I earned a minor in environmental science. I’ve always been a gardener. My grandparents on both sides were gardeners professionally and personally.


I grew up growing vegetables with my family and putting up a lot of different food for ourselves to eat through the winter. And when I ended up moving to Wenatchee from the west side of the state, I saw a part-time opportunity to work with the Extension Master Gardener program, and at the time I was a young mom with four little kids at home and I didn’t, I wanted to be home when they were home, and this job allowed me to do that but at the same time allowed me to keep my foot into a professional door on a career path that I thought really matched up with who I am as a person, passionate about people and passionate about the environment and gardening. So here I am X amount of years later leading the statewide program and feeling really good about it.


And when did you join at the state level?




Okay. Yeah. So my youngest, at that time my youngest were must’ve been sophomores in high school, and I talked to them about it and they’re like, “it’s your turn, mom. We’re about, we’re about done with school. We’re going off to college. So we’re good.” So it worked out.


History of the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program

Oh, that’s great. How about you give us a little bit of background about the history of the program? As I think I mentioned in episode one, this is the 50th anniversary of the Master Gardener program, which is very exciting, So take us back 50 years and how it all started.



Okay. Well, 50 years, 1972 was really when the idea was initiated by two WSU Extension agents based out of King and Pierce counties, David Gibby and Bill Scheer. David Gibby was responsible for consumer horticulture, and Bill Scheer was responsible for commercial horticulture, agriculture. And at the time there was a burgeoning interest in, in personal gardening. People started to have a little bit more money in their pockets and they wanted to have home landscapes that they could enjoy, but nobody was really sure about how to do that.


And they slowly learned that there were two extension agents available to help answer their questions. And both David Gibby and Bill Scheer were receiving hundreds of requests per day; questions on what do I do with this? How do I kill that? You know, what plant is this? Why is this sick? Why is that sick? What’s wrong with it? So much so that they could not create any kind of meaningful educational outreach programming. And they said, man, we gotta come up with some kind of way to handle these gardening questions at scale.

And David Gibby had been in Germany doing some mission work and really believed in the power of volunteers, and so he thought, you know, all of these questions we’re getting from homeowners and others, their questions were good and they had a lot of knowledge. They’ve already done a lot of research and they were pretty knowledgeable on the subject matters that they were asking about. So David’s like, hey Bill, why don’t we train people to become Extension Master Gardeners, or at the time they didn’t really have a title for it, but train people, volunteers who can help us deliver this gardening education at scale.


It took some time, it took some effort for Bill Scheer and David Gibby to be successful with that, going through the channels at WSU and up the chain and getting the permission to do it and the funding to do it, but in the end, they were successful and launched the first Master Gardener training in King and Pierce counties; it was two separate trainings, in early 1973 and the first extension master gardeners were in doing plant clinics at the fairs that year of 1973.

It’s since been emulated, replicated across the US. Every state has an Extension Master Gardener program. Other countries have it as well, but it’s set up a little differently because we are the only nation who actually has land grant universities which require the extension piece. So in Canada, it’s through their botanical groups and in partnership with their universities, I believe. And in UK, I think it’s similar. So the Master of Gardener program is now in the UK. It’s in South Korea and in just recently in Puerto Rico, which is, you know, one of our, one of our…





Territory. Thank you. Yeah.

What the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program looks like now


That’s a great story. Now let’s take it to the present, what does the Master Gardener program look like now?


Yeah. So, you know, a lot has changed in 50 years. Um, when you look back over the time, you know, we’ve gone from rotary phones to these little, you know, handheld devices that we carry around with us called phones, but they really, you know, double as mini computers and triple as cameras, and access to information, whether it be quality or factual or research-based, you know, that access to information is all over the place. And so today’s Extension Master Gardeners really work at helping people understand the ecosystem, how it works together, and how gardening, the choices that we make in our gardens, whether they’re home gardens, community gardens, demonstration gardens, the choices that we make in those spaces impact the environment and the entire ecosystem. That one thing that we do in our gardens might seem small, but all of those small things added together add, you know, exponentially impact the environment.

So we have adopted what we call nine program priorities. And these priorities really speak to the challenges that we here in Washington State are facing in our communities. They put language around what we do and why we do it. Like so in the Master Gardener world we, we teach IPM. Well, what does IPM really mean to somebody who’s just hearing it for the first time or seeing it somewhere? Well, IPM is integrated pest management and it’s a process used to control weeds or insects, the invasive weeds or insects that it would impact crops in a negative way.


So we’ve adopted these nine program priorities to give us shared language to talk about who we are, what we do, and why we do it in the Extension Master Gardener Program. And those nine priorities are climate change, clean water, water conservation, soil health, pollinators, local food, plant biodiversity, nearby nature, and wildfire preparedness. So we teach landscape practices, sustainable horticulture practices to address these nine areas because the ways in which we garden or landscape our yards will help protect us from loss due to wildfire or will help us put food on the table for people who need it, or will empower people to grow their own food so that they can put food on their tables.

And for pollinator health and wellness, pollinators are responsible for, depending on what you read, one in four, one in five bites of food that we eat. And pollinators are in decline across the US, really around the world. And so the choices that we make in our gardens in terms of pesticide use and habitat that we plant for pollinators will make a difference in the long term if we all work together to make that difference. So that’s what we’re doing today.




Do you want to learn more about gardening, meet new people, and make a difference in your community? The WSU Extension Master Gardener program may be just right for you. You will gain science-based knowledge to tackle the yard and garden problems that matter to you, your friends and neighbors, and to your community. With WSU Extension’s Master Gardener training, you’ll learn about soil health, plant identification, pest management, sustainable gardening practices, and so much more. Unlock the secrets of successful gardening and make a positive impact in your community.

Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to become a certified Washington State University Master Gardener volunteer. Visit today to learn more about the program and how to apply.


How Extension Master Gardner volunteers connect with their community?


So what kind of projects do Master Gardeners do to connect with their communities with those priorities?


Sure, yeah. The mainstay of the Extension Master Gardener Program is what we call plant clinics. You might see them called plant and insect clinics or diagnostic clinics, but these are our offices, they’re spaces where the community can come and talk to an Extension Master Gardener about plants.


While it’s eating their plants, so insects about soil, or ask any question they want to around their landscape. Connecting that to the program priorities though, so one of them I said is soil health. And a lot of times when there is a plant problem, soil, I mean plants need soil to grow, realistically.


There are other ways you can grow plants, but we all know that. But you know, we need, they need some soil to grow. They need nutrients to grow. They get that nutrient from the soil. So a lot of times the soil is the issue. And why is soil the issue? So we’re not just talking to a person in our clinic about what’s wrong with their plant and how to fix it. We’re also teaching them about what healthy soil is, what healthy soil looks like because healthy soils prevent depletion and ensure the long-term viability of our local food security and our natural resources. Soil is the basis for much of what we do. It holds our houses up. It holds our roads together. It provides nutrients and foundations for trees that clean the air.


There’s just so much about soil Master Gardeners help our communities understand so that individuals like you and me make choices in our gardens that improve the health of our soils.


Can you give us a couple other examples?

So we can talk about local food. So local food is the idea about, you know, of local food is the Extension Master Gardeners teach sustainable techniques for growing local food to improve individual and community health and wellness. Every year the Master Gardeners donate about 60,000 pounds of produce to food banks around the state. But I think more importantly than that goes back to the old adage of, you know, you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Extension Master Gardeners are all about teaching people how to grow their own food.


There are research-based statistics that indicate people who grow their own food, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than those who do not, are less likely to develop chronic diseases like diabetes or heart problems because they’re eating more fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re in their gardens exercising.


because their mental health is generally better because they are outside, connected to nature, growing their own food, they’re empowered to put food, they feel like they are in control of their own lives and can put food on the table for their families and possibly their friends and their neighbors. And if we even dig a little bit deeper into that, there’s some research out of North Carolina State University on community gardens and the impact of community gardens on the health of community. So it shows that if you bring community together to grow food together in a space, it develops camaraderie, friendships, people will begin to understand each other’s needs in that community at a greater level and that community will be more food-secure because they can make the decisions that as a community that they need to make to improve their own health and wellness.



So, and all of this produce that the master gardeners are growing, they’re doing that in their demonstration gardens primarily, correct?



Yes, yeah. So we have, there’s a couple different…Most counties have demonstration gardens, and these are what we call outdoor classrooms. They’re places where extension master gardeners teach about sustainable landscaping practices. Anything from food growing to pollinator habitat to native plants to composting, so that goes back to soil health, and, you know, plant biodiversity.


So then, the food garden aspect of the demonstration garden though, so yes, we use that space to teach others how to grow their own food, but the food that we grow as a demonstration and use to teach, that food is what gets donated to the food banks across the state. And like I said, I think it’s about 60,000 pounds a year.


It could be a little bit more depending on the year and like this year is a great tomato year in Washington, at least on this side of the state. And I think it is on the west side of the state too. So, and tomatoes are heavy. So.

What does Extension Master Gardener volunteer training look like?


All right. So what kind of training do master gardeners get to become a certified Extension Master Gardener? Yeah. So the, you know, the Extension Master Gardener program, I call it a paraprofessional program.


To become an extension master gardener at Washington State University, volunteers or prospective volunteers go through online training, where on Canvas it’s a learning management system that students at Washington State University use, where the volunteers go through and learn horticulture skills like botany, plant ID, nomenclature, soil, pollinators, entomology.


I think there are there’s like 27 chapters in the manual and then 14 or 15 modules that every volunteer in the state goes through. It takes about 65 or 70 hours for that and then in addition to that statewide training that every volunteer goes through volunteers go through an in-person training in the county where they reside. And that in-person training is really meant to solidify what they’re learning online in that Canvas course space and put into practice what they’ve learned in the county where they live.


So we have a lot of different; from the east side, the west side of the state. It’s very different. The ways in which we garden are very different. The problems that we see are very different. The insects that we see are different. And so that county-specific training really gives the volunteer an opportunity to connect with the needs of that county specifically and serve the needs of that county specifically and put into practice what they are learning.


So, they get the online training, the in-person training. Once they complete that in-person training, which is another 60 to 70 hours, then to become a fully certified Extension Master Gardener, the new volunteers go through what we call an internship, and that’s where they’re out in the community, serving alongside of a certified Extension Master Gardener, practicing what they’ve learned.


So in the plant clinics, in the demonstration gardens, most counties also offer some sort of educational series of classes, whether it’s on food growing or soil health or climate. So the volunteers then get to be a part of planning, implementing, and delivering those educational outreach efforts, including a plant sale.


Almost every single county has a plant sale raising money to support the Extension Master Gardener programs across the state.


So how long does the internship usually last? Does it vary by county? Well, there’s a minimum requirement of 40 hours in the first year, but counties can require 40 hours of volunteer service in that first year.



So counties can require more than that. And some counties actually do a two-year internship where it’s 40 in the first year and 60 in the second year for a total of 100 hours. So it really kind of varies by county, but there’s a minimum requirement of 40 hours. And then once the volunteer earns their certification, there is a, WSU requires that a volunteer applies to renew their certification each year.


The certification is not automatic from year to year. Because we are a paraprofessional organization, we need to know that the volunteers who are serving for us are up to date on the science. We do require continuing education and we require continued participation. So it’s 25 hours of service per year and 10 hours of continuing education per year at a minimum. Some counties require more than that to retain their certification.



So what kind of benefits do you see Master Gardeners getting from participating in the program?


So you know we’ve asked this question a lot of the volunteers and wanting to make sure that as an agency, as an institution, we are meeting the needs of the volunteers.


The very first thing that comes up is I learn something new every single time I participate in the Extension Master Gardener Program. That’s what a volunteer would say. Like, if I’m at clinic, I’m gonna learn something new. If I am out in the demonstration garden, I’m gonna learn something new. If I’m working with a client at a plant sale, I’m gonna learn something new. So that’s big old number one.


And we, WSU does offer continuing education on a regular basis for the Extension Master Gardeners in an attempt to meet that need. Secondarily, volunteers say, oh my gosh, I have so much fun doing this and the people that I get to do it with are like my friends. I never knew that I could develop such friendships with the people that I’m volunteering with. And I think that’s what keeps people sticking around in the Master Gardener program is the friendships that are made while they’re volunteering.


I know of volunteers who met during training and then go above and beyond the call of duty outside the Extension Master Gardener program to support the friends that they have made through the process. And I think that’s special when I see that happen. And then I think that probably the third thing, and this, I hear from volunteers who have been around for a long time, more than say four or five years. These folks love to give back to their communities. They love to feel like they are making a difference and serving in the communities that have done so much for them in their lives. And those are the folks that, actually when I say that I kind of get…


I get the chills over that because that’s a special thing. It’s a special thing that I individually, personally get to be involved with, but it’s a special thing for me and my career to give back to the community that I live in too. So I really resonate with that sentiment.


For me as a work-at-home mom, being able to go out to the demonstration garden and work outside and socialize and get to know my fellow master gardeners at the same time, you know, helping and working with people who come into the garden and educating them. For me, that was a big deal when I spent a lot of time at home with my son. So yeah, that was a big one for me.

What is the best way for someone to get involved with their extension master gardener program in their area?



You know, there are a lot of different ways that folks can do it. If they wanna become a master gardener, that would be fantastic. But participating in our educational events too, right? Learning about sustainable gardening practices for the protection of our natural resources; I mean, that you can get involved there if you believe in the program, but don’t have the time right now but wanna support it.


We’re always raising money to support, develop, and continue to grow our programs. We currently have an Endowed Chair campaign going on. But on our website, which is, and I think that will be posted with the podcast. Check it out. There is a tab at the top that says Get Involved. And so you can go to that and have a look.


to look, see, and figure out how you might want to get involved with the program. Every county trains on an annual basis. Most counties are looking at right now accepting applications for training in 2024, which is January to April. So now is a fantastic time to think about getting involved with the Extension Master Gardener Program.


And if you click on that Get Involved tab at the top of our website, you’ll be navigated to a place where you can figure out your county’s requirements to get involved.


And we’ll have links to all of that in the show notes so it’ll be easy to find too. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?


The Extension Master Gardener Program empowers communities through education, through friendships, through understanding, through bringing community together.


And I think right now in today’s world, bringing people and community together to make decisions that work well for those individual communities in that grassroots sociologic way is more powerful than it has probably been in my entire life. If you wanna be a part of that, come join us.


Well, thanks so much for joining me today, Jennifer. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you, Erin.



Thank you for joining us on this episode of The Evergreen Thumb, brought to you by the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program volunteers and sponsored by the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State. We hope that today’s discussion has inspired and equipped you with valuable insights to nurture your garden. The Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State is a nonprofit organization whose primary purpose is to provide unifying support and advocacy for WSU Extension Master Gardener programs throughout Washington State. To support the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State, visit


Whether you’re an experienced Master Gardener or just starting out, the WSU Extension Master Gardener program is here to support you every step of the way. WSU Extension Master Gardeners empower and sustain diverse communities with relevant, unbiased, research-based horticulture education.


Reach out to your local WSU Extension office to connect with Master Gardeners and tap into a wealth of resources that can help you achieve gardening success. To learn more about the program or how to become a Master Gardener, visit . If you enjoyed today’s episode and want to stay connected with us, be sure to subscribe to future episodes filled with expert tips, fascinating stories, and practical advice.


Don’t forget to leave a review and share it with fellow gardeners to spread the joy of gardening. Questions or comments to be addressed in future episodes can be sent to

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and do not imply endorsement by Washington State University or the Master Gardener Foundation of Washington State.