Wendy's WanderingsWendy Wilber

January 10, 2019

Fabulous at Forty

What does a Mississippi paddleboat have to do with one of the most successful horticulture programs in Florida? Many Master Gardener Volunteers know that the MG program began in Florida in 1979, but they might not know how the idea was introduced.

As the story goes, in the mid 70’s Jim Stevens, the author of Vegetable Gardening in Florida and professor emeritus from the University of Florida Horticulture Sciences department, was in New Orleans for a national 4-H horticulture contest. One of the enrichment trips of the conference was to take the kids on a Mississippi riverboat cruise. It was on that boat ride that Jim met an extension agent from Washington State University. The agent from Washington shared with Jim how well this new Master Gardener Volunteer program was working out for them and that it would probably be a success in Florida.

In 1977 Jim Stevens, Bob Black, and Julian Sauls travelled to Washington state and Oregon to learn how the program was organized. Shortly after in 1979, the Florida MG program was developed and piloted in three counties: Brevard, Dade, and Manatee. Fifty-eight Master Gardener volunteers (Brevard 22, Dade 15, Manatee 21) were trained that first year and they promised to volunteer back 50 hours each for a total of 3,950 hours.

In 1980, Hillsborough County, Polk County, and Volusia County trained volunteers, and in 1981, Lake, Orange, and Osceola came aboard. By 1982 Florida had 16 active Master Gardener Volunteer programs with the addition of Alachua, Broward, Leon, Marion, Palm Beach, Pasco, and Pinellas counties. By 1987 there were 29 Master Gardener Volunteer programs in Florida with 503 active volunteers.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Master Gardener Volunteer program in Florida. There are now 4,631 volunteers in 60 of the 67 counties of Florida. Perhaps no one program has contributed more to the success of residential landscapes in Florida. Master Gardener Volunteers are peer teachers, role models of environmentally friendly landscaping and goodwill ambassadors of the University of Florida IFAS Extension service. Their value to the state of Florida is immeasurable, but we do know the value of a volunteer service hour is $23.33, and the volunteers in Florida contributed 345,750 hours in 2018. This represents a dollar value contribution of over 8 million dollars to Florida residents.

Master Gardener volunteers continue to staff plant clinics, create and maintain demonstration gardens, work in exhibits, teach classes, write newsletters and newspaper articles, and work in community and school gardens. They run butterfly houses, have massive gardening events, and give over 2,000 gardening presentations a year.

One has to wonder if Jim Stephens, Bob Black, and Julian Sauls had any inkling of the enormous impact this program would have on Florida horticulture, on that fateful river cruise.

-- Wendy Wilber

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