Perennial Providers in Bloom

by Leah M. Abel

The Master Gardeners program offers unique opportunities for growth and education.

There are plenty of gardeners in central Illinois. Certainly many of them are quite skilled in their green-thumb activities, but it takes a dedicated enthusiast to become a certified Master Gardener.

The University of Illinois Extension offers a range of educational programs throughout the state, from environmental stewardship and sustainable food production to community health and well-being. It coordinates the Illinois branch of the national Master Gardener program, a flourishing outreach effort with more than 3,400 certified volunteers.

Planting the Seeds
Created in 1972 by Dr. David Gibby of the Washington State University Extension system, the Master Gardener program began as a response to an increasing number of gardening inquiries pouring into Gibby’s office. He called upon Extension faculty and specialists to train local volunteers in order to build a community outreach gardening program. Three years later, the Seattle-based program spread to Illinois, where it now reaches nearly every county in the state.

Adults of all skill levels with a penchant for volunteerism and interest in horticulture are welcome to apply for Master Gardener certification. The training—which covers subjects from botany and entomology to pest management and vegetable gardening—takes place one day a week for ten weeks beginning in late January.

After completing the course and passing an exam, volunteers become Master Gardener Interns; to gain certification, they have two years to complete 60 hours of volunteer community service. Active Master Gardeners sign an annual agreement committing to at least 30 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education credits. In the last two years, Master Gardeners associated with the Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell Extension provided more than 29,000 hours of volunteer service to the community.

Cultivating the Community
Julia Pryor, the Master Gardener program coordinator for the Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell Extension, emphasizes that the program’s mission statement—“Helping others learn to grow”—guides all of its activities. Whether one’s contribution involves hands-on gardening, speaking at schools and churches, contributing to local gardening blogs, or answering questions through the Extension’s Horticulture Help Line, she helps volunteers identify their gifts and find ways to apply them.

A gardener and philanthropist herself, Pryor has a passion for teaching others. “My favorite thing about gardeners,” she says, “is that they are always looking for the next best thing to come… They’re willing to put forth effort, and they’re willing to share their knowledge.”

Pryor, too, is like a watering can overflowing with information about the volunteer efforts of Master Gardeners in central Illinois. Last August, for example, local Master Gardeners and interns helped aspiring Eagle Scouts map and landscape three garden areas outside the new grade school at Peoria’s St. Jude Parish, teaching them about ground preparation, plant selection, fertilization and care so they can properly maintain the space. Master Gardeners work in adaptive gardening at Peoria’s EP!C, and they are involved with therapy gardens at a number of nursing homes, interacting with residents, staff and families.

In addition, Master Gardeners have an ongoing involvement at Luthy Botanical Garden, Wildlife Prairie Park, Jubilee College State Park and Illinois Central College, and are a major presence in area garden walks, 4-H programs, food banks and community gardens. Peoria’s Master Gardeners host a plant sale each May, while Tazewell Master Gardeners host “Plant Bingo.” Both events help educate residents about plants that perform well in central Illinois and generate support funds to support local programs and horticulture scholarships.

ICC’s Summer Gardening Educational Series, which began in 2009 through the efforts of area Master Gardeners, has flourished since its conception, earning its organizers an Illinois Master Gardener Teamwork Award in 2012. In addition, alliances with the Illinois Green Industry Association, Dickson Mounds Museum and the Home Builders Association of Greater Peoria offer additional chances for Master Gardeners to interact with the community through day-long workshops and programs.

Nurturing Growth
While Master Gardeners are most active between March and October, they host meetings and participate in community outreach year-round—and are always on the lookout for new recruits. Pryor is the main contact for aspiring Master Gardeners, who can apply for training any time of the year.

In the coming months, Pryor says her unit’s Master Gardeners will focus many of their efforts on providing assistance to victims of the recent tornadoes in Tazewell County. By making themselves available to speak with small groups and through an informational booth at the upcoming Summer Gardening Educational Series, volunteers will deliver information about restructuring, plant restoration, landscape rebuilding and post-storm pruning. It’s this willingness to conduct research and make it available to the public which Pryor admires.

“Isn’t that amazing?” she says. “There’s a huge, huge impact locally … I am so grateful and humbled by the impact our Master Gardeners have.” a&s

For more information on the Master Gardener program in Illinois, visit For the extension serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria and Tazewell counties, call (309) 543-3308 or visit Woodford County residents should call (309) 663-8306 or visit