The History of the Master Gardener Program and it's adaptation for Montana

The Master Gardener Program was first started by Dr. David Gibby with the Washington State Cooperative Extension Service in 1973.  It grew out of a need to meet an enormous increase in requests from home gardeners for horticultural information.  Master Gardeners have become a vital part of Extension’s ability to provide consumers with up-to-date reliable information.  Master Gardening has also given its participants a sense of community spirit, accomplishment and intellectual stimulation.  Currently, there are active Master Gardener programs in all 50 states, 9 Canadian provinces and South Korea.  Master Gardener is the second largest volunteer service organization in the US.  

Early beginnings

In 1974, just one year after the initial development of the Master Gardener program in Washington state, Gerald Marks, Missoula County Extension agent established the first county Master Gardener program in Montana.  This came about because of the sizable increase in the number of questions coming in regarding horticulture with no resources available to handle the volume of calls from the public.  Marks was able to meet the needs of the community by utilizing Master Gardener trained volunteers. 

The late Dr. Robert “Bob” Gough expanded the Master Gardener program across the state in 1995, after he began his career at Montana State University as an associate professor of horticulture and state Extension specialist.  He had co-founded a Master Gardener program in Rhode Island previously in 1975 and applied that method to Montana.  The goal was to provide the public with general horticultural information in a concise manner while promoting education through volunteerism. 

A new approach

In 2010, when Toby Day became the MSU Horticulture Associate Specialist and Montana Master Gardener Coordinator, he noticed that the level of knowledge in students taking the Master Gardener courses varied widely.  Beginning gardeners were often overwhelmed by the scope of some of the more advanced classes while seasoned gardeners were uninspired with the basic subjects.   Day created the unique 3-tiered course structure that the Montana Master Gardener Program currently uses.  No other state currently uses this style of course structure.  By breaking out the Levels, Day enabled the program to be taken in segments rather than all at once, which allows more people to participate.  The program remains in this 3-tiered structure under the current state program coordinator.