Gardening program turns 50!

Two gardeners at the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens

By Dennis Patton

A seed was planted and did it ever take root and grow! Happy golden anniversary to the Extension Master Gardener program. The program was started by Washington State University Extension Agents Dr. David Gibby and Bill Scheer and has grown from its humble beginning in 1973.

Gibby and Scheer, Extension agents in the growing Seattle area, were inundated with home gardening questions. Overwhelmed by the demand, they created the master gardener program and trained volunteers to help respond to the volume of questions. Today, the program is in 49 states and connected with each state’s Land Grant University as well as in Canada, England and South Korea.

The name of the program comes from the German tradition of bestowing titles on individuals who demonstrated proficiency in a trade. Translated, the German term Gartenmeister is Master Gardener. As they say, the rest is history.

In 2020, there was an estimated 84,700 trained and active volunteers in the United States who donated more than 3 million hours of service to help improve their local communities. Extension Master Gardener volunteers initially participate in over 40 hours of training, annual continuation of their educations and must donate 40 hours or more of service each year.

The Johnson County EMG program, the first in Kansas, started in 1980. Like Gibby and Scheer, Johnson County Extension Agent Larry Stouse and Kansas State University Extension Vegetable Specialist Dr. Chuck Marr were overwhelmed by the demand by residents for gardening information from Johnson County’s rapid growth. Since that time an estimated 1,500 county residents have participated in the EMG program.

Today, with more than 500 active volunteers, the Johnson County EMG program is one of the largest and most vigorous programs in the United States. Each year, your friends and neighbors donate approximately 50,000 hours of service to the county. Major projects to help county residents learn and apply recommended gardening practices include a gardening helpline, speakers bureau, demonstration gardens, youth education and more.

Areas of public education include plant selection, management of organic waste, pest management, pollinator friendly gardens, water conservation and quality, food gardening and more. The mission is to help create resilient landscapes, grow more food and enhance our local communities.

This summer, Johnson County EMGs will be hosting the showcase of all EMG programs, the 2023 Inter - national Master Gardener Conference. This gathering occurs every two years and could be called the ultimate professional improvement opportunity for EMG volunteers. The signature event will take place June 18-22 at the Overland Park Convention Center. Johnson County EMG volunteers are the first county-based program to host this conference. Usually, the state’s Land Grant University provides the leadership for the conference.

The goal is to bring around 800 volunteers from around the country and Canada to the conference. The event features 12 bus tours, 11 interactive workshops, five keynote speakers, three evening featured speakers and more than 45 concurrent sessions speakers and a trade show.

Conference registration is open to local gardeners and several activities have been designed for the public without the requirement of registering for the full conference. These activities include a tour of six private gardens, the evening featured speakers and the tradeshow. Complete information about the conference can be found at Information on the events open to the public, garden tours, evening speakers and trade show can be found at

Happy 50th anniversary to our own program and volunteers. The seeds planted many years ago continue to grow and help make Johnson County a great place to call home.

Dennis Patton is horticulture agent at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.