July 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

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How Do You Spell Relief? Master Gardening!

How do master gardener volunteers spend their time? How does the introduction of the Master Gardener Program change how the professional staff use their time? Can master gardener volunteers teach the same high quality of information that professional staff do? Staff in 14 California counties were studied to answer these questions.

James I. Grieshop
Lecturer and Specialist,
Community Education Development
Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences,
University of California-Davis

Victoria Rupley
Graduate Student
Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences
University of Cal ifornia- Davis.

Accepted for publication: March, 1984.

Expanding Need

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. It can also be the mother of innovation within Extension. For Extension programs, one necessity has been driven by the need for relief from an ever-increasing public demand for gardening information, advice, and assistance. Since 1910, the county agents have been answering gardening questions by the hundreds. This number has mushroomed to the thousands in the recent decades, an event that has seriously overburdened Extension's resources and capacity to respond. This demand has created a need for relief which in turn has led to innovation. One of these innovations has been the Master Gardener Program.

Beginning in Washington state in 1972, the Master Gardener Program has grown to over 3 dozen nationally by 1983.1 One of the program's goals has been to provide help for professional staff by training and using qualified adult volunteers to respond to the demand for advice and help, while at the same time, extending to the public reliable and useful information on gardening and practical horticulture.

California Study

If these are valid programmatic goals, then two significant questions emerge: (1) has the Master Gardener Program relieved professional staff from many of the routine duties of answering consumers' questions and (2) does it provide an adequate flow of reliable and useful information? The study reported here, based on cases in California, provides answers to these questions. By 1983, 20 California counties had Master Gardener Programs, up from 2 in 1980. The Master Gardener Program tried to provide "relief" to overburdened Extension public service environmental horticulture advisors (through the use of volunteers), while at the same time becoming a mechanism to extend reliable and useful information and service. In 1982, an evaluation was done to assess whether these goals were being achieved. Seven counties with active (that is, operating for at least 2 years) Master Gardener Programs were selected for study. On the basis of staff size, percentage of professional staff involved in public service activities, population, and ruralness/urbanness, these seven counties were matched with seven counties not operating Master Gardener Programs. A questionnaire, first developed and field tested, was mailed to and completed by each county director, farm advisor (or agent) responsible for the public service function and/or the Master Gardener Program, and Extension secretary in the 14 counties. Among the areas surveyed and reported here are staff's time use, type of work activities performed, and the element of quality of information. Data collected via the survey were supplemented by phone calls and by reviewing other available program reports.


Twenty-eight questionnaires were mailed to master gardener (MG) county respondents and 38 to non-master gardener (NMG) county respondents. Fifty-four usable questionnaires were returned (26 MG and 28 NMG).

Sixteen of the 26 master gardener county respondents (67%) "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that they were able to "devote more time to other work areas" because of the Master Garden Program. Their responses also indicated that allocation of work time by farm (or public service) advisors shifted with the implementation of the Master Gardener Program (see Table 1). There was a decrease in the amount of time (from 47.4% to 25.1 %) spent by public service advisors in MG counties on the telephone responding to the individual requests.

Table 1. Time use for selected activities

Advisors NMG(n=10)

Advisors MG (n=10)
MG Volunteers
After Program
Disseminate by phone
Individual Personal Contacts
Print Media
Speaking Engagements
Group Coordination Activities
Other Tasks(misc.)
*Reported by MG Advisors


Other noted decreases in staff were: time spent on individual contact (from 13.9% to 7.7%) and writing articles for the media (from 5.6% to 4.9%). County directors and secretaries reported similar changes in time use and tasks performed. Responses by farm advisors in non-master gardener counties indicated they currently used 50% of their work time to disseminate information via the phone. This percentage is in agreement with the retrospective figure reported by the MG farm advisors. In fact, the results for NIVIG advisors and VIG advisors (pre-program) indicate no major differences between these in terms of time use/ task performed.

But, master gardener farm advisors weren't sitting around waiting for more work. They reported working the same amount of time, but in different areas. In particular, they reported using more time in radio/TV (from 2.1 % before to 8.0% after), in group coordination activities (from .6% to 14.4%), and administrative activities (from 3.9% to 7.3%) with the volunteers. Increases for dissemination of information through the media were low to begin with and any changes may not be significant. However, time spent on the coordination of activities consumed a much greater percentage of their total time.

Work performed by the master gardeners themselves must be noted. In short, volunteers picked up the "slack." By report of the advisors, 46.7% of the master gardener's time was spent answering phone calls. Thus, not only did the master gardeners pick up the "slack," but their involvement led to a net increase in the quantity of contacts via phone, thereby expanding the reach of Extension. Another study in California indicated that after a period of 2 years. master gardeners increased the number of public contacts by 50% over and above those previously handled by the farm advisor. Similar positive changes were reported for other activities. for example, individual personal contacts and print media.

Program Acceptance

Non-master gardener county personnel were asked a hypothetical question: "Had the program been operating in your counties, would it have allowed you to devote more time to other work areas?" Responses from the NMG counties were mixed. but the majority believed that if the MG program were implemented, it might increase the visibility of Extension, thereby doubling the workload of the professional staff.

In the MG counties, the opinion was that the program did increase visibility, but it did not increase personal work-loads, since volunteers assumed the added workload. The most notable change occurred in the type of work performed by the professional staff. More group educational and organizational activities were undertaken, whereas reactive, one-on-one activities (answering phones) were substantially reduced.

Quality of Information

The second question was: "Does the Master Gardener Program provide a realistic mechanism for disseminating quality information?" A commonly heard criticism of master gardeners is: "They can't provide the high quality information and support usually provided by professional staff." Responses from the professional staff in the master gardener counties contradicted this criticism. Over two-thirds of MG county respondents (16 of 25) "agreed" that the mastergardeners provide "as accurate horticultural information as do professional staff." Results from NMG counties were diametrically opposed-only 4 of 26 respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with this statement.

Two alternative explanations of this datum are possible: (1) because they operate the program, MG county staff need or want to believe that comparable and high quality information is available or (2) that, indeed, master gardeners do provide the quality, reliable information demanded by the public. The second option is probably the case because counties usually receive repetitive and even predictable questions. A majority of situations faced by master gardeners are of this type and they're trained to respond to them. Since volunteers have access to office resources to adequately respond to requests and are monitored by professional staff through regular consultation and review, they can confidently disseminate useful information.


Through the innovative Master Gardener Program, Extension has reached out to more people and groups. At the same time, the program has significantly affected professional staff's use of time. The introduction of trained volunteers allows the professional staff to spend 50% less time answering telephone calls. Master gardeners pick up this difference, and spend more than double that amount of time answering phone requests. Obviously, a significant net gain results.

The fear that the program would increase an already overburdened professional staff's workload and would increase Extension's visibility (thereby increasing the workload) doesn't seem to be justified. The experience of the master gardener counties indicates the opposite-visibility and workload increase, but not for the professional staff.

The critical question related to the quality and accuracy of information extended by the volunteers appears more illusory than real. Although non-master gardener counties expressed the doubt that volunteers would be able to extend reliable information, the master gardener counties, after two years of experience, seemed to feel the quality of information isn't a problem.

Not every county should institute a Master Gardener Program. Other concerns besides those of time use and quality must enter into the formula. In addition to the need for further evaluation research, a need exists for the development of other organized efforts or programs aimed at serving the home and urban horticulturists and providing relief for busy staff from certain responsibilities, thereby freeing them to take on other needed work. From this perspective, change is viewed as positive-with Extension doing important and needed group educational work.


  1. "Just Ask the Master Gardeners,'' Sunset Magazine, CLXIV (March, 1980), 196 D.
  2. B. G. Wesenberg and D. E. Whiting, ''Master Gardeners Answer Questions," Ornamentals Northwest (Pullman, Washington: Cooperative Extension Service, 1977) and James 1. Grieshop, ''Growing with Master Gardeners," California Agriculture, XXXVI (July, 1982), 17-19.
  3. In California. many of the public service functions are, in truth, home horticulture/gardening related. Certain farm advisors are referred to as public service advisors (or agents).
  4. James 1. Grieshop, ''Impact of Master Gardener Program in San Joaquin County,'' ADVICE Tipsheet No. 14 (Davis: University of California. Cooperative Extension Service, 1982).