October 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW2

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Re-Designing a Master Gardener Training Program to Meet the Changing Needs of Volunteers and Cooperative Extension

A traditional Master Gardener training program was re-designed to meet the changing needs of both volunteers and Cooperative Extension. The re-designed training reduced the number of sessions and travel requirements of participants and Extension staff and increased participants' ability to choose sessions. Interactive teaching methods were emphasized, and distance-education sessions piloted. Program offerings were integrated across three audiences--new Master Gardeners, current Master Gardeners, and the general public--for efficient use of Extension staff time. Weekday scheduling of several sessions selected for participants who would be available for weekday volunteering. Fee increases moved the program closer to financial sustainability.

Lee Young
County Extension Director and Extension Educator
Penn State Cooperative Extension in Washington County
Washington, Pennsylvania


The Master Gardener program was begun in 1972 in Seattle, Washington, to develop knowledgeable volunteers to support Cooperative Extension's educational programs in consumer horticulture. In Pennsylvania, the first Master Gardeners completed their training in 1982, and counties across the Commonwealth adopted the program during the 1980s and early 1990s (Nuss & Bilik, 2001).

A traditional Master Gardener training program was conducted, relatively unchanged, from 1992 until 2004 in three counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The training consisted of between 17 and 22 weekday evening lecture sessions over the fall and winter. The Extension educator was present at nearly all sessions. Trainings were held at one location that required most people to travel a significant distance at night, sometimes through poor weather conditions.

Although the training program produced many productive and committed Master Gardeners, it also suffered from a poor retention rate, with participants dropping out before the end of the training and often fewer than half finishing their required volunteer hours in their first year. Most participants were employed full-time and could not volunteer during the day. The three county Extension offices served by the training program encountered a consistent problem of Master Gardeners not being available during weekdays to cover "garden line" phone calls, a traditional Master Gardener activity.

In 2004, a number of economic and budgetary factors converged, forcing changes in the training program. The Extension educator in charge of the program retired, and state budget constraints precluded filling the position. During the same time period, Penn State Cooperative Extension adopted a policy of cost recovery and alternative revenue generation to address budget shortfalls. Master Gardener programs were expected to move toward financial sustainability. Large increases in gasoline prices resulted in Extension staff and potential program participants curtailing unnecessary travel, such as numerous training sessions requiring significant driving distances.

I took on the three-county Master Gardener training program. It was agreed that the program would be re-designed to meet the changing needs of both Cooperative Extension and of program participants.

Methods to Meet Changing Needs:

The new training consisted of three mandatory sessions: 2-day-long Fridays and a half-day on a Saturday, and a series of optional sessions. During the mandatory sessions, 20 hours of core topics were taught by Extension staff, guest speakers, and a Master Gardener Coordinator. Interactive, engaging teaching methods were used to build participants' skills, develop participants' identity as Master Gardeners, foster working relationships, and gain horticultural knowledge.

Teaching methods included the use of group problem-solving sessions; hands-on practice of skills such as teaching, plant and pest identification, and effective internet searching; competitive games; and role-playing using a decision case (Jutila & Meyer, 2005). Interspersing these interactive methods with lectures and discussion allowed instructors and participants to remain focused, efficiently build skills, and maintain interest during all-day sessions without feeling overwhelmed or bored.

Trainees were given a choice of ways to fulfill the remaining 10 training hours. A series of evening workshops, taught by current Master Gardeners or guest instructors, was offered to trainees, as well as to the general public and to current Master Gardeners to fulfill advanced training requirements. Trainees could attend a local Extension gardening seminar, and on-site pruning workshops were held for trainees at two locations.

Trainees could also choose to complete two distance-education modules. The first guided participants to several Web sites that reinforced basic concepts of botany, soils, and gardening education. For the second, participants were given a CD with a PowerPoint presentation on wildlife, and guided to several web sites for further information on wildlife/garden interactions. Both modules included a set of open-ended study questions, with participants e-mailing their responses to me for review.

In the re-designed training program that ran from September through March, trainees attended a maximum of 10 sessions. Two sessions were conducted without an Extension educator needing to be present. Session locations were scattered throughout the three counties, so participants could choose based on travel distance as well as topic. Travel miles decreased for all involved, and carpooling to sessions was common. Integrating program offerings across three audiences--Master Gardener trainees, general gardening public, and current Master Gardeners--made more efficient use of Extension staff time and provided more opportunity for current Master Gardeners to teach.

The fee for the training program increased from $65 to $200, with a $50 refund for those who complete the training and 50 volunteer hours during the first year. A $10 fee per evening workshop was also charged to the general public. Through these fees, sufficient funds were generated to cover program costs as well as the Coordinator's hourly wages devoted to the training.


  • With assistance from the Master Gardener Coordinator and other Master Gardeners, I was able to add the training to an already full set of program responsibilities through efficient use of time and travel.

  • All participants finished the training, although class enrollment was lower during the first year.

  • Over half of the class members are available to do volunteer work during weekdays because they are retired, self-employed, or employed part-time. The flexible schedule, with fewer evening meetings, may have made the training program more attractive to retired persons.

  • Sixty-two percent of the trainees took advantage of the offerings by participating in more than the required training hours. Eighty percent participated in the distance-education sessions, even those who did not have computers in their homes.

  • Trainees had a positive experience in using distance education techniques with this audience. One participant's writing assignment from a distance-education module was used as a Master Gardener newsletter article. We plan to develop this further in the future through video-teleconferencing units and other web-based computer software.


Nuss, J. R., & Bilik A. (2001). The Penn State Master Gardener Manual. Penn State University, University Park, PA.

Julita, S. G., & Meyer, M. H. (2005). Sam's dilemma: A decision case for training horticultural workers. HortTechnology 15(3).