In return for training, Master Gardener volunteers perform community service. Photo by Janet Carson

The Arkansas Master Gardener program celebrated its 35th anniversary last month. The first class of 25 volunteers from four central Arkansas counties graduated Oct. 13, 1988, at the Arkansas 4-H Center in Ferndale, paving the way for one of the most successful volunteer programs of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service.

The Master Gardener program officially began in Washington state in 1972 as a pilot program to help county agents meet the demand of horticulture work in their offices. It has spread internationally, available in all states, several provinces in Canada and South Korea. Master Gardeners are usually affiliated with the local land grant colleges and Cooperative Extension Services in their states. Each state has its own guidelines, but the premise is the same: In return for horticulture training, volunteers perform horticulture-related service to their local county.

In Arkansas, what started out as a pilot program in Garland, Jefferson, Pulaski and Saline counties has now spread to almost every county in the state. On average, 400 to 500 new volunteers are trained annually, with over 3,000 active statewide. To become a Master Gardener, interested individuals should contact their local county extension office, ask for an application, and find out when training opportunities are available. Applicants do not have to be expert gardeners, nor know much about horticulture — that is something you will learn once you are a part of the program. But applicants must be interested in volunteering.

Applicants must be able to attend the training dates in their entirety, but after that, volunteer times are flexible and can be done on weekends and evenings if needed.

Once selected, volunteers pay a registration fee and go through a 40-hour training course taught by state extension specialists, county agents and local experts. Topics include basic botany, entomology, plant pathology, ornamental plants, vegetables, fruit crops, lawns and more. Included with the training is a new informational manual. An open-book test is conducted at the end to help familiarize applicants with the manual.

In return for training, Master Gardener volunteers perform community service. Photo by Janet Carson

Once training is completed, new Master Gardener volunteers have one year to fulfill their volunteer obligation of 40 hours of community service. Each county has a selection of projects to choose from, including public property beautification, community gardens, plant therapy programs at local hospitals and nursing homes, youth gardening programs and educational booths at farmers markets and local fairs. To remain active after year one, 20 volunteer hours and 20 education hours are required each year. Many volunteers stay active for years after training, and their work is evident across the state.

The Master Gardener program is a combination of work, learning and fun. Working on projects in the counties is a way for volunteers to bond and learn from one another. Helping to organize events builds leadership skills and helps participants strengthen their communities. Family picnics and social events make them a more cohesive unit.

Arkansas has one of the strongest Master Gardener programs in the country. If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardener, contact your local county extension office, or visit

Janet B. Carson helped start the Master Gardener program in 1988. In 1992, she became the Statewide Consumer Horticulture Specialist and Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator and helped elevate the program to what it is today.