Master Gardener Volunteers of Highlands County

By David Austin and Susie Whitehead
Photos Courtesy Highlands County Master Gardeners 

“Can you help me identify a plant in my yard?” “We just moved here from Indiana, and we want to know when to plant tomatoes.” “Please tell me what’s wrong with my lawn.” These are typical questions that a Master Gardener volunteer may get when working at the Help Desk at the Master Gardener office. The volunteers at the Help Desk field hundreds of questions every year in person and on the phone from curious and sometimes anxious homeowners who are concerned about their yards. This free public service is just one of the many opportunities that the volunteers use to share their love and knowledge of horticulture. 

The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is a national program that began in 1973 in Washington state. An extension agent realized that a well-trained group of community volunteers could respond to many everyday homeowner questions and that would free him to work on more difficult issues in the community. Since that time, the Master Gardener Volunteer Program has grown and is now active in 45 states. Florida’s program began in 1979 and is now established in over half of Florida’s counties. The Florida Master Gardener Volunteer Program is sponsored by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) of which the Highlands County Extension Service is a part. 

The Highlands County program was established in 1984 and there are currently 70 active volunteers. To be a Master Gardener Volunteer, there is no previous horticulture training or work experience required. Every year in January, candidate applications are reviewed, and extensive interviews are conducted by the horticulture agent, David Austin. The top candidates are selected and begin an eight-week training class at the end of January. The participants take an exam at the end of the course as the final step for certification. Course curriculum includes plant propagation, botany, soil and fertilizers, turf care, pests and diseases, as well as plant identification. Lots of plant identification!! To retain the certification every year, they must commit to 75 hours in the first year, 35 volunteer hours every year thereafter, and complete 10 hours of continuing education each year.

Despite the rigorous training course, much of the learning comes from the hands-on work that the volunteers do in the community and working together at the propagation shed. Over time, many become experts in areas such as vegetable gardening, pollinator plants, gardening tool care, and banana trees. You name it and there is probably a volunteer that has experience with just about any plant that a homeowner would have. 

In addition to the Help Desk, the Master Gardener Volunteers offer soil pH testing for a small fee. This service is regularly used by homeowners and lawn maintenance companies for customers’ lawns. They are frequently called upon to make presentations to local civic clubs about various horticultural topics. Several volunteers regularly write articles for the Master Gardener monthly newsletter which goes out to over two thousand subscribers. They organize and participate in the Central Butterfly and Pollinator Club and the Heartland Beekeepers, both of which meet monthly. In previous years, they designed and planted gardens for schools and dearly departed friends. Except for specialized monthly classes many of these services are provided at no charge. 

Of all the activities that the Master Gardener Volunteers are involved with, the most important one is the annual “Let It Grow” garden festival that is held on the third Saturday in November. The program is 100% self-funded and the proceeds from the festival support nearly all the program services. This year’s festival is November 18 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bert J. Harris Ag Center in Sebring. The event started as a plant sale in 2013 and has transformed into a day-long festival that now showcases hundreds of plants that were propagated or started from seed by the volunteers during the year. For the past several years buyers have waited in line before the opening ceremony to get their choice of edibles, landscape plants, Florida-native plants, pollinator plants, succulents, and flowering plants. All of that plus more will be available again this year. Classes about succulents and orchids will be offered for a small fee and free propagation demonstrations will be held at the prop shed. For those interested in early holiday shopping, there will be 60+ vendors with a wide variety of crafts, art, and merchandise, and the Master Gardener Volunteers will have raffle items and silent auction items donated by local individuals and businesses. Hungry guests can stop by one of several locally owned food trucks for a meal or a snack anytime from the beginning of the day until the festival closes. Live music from local musicians will entertain guests all day. The festival is free, and everyone is invited to enjoy the festival to celebrate plants. 

For more information about becoming a Master Gardener Volunteer for the 2023 “Let It Grow” garden festival, please contact the office at (863) 402-6540 or