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The History of the Master Gardeners of Hamilton County, Tennessee

The Master Gardener Program was first taught in Hamilton County, Tennessee, in 1994 with classes beginning the first week of January and continuing until the end of March. Hamilton County Agriculture Agent, Joe Nichols was approached and given approval by Dr. Bill Hicks, Dean of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service in 1993 to begin the program. Only Nashville (Davidson County) and Knoxville (Knox County) were holding classes prior to 1994.

At the beginning of the program, all new Master Gardeners were asked to attend 24 hours of instruction and in return provide 24 hours of service to the community in the year after they received their certificate. The cost of the program was only $24.00 there were approximately 1,400 requests from individuals wanting to attend the 1994 class. With the overwhelming response, a decision was made to take only Hamilton County residents for the first class. A total of 140 people attended. Part of the concept of being a Master Gardener is giving service back to the community in return for the training. Joe Nichols envisioned graduates helping with community beautification projects, school gardening programs, answering questions, giving talks, holding classes for new residents to the region, developing a newsletter, and consulting with church or community groups.

Specialists from the University of Tennessee taught the first group of classes. Among those specialists were Dr. David Sams, who taught organic gardening and vegetables, Dr. Alan Windham, who discussed the identification and control of ornamental plant diseases, Dr. David Lockwood instructed the classes in fruit growing and Dr. Tom Samples taught how to establish a lawn and weed control. Dr. Frank Hale taught insect and disease control.  Becky Forrester taught a class on herbs. Dr. Mike King taught attracting and controlling wildlife. Dr. Doug Crater taught annuals and perennials. Dr. Harry Willows taught insects and the home and Dr. Martin Ash taught woody plants. Joe Nichols conducted the orientation of the first classes and Judy Lowe, Garden Editor of the News Free Press, helped with publicity. Judy Lowe, Garden Editor of the local newspaper helped with publicity.

The President of the first Master Gardener class was Ruth Hafley. The newsletter THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE made its entrance in July 1994. Alison Gussack became chairman of the first newsletter. The first year, although unorganized, the Master Gardeners managed to start their charter. The second year Mike Payne worked hard to finish the charter. The group became more organized and foundations were set for which the Hamilton County Master Gardeners are now built upon.

The Master Gardeners of Hamilton County celebrated their 10 year anniversary in April 2004. Past Presidents of the organization have included: 1994 – Ruth Hafley, 1995- Mike Payne, 1996 – Jim Wooten, 1997 – Barbara Rice, 1998 – Herb Cohn, 1999 – Rebecca Goldberg, 2000 – Jim Denham, 2001 – Ben Holt, 2002 – Rory Reese, 2003 – Tommy Jackson, 2004 – Sue Henley, 2005 – Donna Adams.

In 2006 Dick Monnich served as president for a short time before being replaced by Stephanie Payne.  The year was very busy with projects that included a master gardener cookbook and the establishment of the butterfly garden at the Tennessee Aquarium.  By 2006 Hamilton County master gardeners had adopted several ongoing projects including a booth at Hamilton County Fair, partnerships with Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Crabtree Farms, and the establishment of the master gardener hotline to answer  gardening-related questions from Chattanooga area residents.  Stephanie continued as president for 2007.

In 2008 Linda Billingsley became president as Hamilton County master gardeners were beginning their effort to help the Chattanooga Area Food Bank build a greenhouse and educational facility at their location off Amnicola Highway.  Many fundraisers were held during the year and the financial goal of $21,000 was reached by the end of the year.  Linda continued as president for 2009, a year which saw the expansion of master gardener projects and a membership which had grown to 160 active members.  At the end of 2009 Patsy Boles was elected to serve as president for 2010.