Cultivating Communities: Alabama Master Gardeners Celebrate 40 Years of Service

Auburn University College of Agriculture Dean Paul Patterson, Auburn University President Jay Gogue, Kerry Smith and Alabama Extension Director Mike Phillips were pleased to share the joint resolution from the Alabama legislature recognizing the 40 years of service by Master Gardeners. PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED TO THE OPELIKA OBSERVER


“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” -Audrey Hepburn

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System Master Gardeners (MGs) are celebrating 40 years of a belief in tomorrow. Through community gardens, tours, workshops and community outreach projects, MGs are making a difference in their communities across Alabama.

Alabama Extension MG Program Coordinator Kerry Smith said the MG program has touched thousands of lives throughout its 40-year history in Alabama.

“The MG program reaches much further than many people realize,” Smith said. “Volunteers in some counties help feed food-insecure families with produce from community gardens. Others host community events or garden tours. There are even some counties where the MG volunteers are the backbone of the county fair.


Alabama Sen. Clay Scofield introduced a joint resolution to the Alabama legislature recognizing the Master Gardeners for their service during the past 40 years.

The Alabama legislature jointly “commends the Alabama Extension Master Gardener Program for its contributions to the state of Alabama and hereby recognizes its impact toward making our state more beautiful and its citizens more capable of environmentally safe and sound decisions for their home landscapes.”


Since its beginning in 1981, the Alabama MG program has become an impactful and expansive statewide program. In 2020, 1,565 members reported volunteer hours — even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Forty years of sweat, energy, time and talent contributed to communities all over Alabama equals thousands of hours of community service. The work of MGs has an estimated $112 million worth of volunteer efforts that has made Alabama more beautiful.

Gary Murray, an Extension agent assistant in Madison County in 1981, worked as part of the team who developed the first Alabama MG curriculum and volunteer training. He was encouraged to implement the program by Huntsville resident, Mary Lou McNabb, who participated in the MG program at Cornell University.

He said behind every successful program is a good team who makes it happen.

“The MG program is a quality program that has been led by many quality people over the years,” Murray said. “While this is vitally important to program success, it comes down to the quality of people who choose to become MGs. These individuals are extraordinary.”

Murray said the MG volunteers are a community-minded group.

“I am a first-hand witness to the difference a MG group can make in communities,” Murray said. “These are individuals who want to improve their own knowledge base, then use what they learn to help others.”


Mallory Kelley, an Alabama Extension regional home grounds agent, said after becoming a certified MG, members can choose to work on an advanced MG training.

This training includes 40 hours of topic-specific study and presentations to peers and other groups, as well as a mentoring program. Kelley said the impact MG’s have on their communities is incredible and inspiring.

“The MG program is about gardening, but the thing that really ties people together is the unique and lasting relationships you cultivate,” Kelley said. “I applaud these volunteers because they give a lot of time, energy and love to their projects. The Prattvillage garden is just one example that makes a difference in an Alabama town.”


Billie Crawford, a Montgomery County MG, comes from a family of Alabama MG volunteers. She said gardening is in their blood. Crawford’s sister and brother-in-law are Tuscaloosa County MGs, but her initial introduction to the MG program was through her mother, Helen Bretz. Bretz was an Alabama MG member in Tuscaloosa County in 1991.

“My mother was involved with Master Gardeners in the early years,” Crawford said. “She already loved the MG program and encouraged me to participate in the outreach programs and get involved with community service projects.”

Crawford’s mother, Helen Bretz, said the MG organization has been dear to her since her time as an active MG.

“The MG program has given me so many wonderful friends,” Bretz said. “Many of them I am still in contact with today.”

The association that brought lasting friendships is the same one she said breathed life into her again after she fought colon cancer.

“After 24 cancer treatments, I was weak and tired,” Bretz said. “I was offered the opportunity to have two mentors help me with a garden in my back yard through the Harvest for Health program and it really brought me back to life.”


In addition to community beautification projects, there are individuals and families reaping the reward of sewn seeds of kindness and the continued belief that MGs are planting today, believing for tomorrow.

Smith said MG volunteers donated 13 tons of fresh produce to area food banks for local families experiencing food insecurity in 2020 through the Grow More, Give More(GMGM) campaign. This topped 2019’s donations by 2,000 pounds. GMGM encourages a produce-sharing partnership where gardeners share extra produce with neighbors in need or local food banks.

Harvest for Health pairs cancer survivors with MG volunteers who mentor them while growing a four-season backyard garden. The program has impacted more than 400 cancer survivors throughout Alabama who partnered with nearly 500 MG volunteer mentors.

Harvest for Health is a partnership between Alabama Extension’s home grounds team and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Smith said this research would not be possible without Alabama MG volunteers and their contributions of time, talent and heart.


From humble beginnings came a program that humbly and consistently serves in many communities throughout Alabama. Smith said she has had the privilege of watching the program grow during her tenure.

“The Master Gardener program is about so much more than gardening and soil, although these are the initial ties that bind,” Smith said. “MG volunteers are enthusiastic and service-minded. Their efforts have helped others learn more and truly made Alabama a better place to live.”

She said the volunteers are the heart of the program.

“This outstanding Extension program owes gratitude to the Alabama MG program pioneers for their energy and determination, especially Mary Lou McNabb for launching the idea in Madison County,” Smith said.

“Thank you to her and to all of the Alabama Master Gardeners who volunteer in their communities. Way to grow.”


Alabama Master Gardeners also manage a helpline. MGs help gardeners and homeowners throughout the state diagnose and treat common issues in the lawn and garden. Call 1-877-ALA-GROW to let a certified MG assist you.

For more information about the Alabama Master Gardener program, Harvest for Health or Grow More Give More, visit


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