Firmly planted in Lake County, Master Gardener program expands

Annual plant sale helps fund efforts to reach underserved communities

Sabrina Chan of Buffalo Grove gets some help Saturday, May 20, 2023, from Master Gardener Jeannette Legge of Fox Lake, answering questions on the best way to grow tomato and broccoli plants during the Lake County Extension Master Gardener Spring Plant Sale at the University of Illinois Extension in Grayslake.

GRAYSLAKE – The resources and support offered by the Lake County Master Gardeners are growing along with their plants.

The program, sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension, always has encouraged volunteers to share their gardening expertise throughout the county. In recent years, however, the efforts of those involved have expanded to help communities in numerous ways.

“A big part of what we do is focus on food access,” said Jesse Davis, who became the program coordinator for the Illinois Extension’s Lake County Horticulture Program about two years ago. The program oversees the Lake County Master Gardeners.

“A lot of what we do is support people in our community already trying to do good things. We try to work on projects that help the less fortunate,” Davis said. “A lot of our contributions are less direct. Let’s say a church or food pantry or anyone is creating a food pantry garden, we will act as support. … Volunteers will come out and help train their volunteers.”

The Lake County Master Gardeners also donate seeds and garden-grown food throughout the county, he said, with an estimated $70,000 in seeds donated last year.

Among the many gardens supported by the Lake County Master Gardeners, Chapel Care Garden in Libertyville, for instance, donated 16 tons of vegetables to food pantries last year, he said.

These efforts combine with educational programs and offerings such as a Master Gardener Helpline at 847-223-8627 or via email at

And the money raised at the group’s recent annual plant sale May 20 in Grayslake funds it all.

The sale featured thousands of nursery-grown plant varieties not readily available at traditional garden centers, including natives, new cultivars of perennials, grasses and pollinator-friendly plants.

It also included a variety of home-grown vegetables and herbs and the popular “Garden Treasures.” Visitors shopped for new and gently used items to enhance their landscape and home, including yard art, garden tools, decorative containers and gardening books.

A master gardener since 2018, Peg Tierney of Mundelein helped in the “Garden Treasures” section. She became involved simply to learn more about gardening and has strived to add native plants to her yard to attract butterflies, birds and native bees.

“Everybody kind of does their own thing,” Tierney said of the program.

“You get to learn a lot about gardening. It’s a good group of people. My experience with gardeners is they’re pretty friendly and pretty talkative, especially about gardening.”

About 70 master gardeners were available during the plant sale to answer gardening questions, help with selection of plants and offer gardening advice.

“The whole idea is to increase people’s knowledge of being able to grow their own food and make the environment healthier and more sustainable,” Davis said. “Everything we do we do for free, and every bit of what we do is funded by this sale. It’s big for us. It’s the biggest thing we do.”

All Lake County Master Gardeners must complete training and provide at least 40 hours of service to the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Program. To maintain status as an active master gardener, volunteers are expected to volunteer at least 20 hours of service and complete 10 hours of additional training annually.

Along with in-person training, the program offers self-paced, virtual training, Davis said. In doing so, the program has attracted a wider variety of volunteers of all ages from all communities as opposed to just retirees.

“We want volunteers that represent all of the communities in Lake County and not just the affluent communities,” Davis said. “We want the underserved populations represented in our program and we’ve increased efforts to make sure all of our services and resources are available to lower income communities so we’re representing every corner of Lake County.”

With about 150 master gardeners in Lake County’s program, the demand remains strong and the program has a waiting list, Davis said.

Interest in gardening has been on the rise since the pandemic.

“It didn’t hurt our industry, that’s for sure,” Davis said of the pandemic’s impact on gardening trends.

“I think it’s bigger than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s changed. It used to be gardening at home, the pretty flowers and the prettiest things, but now the trend is natives. You put plants in your yard that take less work, less maintenance. They’re healthier, they’re stronger, they live longer and they’re a thousand times better for the environment. We’re really pushing to be way more involved in that and support the Lake County Forest Preserves with their efforts.”