CASA GRANDE — Residents of Pinal County have the opportunity to learn from community educators in hopes to garden successfully, and since the 1980s, Rick Gibson was there every step of the way.

These volunteers had to complete a semester-long course to become certified to serve communities. Master Gardeners hold plant sales across Arizona, host workshops and additionally assist in identifying plants.

Gibson was an extension agent beginning in the early 1980s and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Master of Science degree in plant protection. He has always been interested in agriculture and learning.

Plants and gardens are his passion as he dedicates his life to teaching others and being involved within the community. Gibson retired over the summer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic after his long career at the Pinal Cooperative Extension, including a stint as office director. According to Gibson, the status of the program is still as viable as it was before the pandemic hit.

The Master Gardener program started in Washington sometime in the late 1970s and found its way to Arizona by the early ’80s. Gibson was approached by a recruiter and was interested in teaching others.

According to Gibson, the Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners cover Pinal County corner to corner and currently has six working groups in the county. Prior to that, the program wasn’t always successful. “We struggled for a little bit.”

“It was difficult to get people to drive two hours or even 30 minutes or 40 minutes to come into the office,” Gibson said about the early days of the program. In 2006, they held a Master Gardener university in Tucson where gardeners from all over were able to meet.

“It worked very well, they would work in their own communities.” Working groups include areas like Maricopa, San Tan Valley and Apache Junction.

“As each one of those working groups came online and in their communities, the program grew,” Gibson said. At any given time, there are 150 to 200 certified volunteers.

In addition to this, the gardeners also meet once a year for a conference. “It is sometimes a complicated process, because it requires of them 50 hours of classroom or outdoor training,” Gibson said.

When the original Master Garden program began back in 1981, Phil Bond was one of the volunteer educators. Bond is still an educator today. “I think this is one of the best programs in the country,” said Bond, who owns Distinctive Earthscapes at The Avocado Nursery near Signal Peak.

“Rick Gibson is one of the most amazing people I know,” Bond said. Despite retiring this past summer, Gibson continues his passion for agriculture and gardening.

Gibson even has a blog dedicated to garden and landscape. Through this blog, Gibson writes about water for plants, the hazards of certain plants and how to properly care for the landscape.

Despite COVID-19, the groups are still active within the community. Newsletters are released every month with landscape tips while simultaneously keeping the community up to date. The group also answers questions to the public via phone.

According to a Resource Recap meeting held at the end of September, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension hopes to see its programs, such as the Master Gardeners, return to normal operation in the near future.

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Gabrielle Olivera is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more.

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