The volunteer group could lose funding for its paid coordinator as Dakota County trims its budget for 2011.
Shari Mayer is known as the "herb lady" for the expertise she shares with the public.
John Zweber is a fixture at the gardens at UMore Park, where he teaches youngsters the secrets of horticulture.
Lora Berg has brought gardening to more than 600 kids at Lakeville's Cherry Hill Elementary, including those with special needs who can toil in a raised-bed garden built just for them.
They are three of the 135 volunteers active with the Dakota County Master Gardeners, and they are all wondering what will happen if the program loses its county funding.
"Hopefully we can carry on the same things that we have been doing," Zweber said. "We give back to Dakota County."
The program is among those that may get the ax next month when the Dakota County Board considers slimming the operating budget by 5 percent to $129.4 million.
As currently proposed, the county would eliminate funding for the master gardeners in July 2011, saving $20,000 that year and $40,000 in subsequent years. The change would eliminate funding for a paid coordinator who shepherds the gardeners as they perform projects throughout the county.
Other proposed cuts to the county budget include eliminating 60 staff positions -- 43 of them currently vacant -- that will be phased out through 2011, discontinuing the bookmobile and reducing grants to groups such as the historical society.
The county has said that the "nice-but-not-necessary" programs being cut were targeted because they may be able to seek funding from other sources.
Jayne Hager Dee, regional director of the University of Minnesota Extension in Farmington, said the planned cuts to the Master Gardeners program are sad but understandable.
"We all know it's the result of really hard decisions that the county board has to make," she said.
The local gardeners are already forming a task force to figure out what to do next.
"Probably some of their programming just won't be able to continue," Hager Dee said. "They will make that decision themselves as a group."
David Moen, the state master gardener program manager, said the Dakota County group is one of the largest in the state.
They're also different from other chapters because they have a tangible site -- the University of Minnesota's Master Gardener Education and Research Display Garden at UMore Park in Rosemount -- where they do much of their teaching.
Master Gardener programs are extensions of the University of Minnesota but have traditionally been funded by counties. Some counties pitch in, and others opt not to.
Washington County's master gardeners are completing their first year without financial assistance from the county.
"They have functioned quite well, but the sustainability is always a question," Moen said. "It's volunteers, and volunteer turnover will always be a challenge. You don't have the consistency of a staff person."
Berg is leading the task force that will tackle the future of the program in Dakota County.
"We do a lot of things, and we have to figure out which of those things will really fit," she said.
The gardeners' volunteer projects reach all corners of the county and include work with the county's public health department on community gardens, community education classes and lots of work with students.
The state requires that all master gardeners volunteer 25 hours each year. The Dakota group combined for 9,500 volunteer hours last year.
The group does raise some of its own revenue through donations for speaking engagements and biannual plant sales at the UMore site, and there is potential for outside funding through grants or donations from businesses. But Mayer, the president of the group's advisory board, said the group will have to keep its priorities clear.
"We really exist to educate, not fundraise," Mayer said. "We're master gardeners first. We're supposed to be out teaching and educating the public. That has to be protected."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056