Reading books on gardening, attending workshops at your local nursery, and even reading gardening blogs are all good ways to learn about plants and how to create a beautiful garden. But nothing tops personal experience for learning what works and what doesn't. I certainly made many mistakes in the first few years of gardening, from not preparing the soil well enough to planting perennials much too close together. Having gotten a later start in life in gardening than many, I decided I didn't want to wait until I was 80 to have a garden I was proud of, so last year I enrolled in the Master Gardener program at my local County Extension Office to learn the basics and make up for lost time. While I learned so much during these classes, what I didn't realize is that I would learn as much or more working alongside some of the most experienced gardeners in the community.
After taking over a month-long hiatus from MG activities for Daughter's wedding and later reception, I've finally gotten back into putting in some volunteer hours at the two gardens I worked in last year. As interns, we were required to put in at least 20 hours in the Idea Garden, the showcase of the local Master Gardeners program, and I randomly chose the Sensory Garden section as the place to spend most of my time. Active MG's, however, aren't required to volunteer in specific areas, but I've come to feel a sense of ownership in this garden and wanted to continue to work there.
Besides working with a great group of people, I've learned to know the plants here and how best to care for many of them. The nearly thornless 'Zephirine Drouhin' rose is such a beauty and has grown so quickly in just three short years that I decided to choose the same cultivar to climb my new arbor. In addition, when plants are divided, extra divisions are often put up for sale for a very nominal fee to whoever grabs them first. I've brought home quite a few bargains this way, and all of them have done extremely well. Perhaps it's the good start in compost-rich soil that makes them so hardy; the small start of Amsonia Tabernae I picked up last spring, for example, has grown so huge this year that I may have to divide it already.
Last weekend, after we finished working in the garden, I stayed around for an interesting "Garden Chat" given by Ann, a Master Gardener extraordinaire, and Phyllis, one of the original designers of the Idea Garden. They spoke about the origin of the Idea Garden--begun in 1996--its history, and how it has evolved over time.
Ann explained plant selection and cited some of her personal favorites as well as pointing out some design tips in placement of plants. One of the more interesting tidbits of history had to do with this hydrangea. The plant originally came from the garden of a U of I professor whose wife later donated it to the Idea Garden. Although it looked like a lacecap, no one was quite sure what type of hydrangea it was. Phyllis decided to contact famed plant expert Michael Dirr, a friend of Professor McDaniel, who eventually classified it as a unique cultivar of Hydrangea arborescens. It is now named 'Mary Nell' after the professor's wife and is included in Dirr's Hydrangeas for American Gardens. I had no idea until last Saturday that we had such a special plant in our collection.
Another garden where I spend some volunteer time is at the County Nursing Home. When a new nursing home was built a few years ago, Master Gardeners had to start from scratch with a new garden planned at the back of the facility. Many of the plants from the old garden were moved here, but new ones were added as well. The soil left after the building was completed was mostly clay and not very suitable for gardening, but loads of compost added over time have created a lush and beautiful place.
This garden is smaller than the original one and is designed somewhat differently. The wide sidewalk that provides the inner border of the garden is handicapped accessible, but I recently learned its design has another important purpose. According to co-chair Phyllis, the original garden had several paths meandering through it, which she learned was not a good idea. The new garden is behind the Alzheimer's unit, and the circular path is designed specifically so that residents can stroll through the garden without getting lost.
Other accommodations were made as well. Several grasses and other tall plants were eventually moved when it was discovered they were blocking residents' views from inside.
Many "old-fashioned" plants are included in the garden, such as this Blanket Flower, or Gaillardia, in hopes of stirring residents' memories of their mothers' or grandmothers' gardens.
The nursing home garden is enclosed by a tall fence with a locked gate and is accessible only to residents and their visitors. But this year the garden is one of several featured in the annual Garden Walk to be held this coming Saturday, so the public will have a chance to see this very special garden as well.
I was a latecomer to joining the crew here last summer when I realized I needed additional community service hours. I wasn't sure I would continue working here this year, because there was already a large group of regulars who volunteered each week, and I often felt as if I was just looking for something to do. But then the garden co-chairs assured me my help was definitely needed, and two other reasons kept me going. One was that this is a fun group to work with, and the interesting conversations always make the time go quickly. If you are wondering why everyone is standing around here, it's because after a little over an hour of work yesterday, there wasn't a weed in sight nor a faded blossom to deadhead. My garden should be so lucky!
The other main reason I continue to volunteer here is because of the leadership of Phyllis and Carol. Phyllis (pictured earlier at the Idea Garden) is one of the original Master Gardeners in the group and is simply a walking encyclopedia of gardening knowledge. This spring, a few volunteers were carefully pruning the Purple Smokebush that had grown to 8-10 feet tall last year. Phyllis came over and told them to hack it down, leaving stumps only one or two feet above the ground. Here it is less than two months later, obviously none the worse for its extreme "haircut." I've learned to listen when Phyllis recommends a particular method or technique, because it usually works!
When I have a chance, I'll pick her brain or ask for advice on particular plants, and she is always so gracious in taking time to explain things. I wasn't sure about what grasses I wanted to add to my garden, but Phyllis reassured me that the switchgrass 'Shenandoah' that I had purchased was a good choice, and also recommended 'Karl Foerster' (above). She also assured me that the beautiful 'Morning Light' Miscanthus I admired in the garden was not a re-seeder like some Miscanthus. Taking her advice, I've added two of these to my own garden this spring.
Working in both of these gardens gives me a chance to learn about new plants I'd like to add to my own and ways to plant them for pleasing combinations.
|Oakleaf Hydrangea and Betony|
I learn from the creativity of others--this "trellis" for a mandevilla is actually two of the neon-colored tomato cages, available in many garden centers, tied together, one on top of the other. I would never have thought of this!
Every week there is something new to see. This beautiful iris--a flag iris perhaps??--wasn't in bloom last week at the Nursing Home garden.
Making it even more appealing is its placement in front of a chartreuse sumac.
Working with people who have gardened for many years is a great way for any beginning or still-learning gardener to gain invaluable knowledge. You don't have to commit to the Master Gardeners' program to do this; joining a garden club or volunteering to work in a community garden can be just as helpful. Whatever you choose, you'll find that gardeners are a generous group, always willing to share their expertise (and often starts of plants). They are living proof of the old adage: "Experience is the best teacher."