Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lessons From the Masters

Picture this scenario:  You have just retired or your youngest child has just left for college.  Suddenly you have time on your hands, and you decide you would like to create a garden just like the ones you've admired in magazines for so many years.  Where to begin?

 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."


  1. What lovely gardens you are volunteering in and learning from. Great post, full of good ideas!

  2. How wonderful to be able to learn hands-on and at the same time help give pleasure to people no longer able to garden for themselves. Nothing beats being able to pick the brains of a real expert who knows where you garden.

  3. This reminds me of a funny story. About ten years ago I asked my dad if he had ever taken a master gardeners class, naive child that I am, and he said " I teach those classes!"
    Good way to learn more. I need to do that when my son graduates.

  4. Carol, They are beautiful gardens--but it sure makes a difference when you have a crew of people working and an endless supply of compost and mulch!

    Janet, You're so right; hands-on learning is the best. And now I know why some plants I see on blogs don't do so well for me--they just don't like our Midwest weather.

    Rosey, That is funny! I was visiting my Dad on Father's Day and we started talking about tomatoes. Dad mentioned something about determinate and indeterminate seeds, and I thought, that's something I learned in MG classes last year! Sheesh, if I'd only been paying attention to him all these years, I could have saved myself some time taking classes:)

  5. I loved my Master Gardener's Days!! I miss the friends and the work! The retirement home looks lovely. I hope that Tiger Eye sumac doesn't give you the trouble it gave me!! Still trying to pull it out!

  6. I love that one of the gardens you MG's tend to is at a Nursing Home and what a gorgeous garden you've made for the residents. Hope they enjoy all the hard work you volunteers have put into it. I think that Iris is a Japanese type. :)

  7. Sounds fab, do you get to snaffle the odd cutting and a few seeds along the way?!!

  8. It is so good that you get more from volunteering than they get from your donated labor! I was fascinated by the garden for the Alzheimer's patients... how creative and interesting that is.

  9. You are so lucky to have such a dedicated group of MGs. I think the group here has disbanded. It takes a lot of effort to keep this sort of group organized and running smoothly. Love seeing all of this inspiration. Wish I was going on that tour this weekend too. Have fun.

  10. What a thoroughly interesting and absorbing read Rose, I enjoyed it immensely! So nice that you are doing something so useful for the community and yet learning and doing something you love too.

    The story about the Hydrangea was really fascinating.

    I know exactly what you mean about learning from the creativity of others. I often see something creative someone has thought of and wonder why their idea had never occurred to me!

    The gardens are beautiful Rose you and your colleagues are obviously doing sterling work and giving many people a lot of pleasure.

  11. Indeed it is Rose.
    When I visited last September, I fell in love with the Idea Garden.
    Whilst the plantings were exquisite, it amazed me just how full of life the tiny plots were.
    Bees, butterflies and all manner of winged insects.
    It must be the most wonderful place to work Rose.

    I have seen so many changes in your garden and knowledge of plants and plantings. I have great respect Rose, for when you do something you do it well.

    The images are a joy and for me brought back a wonderful memory.......memories of time spent with my gardening friends.

  12. I loved working along with you on this post. The background info on gardens can be so interesting. Way cool on Mary Nell! I purchased Zephrine Droughn this spring from Jungs and I love it!! It is a repeat bloomer-even though it was just planted and has grown a good 3 feet from a bareroot stock!! It will grow over an arbor that goes to the backyard. Let me know how yours does and where you get it but I felt Jungs was a good buy and have been happy with it. Are you now an official Master? One year is up?

  13. It looks like you're making the most of your retirement, Rose. It would be wonderful if everyone had your attitude of helpfulness.

    I do miss the MGs in Santa Rosa County. We had a great group and lots of different opportunities for volunteering.

    This is the time of year I'm not quite so eager to jump at a chance to help out here, but the chance for fellowship is too good to pass up. Cheap plants are kind of nice too!

  14. Sissy, Meeting new garden pals and getting to participate in gardens like this were unexpected benefits to joining the MG's.

    Racquel, I think you're right that that is a Japanese iris--I'm not too familiar yet with all the different types. The residents usually don't come out when we're working in the morning, but I think many of them do enjoy this place.

    Suburbia, "Snaffle"--I love that word:) And yes, I do!

  15. You have a gift, Rose ... a fabulous teacher now lives in the heart of a happy gardener/writer/photographer. So happy you are happy :) BTY .. 'Happy Summer'!

  16. What a great idea that place is. I love the photos. I love all of it.
    You are making the most of retirement in a very artistic way. Gardening, photography and writing!
    Well done.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  17. I got interrupted in replying to comments last night when our power went out! Another summer storm--thankfully, no damage here.

    Laurrie, I do hope this garden brings lots of pleasure to the residents.

    Lisa, This is a very active group of MG's here; they usually have 30-40 new ones each year. Wish you were coming this weekend, too!!

    Jan, I've wanted to do more volunteering since I retired; this is a way to do something I enjoy and help out at the same time. I am not creative at all when it comes to design...but I'm good at copying:)

    Cheryl, I'm so glad you enjoyed the Idea Garden last fall--yes, it is full of lots of flying visitors. Thank you for your kind words. I have lots of unfinished projects around my house, but when I commit to someone else or to an organization, I don't like to let them down. Dependability is my middle name:)

    Tina, Yes, I became an official MG last fall; we are asked, though, to do at least 30 hrs. of volunteer work each year to remain "active." This year those hours are adding up quickly. Your Zephirine is doing much better than mine!

  18. W2W, I definitely get as much from these experiences as I give. But I'm not one of those who spends all her time with MG activities--my own garden needs lots of work!

    Joey, You're so sweet! I always wondered what I would do when I retired--I think I've found my niche.

    Maggie, I never thought I would become this passionate about gardening, but it's brought me so much pleasure these past few years.

  19. I am a Master Gardener, and I think it is so neat that your MG's have an Idea Garden. That is such a great way to teach others, new MG's and others who visit the garden, and raise money for the MG's. Great post!

  20. Hi, Rose!
    I did the same thing... enrolled in MG classes during the dead of winter -- it was so nice to meet so many kindred spirits. Come summer, we volunteered at a number of public gardens and hospice homes. You really do feel like it's 'your garden' after you give it all that TLC. Loved this post! :))

  21. Rose, I'm catching up on other bloggers' posts today and especially enjoyed this post of yours. What a wonderful thing to do for the residents of the nursing home!

  22. I always enjoy your Master Gardening posts, they are so interesting and you have such a beautiful garden to learn and work in.

  23. What wonderful gardens you get to work in Rose, and what wonderful gardeners you get to work with. I so enjoyed reading this post. Sounds like you're really enjoying your MG experiences.

  24. I agree with you completely.

    I think it has been about two years since I joind a community garden. It helped me out completely. They were the most giving and sharing, of not only advice but also of plants and seeds.

  25. I love this post, Rose! I'd like to see if something similar couldn't be done here near one of our nursing homes. I've been thinking about it for awhile - but this definitely is worth the reference! :-)

  26. It sounds as though your Master Gardener group is a great one. I adore the nursing home garden. What a great idea to make an easy circular path for residents?~~Dee

  27. I think I'd like the sensory garden too. But the nursing home one is a great idea as well. (I'm sorry I had to giggle at the idea of residents getting lost on the meandering paths! I can do that easily wherever I am!)

    I wish you were over here to advise me on my garden!

  28. The lavender iris you photographed by the Sumac is a Japanese iris; has much larger flowers than the regular 'bearded iris'.
    Nice post.

  29. If I ever live in a senior home- I want it to have a garden like that. My only question- why wait for such loveliness(:-


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