This year marks the 100th anniversary of the national cooperative extension system — a fitting time to spotlight the master gardeners who play a large role in the organization's goals to assist and educate gardeners everywhere, especially in Virginia and on the Peninsula.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves," says Steve Dodson, unit coordinator for the York County/Poquoson master gardeners.
"For example, all 50 states have active master gardener programs run through their regional (over 1,000) cooperative extension units. A 2009 master gardener survey said there were almost 95,000 active master gardeners, who gave approximately 5 million volunteer service hours back to their communities.
"In the Virginia Cooperative Extension, we have nearly 60 units encompassing more than 5,500 volunteers, who in 2012 provided 359,000 hours of service to their own local communities.
"In the York/Poquoson cooperative extension, we have 119 volunteer master gardeners. These are volunteers who work with 4-H youth development in the form of lawn mowing clinics and the Mums Project, both where kids are taught how to become entrepreneurs in cutting grass and the raising and selling of chrysanthemums.
"These are volunteers who work with the residents of York Convalescent Center in horticultural therapy. There is the Monarch Initiative where master gardeners encourage outdoor education (reconnecting children with nature) at local schools throughout York County and Poquoson, through Youth Environmental Education.
"The master gardeners maintain two learning gardens, one on Goodwin Neck Road in York County and the other in Poquoson, directly behind the Poquoson Museum; both are open to and for educating the public. In addition, these same volunteers conduct three pruning clinics in the spring of the year."
You, too, can become a master gardener by taking this fall's training, and graduating with other master gardener interns from York and Poquoson, as well as Hampton, Newport News and Gloucester. Registration deadline is July 15; find an application and more details at http://www.yorkcounty.gov/Home/VirginiaCooperativeExtension/MasterGardenerTraining.aspx
Meet the masters
Here, you meet some local master gardeners who are helping young and old get excited about living the good life outdoors — among plants and with wildlife.
Noel Priseler in Gloucester
If you drive the Coleman Bridge from Yorktown to Gloucester and see a woman tending to seasonal flowers in four hypertufa planters along the bridge, it's probably Noel Priseler. The permanent planters with plastic containers that can be quickly removed and replaced with fresh plant material have been there since 2006. Virginia Department of Transportation employee John Fiddner waters the plants as needed.
"The planters extend a beautiful, inviting welcome to Gloucester County," says Noel, 70, a master gardener since 1998.
Before becoming a master gardener, Noel knew little about gardening — not even the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil, she says.
Yet, she jumped into every project they sponsored, and was president of the group three times. She also initiated and edited the 160-page Home Gardening book that serves as a resource guide for the Lower Middle Peninsula. Her master gardening years have been among the most rewarding times of her life.
"Where else can you learn about your local environment and its horticulture, meet interesting people who share a love for getting their hands dirty, and volunteer in your community to work on projects that benefit others and make you feel good at the same time," she asks.
"I hope to continue to make contributions that encourage others to take up the trowel and go forth into the garden — for food or beauty."
Favorite plants: Peonies for their heady fragrance; herbs such as thyme and rosemary for their culinary use; daffodils for their encouragement that spring is coming; Lenten roses for their quiet splendor during the winter; coral honeysuckle for its vibrant blooming; and corkscrew willow for its lissome branches.
Gardening tips: Plants have favorite locations where they thrive. If they do not do well in one place, move them to another location.
Vegetable plants are beautiful; inter-mix them in your flower beds.
Limit your gardening areas to manageable sizes. It's better to have a few well-maintained garden spots than many areas always needing sprucing up.
If you don't like a plant, get rid of it.
Rhonda Graves in Hampton
Happy working in the garden at Bluebird Gap Farm, Rhonda Graves is a hands-on, get-her-hands-dirty kind of gardener. The farm is where master gardeners maintain a self-guided arboretum and demonstration garden.
"I like pulling weeds and answering guests' questions," says Rhonda, 54, a master gardener since 2009.
"I've also become involved in educating the public about the new area of biochar, which is a charcoat used as a soil amendment. Biochar added to soil improves its structure, nutrient- and moisture-holding capabilities and is an excellent habitat for soil micro-organisms."
Before 2009, Rhonda says she was just an average casual backyard gardener trying to have fun, make the yard look good and not kill plants.
"I remember as a child helping my parents working in the yard and garden," she says. "I also remember the common practice of sharing plants with family members and neighbors."
In addition to biochar education, Rhonda enjoys the group's plant sale, held annually in early May at the farm.
"I love our plant sales because they are one big family reunion/party," she says. "We have an awesome group of master gardeners that always show up to welcome our old friends and help new gardeners find that right plant."
Being a master has opened Rhonda's eyes to a world of knowledge, not just from initial training but through ongoing education, including master gardener college at Virginia Tech, as well as passion for the natural world within our community.
"I am now a believer in the importance of organic gardening," she says. "I think it's healthier for humans, pets, wildlife, soil and water. Better living through chemistry is not necessarily always a true statement."
Favorite plants: For shade, fatsia and hellebores, both are non-natives but evergreens with interesting blooms. For sun, herbs like rosemary and sage; there are so many herbs that add texture and scents to the garden and flavor in the kitchen and many have flowers that attract beneficial insects.
Gardening tips: Right plant, right place — some plants are particular about where they live and some are less picky. They thrive, survive or die. Remember, if a plant is not thriving you can always move it to a more ideal location.
Feed the soil with organic material — compost.
Watering, less is more — water deeply, weekly.
Noel Talcott in Poquoson/York County
Moving every three to four years in an Air Force family was common for Noel Talcott growing up. But, each new home brought the start of a garden that always included fruit trees and berries.
"After getting a job at NASA, I looked forward to finding a place I could start a garden," says Noel, 62, a master gardener with the combined Poquoson/York County unit since 2011.
"After we moved to Poquoson, we were fortunate to help and eventually take over my in-laws large vegetable garden. Since we had plenty of space, we experimented with growing a lot of different vegetables and establishing a variety of berries."
As a master, Noel has worked on the unit's monthly newsletter and volunteered in the York Learning Garden and Arboretum, open daily to self-guided tours on Goodwin Neck Road in York County. In 2013, he helped establish the Poquoson Learning Garden adjacent to the Poquoson Museum, which is located on a historic farm site. He's helped plant trees in a park, assisted the local food bank with fresh vegetables and is helping the city with a rain garden.
"The training introduced me to a whole new group of friends who have a similar love of gardening and opened up opportunities to become more involved in my community," he says.
At home, Noel and his wife, Nancy, also a master gardener, tend to a small greenhouse and small vegetable garden. Noel also likes creating gardening art, including a scarecrow he calls Leon.
"We are trying to garden smarter rather than hit and miss," he says. "Our attempts are not always successful, but you learn from your mistakes."
Favorite plants: The ones that tend to take care of themselves, which is why I have no roses except for a few hedge roses that do their thing behind the garage. Hurricanes and nor'easters have taken a toll on our large trees and many of the nursery trees we purchased and planted in our yard, so my favorite trees and shrubs are ones that were planted by the birds or by seeds finding their way into our flower beds or garden. These include almost a dozen dogwoods, a couple of nice cedars, a magnolia, and to our surprise a beautyberry that I discovered hiding in our hydrangeas.
Gardening tips: Start small and expect to make mistakes.
Ask others for advice and help.
Keep on learning. Try something new each year.
If you can give what you think is a dead plant, shrub or tree a second chance, you may be surprised.
Fred Coolbear in Newport News
Raised by a grandfather who always had a garden, Fred Coolbear worked with him from the time he was big enough to hold a shovel. At age 12, he worked on his uncle's farm until he was 22 and in college.
Today, he puts that passion to work in his retirement garden.
"My garden started out as just a vegetable garden, and has expanded to include plants that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies," says Fred, 66, a master gardener since 2012.
"I plan on putting in a water feature and a bird bath along with bird feeders," he says. "I would like my back yard to be similar to a meadow where birds, butterflies, bees and other creatures come to."
As a master gardener, Fred helps with rain barrel workshops and the children's Grin and Grow garden at Riverview Park off Menchville Road. Last year, he was co-chairman of the Go Green Expo, an annual fall gardening education day.
"I hope to learn all I can about gardening of all kinds, and then using the skills and experience that I have gained over 35 years of teaching, take that knowledge and share it with others of the community," he says.
"I want to help the kids who don't know about gardening to learn that the red thing on the plant is a tomato and it can be eaten."
Favorite plants: I like all plants, but my favorites are herbs and vegetables. I enjoy eating fresh produce from my own garden, and they remind me of growing up with my grandfather and uncle.
Gardening tips: Start slow.
Make a plan before you tackle building or rebuilding a garden and follow the plan.
Check the direction and amount of sun that your yard receives each day.
When possible, use native plants that are adapted to our environment and can endure drought, heat, and cold.
Research plants that you are going to use, and make sure your yard will support these plants and their needs.
Contact Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Kathy at email@example.com.
What: Master gardener training for residents in Hampton, Newport News, Gloucester and York County.
When: 9 a.m.-noon Tuesdays and Thursdays Sept. 2-Nov. 13.
Where: Northside Christian Church, Route 17, Tabb area of York County.
Registration deadline: July 15
Program details: Participants receive minimum of 60 hours of horticultural information during classes and field trips. Graduates return 50 hours of service to Virginia Cooperative Extension — answering phone, conducting educational programs, leading a team, serving in support positions and many other areas.
Cost: $110, which includes 570-page master gardener handbook
Information: Local extension offices, including Hampton at 727-1401, Newport News at 591-4838, Gloucester at 804-693-2602 and York/Poquoson at 890-4940. Find extension offices statewide at http://www.ext.vt.edu/offices.
By the numbers
• In York County/Poquoson, 133 master gardeners gave 10,011 hours in 2013.
• In Hampton, 89 master gardeners gave 7,000 hours in 2013.
• In Gloucester, 89 master gardeners gave 5,467 hours in 2013.
• In Newport News, 71 master gardeners gave 3,810 hours.
Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom@Facebook
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