Master gardeners’ mission is to serve
By Ryan Jones
Thirteen years ago a seed was planted when the North Carolina Cooperative Extension offered the Master Gardener course to residents of Davidson and Rowan counties for the first time. Today the program is fully grown and thriving with around 65 volunteers dedicated to sowing their knowledge and generosity as far and wide as they can.
Mostly hailing from Davidson County, the Master Gardeners make it their mission to beautify outdoor spaces while educating the community at large to do the same. Though their many projects are fueled by camaraderie and friendship, gaining and maintaining membership in this national program is serious business. To become a certified volunteer, prospective Master Gardeners must first complete an intensive, 40-hour course to establish their foundational knowledge of horticulture.
“The course is great. All of us joke that when you take the course you realize how much you don’t know,” said Frankie Mefford. As a graduate of the second class to be offered in Davidson County, she has witnessed the evolution of the Master Gardeners program from its earliest days with fewer than 10 participants. “It’s like a college 101 on horticulture. (You learn about) woody plants, perennials, annuals, soil, additives for a good base; parts of it go into caring for plants, pruning, and watering.”
Those who finish the course are expected to log 40 hours of volunteer service and then, to maintain membership, 20 to 30 hours of continuing education and volunteer service annually.
“It’s not a social club. It is a volunteer program. It’s a lot of training and takes a lot of work.
I think the reward is in the volunteer work. A lot of people are intimidated by that but our volunteers seem to think that it happens so quickly. One or two projects and 40 hours are gone in no time,” said Amy-Lynn Albertson, the horticulture extension agent for Davidson County. She organized the first local Master Gardener class in the fall of 2002.
“That’s kind of the fun. That’s where we’ve found a great many joys in this work,” said Joan Wright, past president of the Davidson County Master Gardener program. “We have five councils and members belong to one or more of the councils, (each of which) have a role in public education and public service.”
The continuing education and training council is responsible for organizing field trips and other activities to help members further their knowledge. The demonstration garden council plants and maintains the public gardens surrounding the Cooperative Extension office on East Center Street. The service and public education and outreach councils serve the community by sharing information at the three county-certified farmers’ markets and completing special projects to benefit those in need.
“Last year (the public service council) planted a special garden at (The Life Center) on West Center Street. This year it will be working on an indoor peace garden at the hospital in Lexington. It will be a place where patients and families can find a little respite from the cares most people have when they visit the hospital,” said Wright. “They’ve also worked with the (Lexington Housing) Community Development Corporation to help people with new homes figure out how to plant basic plants. The members just pitch in and take care of all these projects. You can stay as busy as you want to.”
The work of the fundraising council is perhaps the most visible, as they are responsible for two annual events that bring casual local gardening enthusiasts into the fold.
The Annual Garden Tour, now in its 11th year, pulls hundreds of people through the private gardens of five or six Davidson County residents every summer. Master Gardener volunteers staff the tour, answer questions, and provide context and insight for the plants and configurations visitors encounter along the way.
“Everything starts small,” said Mefford of the Annual Garden Tour’s beginnings. “The first year we got rained out and we had less than 100 people. Last year we did a walking tour in the Historic Uptown District in Lexington and had 600 participants. It’s grown a lot.”
Mefford said the tour draws a variety of people – from families with young children, to older, retired adults – and raises between $5,000 and $6,000, all of which is used to further the mission of the Master Gardeners by allowing them to purchase soil, mulch, plants and other materials necessary for service projects completed throughout the year. But the ultimate goal isn’t to make money, she added. It’s to foster an appreciation for the natural world.
“A lot of people like to look at other people’s gardening. We try to teach people what to do and how to do it properly so things don’t get damaged; so they don’t plant things that are invasive to our area. Mainly it’s (the tour) about public service.”
This year the Annual Garden Tour takes place June 6 – 7 and for the first time it will be centered in Thomasville.
“We try to pick (the gardens) two years in advance so people have time to do things to their yards. We try to go all over the county. We’ve been in Wallburg, the High Rock Lake area, Welcome, Lexington and Sapona. We’re always on the lookout,” said Mefford, who admits she’s been known to walk up to a strangers’ door and knock because she noticed something special about their backyard garden. “A little added color; more than just shrubbery.”
In 2016 the tour will take place back in Lexington in the Country Club area.
A second fundraiser, the Annual Gardener Conference, draws a more concentrated crowd of botany buffs and, according to Mefford, is more a public service than moneymaking event. This year around 120 people attended the fourth annual conference, which took place on Feb. 11 at First Lutheran Church. Speakers included Bryce Lane, host of UNC-TV’s “In the Garden,” the president of the American Camellia Society, and a Japanese maple specialist.
“One of the things that the Master Gardeners have wanted to do and have been able to do now is provide opportunities for the general public to learn about horticulture. They have a lot of opportunities for continuing education, but they wanted to offer something to Davidson County residents,” said Albertson. “The goal is to inspire and educate Davidson County gardeners about new things happening in horticulture. It was something for everyone. I felt like it was well-received. They work really hard; they’re very passionate. They want people to learn about good gardening practices.”
Wright said that for all the public service she participates in as a member of the Master Gardener Association, she experiences the most satisfaction from being around others who share her passion.
“It’s a kind of community with other persons who love gardening. A sense of fellowship in service to the community and making our own grounds and those of public places more beautiful, and helping to create a better environment physically — and an ambiance — we think is helpful for people to grow and develop in healthy ways.”
“People that dig in the dirt are just good people,” said Mefford. “They’re down to earth, easy to talk to and appreciate the people around them.”