May 21, 2010

Within the space of a couple of hours on a day in mid-May, hints of Kentucky and splashes of whimsy materialized across The Arboretum, the State Botanical Garden of Kentucky. Flowers sprang up so quickly throughout the garden that one might suspect it was the work of garden fairies.

But humans, not mythical beings, did the work. As part of the Master Gardener Arboretum Event, Extension Master Gardeners from around the state descended on the garden, rolled up their sleeves and planted flowerbeds with enthusiasm and creativity.

"From The Arboretum standpoint, we are thrilled," said Marcia Farris, director of The Arboretum, which is located on the University of Kentucky's campus. "To get this much planted with as much care in one morning is absolutely incredible."

This was the first year for the two-day conference. The gathering of gardeners was filled with educational sessions, a home-cooked meal, and a day of good old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty community gardening.

Farris and Jamie Dockery, Fayette County horticulture extension agent, hatched the idea to help lighten the load on the small Arboretum staff.

"It's all volunteer-driven," Dockery said, referring to much of the plantings and maintenance at The Arboretum. "We have these wonderful Master Gardeners around the state, and they really don't do much beyond their own counties. Since this is the (state botanical garden of Kentucky), we wanted to bring them to campus and meet the dean (of the UK College of Agriculture) and tie them in to campus. We also wanted to let them meet and greet and socialize and talk about what they do in their counties."

"Really, it's a grassroots movement from some of the local agents with Master Gardener programs getting together and deciding to put this on," said Rick Durham, co-state coordinator with Sharon Bale of the Extension Master Gardener program. "Master Gardeners are service-oriented, volunteer-oriented, so capturing some of that to come up here and do some short-term projects at The Arboretum and at the same time do some educational projects (seemed to make sense)."

There are roughly 1,250 Extension Master Gardeners active at any one time in the state. Each year they reach 40,000 to 50,000 clients and log about 33,000 volunteer hours. That corresponds to an equivalent value of $500,000 for UK Cooperative Extension, said Durham, an extension professor in the UK Department of Horticulture.

Approximately 75 Extension Master Gardeners from 17 counties participated in the inaugural event. They spent an afternoon learning from UK horticulturalist Sharon Bale, entomologist Ric Bessin and agronomist Tim Phillips as the experts divulged their secrets for planting captivating container gardens, identifying beneficial insects and growing roses with ease. Retired Fayette County horticulture agent Candace Harker taught a session on cooking fresh from the garden.

The first afternoon wrapped up with tours of the grounds, where the gardeners-many of whom were visiting The Arboretum for the first time-were able to view native plants along The Walk Across Kentucky, the rose garden and the demonstration herb and vegetable gardens.

But if gardening feeds the soul, the evening's activity demonstrated it can also feed the body, with a dinner made from fresh ingredients grown on the UK College of Agriculture's Horticulture Research Farm.

"Darrell (Slone) and his (farm) crew turned out the whole big meal that they do so well, with fried peppers and fresh strawberries and ice cream and all that-almost entirely with ingredients from the Horticulture Research Farm," Dockery said.

It was a good thing that the gardeners ate well on that first day, because they went to work bright and early the next morning. Each county or area's group of Master Gardeners had pulled the name of a particular flowerbed from a hat the night before. Between dinner on the first day and breakfast on the second, they had to plan their layout and theme, using the plants grown and assigned to them by Shari Dutton, staff horticulturist in the College of Agriculture.

Many groups came with decorations for a theme they'd planned ahead of time, despite not knowing where their garden would be and if it would be in shade or sun.

By morning's end, the grounds were lush with new plantings, and the beds had that Kentucky flavor (with a little whimsy thrown in) that Farris was hoping to see, particularly in preparation for the influx of visitors expected from the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games.

"I think they've done a good job of bringing in things that highlight the parts of the state," she said.

To add to the fun, a little friendly competition was thrown in, with groups competing for prizes for their designs.

First place went to Fayette County Extension Master Gardeners for an Alice in Wonderland inspired garden. Clinging to a tree branch, a grinning Cheshire Cat overlooked a mad tea party: a tabletop planted in sedum, a dormouse emerging from a china sugar bowl, the Mad Hatter's hat hanging on a chair, and playing cards in hearts and spades adorning gigantic allium blooms. Group members included Linda Richardson, Connie Jirak, Sandra Fitz, Clare Farnau, Nancy Meng, Ginger White, Nan Starkweather, Anne Lowe, Judy Sandler, Frances D'Andrea, Betsy Adler and Murline Penn, all from Fayette County, and Suzanne Guyer and Sandy Hallman from Daviess County.

The Capital Area Extension Master Gardeners broke into two groups and ended up taking home the second and third place honors. Second place went to Raverne McLellan and Paula Mullins, both from Anderson County, for their shade garden adorned with three large hypertufa leaf sculptures created by Mullins.

Third place went to a birch-shaded vignette called "Conversation Piece Neon:" an old green lawn chair draped with gardening gloves and hat next to a bourbon barrel sporting a pot of hot pink impatiens and a bottle of "bourbon." That winning group included Karen Hilborn-Crabtree and Jan Wright from Franklin County, Katherine Vallance, Judy Bradley and Brenda Gardener from Anderson County and David Brown from Mercer County.

Honorable mention went to Donna Miles, Judy Arendt, Nancy Dean and Mary Jo Evans from Nelson County, for their "Bourbon Capital of the World"-themed garden. Back home, they had decoupaged a washtub with the logos of all the distilleries in Nelson County. During the competitive planting session, they filled it with bright annuals and made it the centerpiece in their flowerbed. Included in their design was a birdhouse boasting a living roof to show that, as one of the group members put it, Nelson County is part of the Green Movement.

Tom Hardy, a Master Gardener from Jefferson County expressed what many of the participants were saying throughout that last day.

"It's such a beautiful garden, and we appreciate the chance to help out," he said. "We're learning some things along the way, and we get to appreciate all this beauty. We'll definitely be back to see it when it's in full bloom."

Farris was glad to hear that.

"That's a good thing," she said. "As the state botanical garden, part of our goal is to let people know it is their garden."