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The Evolution of a Master Gardener
(originally published in the Gettysburg Times)

Michael Hillman

She was right, the studio was cold, but I was so mesmerized at her image on the monitor that I hardly gave it any notice. When I saw her name on the opening credits for Garden Thyme, a chill went down my back. For half an hour, I stood and watch as she and Carol Morton discussed the science of forcing bulbs, providing tips and how-to’ ideas to the unseen audience tuned in on the community channel of Gettysburg Cable TV. She had come a long way from the little six-foot garden patch she tilled when we first met.

When I first met her, Audrey was serving as the head nurse at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Large Animal Hospital, located just outside of Philadelphia. While apartment life puts a natural limit on the amount of gardening one can do for most apartment dwellers, the limits did not hold in Audrey’s case. A six-by-four-foot plot of land outside her office soon became her garden away from home. Reflecting on the types of plants she tends today, that original garden really wasn’t much, but at the time, it was all she had and as such, she treated each and every plant as if it was worth its weight in gold.

After our marriage, we moved to a small, dilapidated tenant farm just east of Emmitsburg. While the farm wasn’t much to look at, it held promise for a gardener that had been held hostage for much too long. As soon as the weather warmed, Audrey began to plant - a flower here, a plant there, a bush or two over there. It looked organized to me; but then again, I couldn’t grow a weed if my life depended on it. Throughout the summer and into our first fall, she added flowers of all shapes and sizes around the house and its numerous tenant buildings.

But it seemed that for every plant or flower she put into the ground, one came out of the ground. She was forever fussing, trying desperately to get the right mix, the right colors. Her aim was to have something growing everywhere but more often then not, one section would be in full bloom while another was devoid of all color. Frustrated with her inability to achieve her goals, she began to cast about for help.

An old friend told her to seek out the help of a Master Gardener. Shortly thereafter, Audrey noticed an article in the Gettysburg Times soliciting recruits for the Adams County Master Gardener Program. It was almost too good to be true.

Audrey returned home from the first meeting bubbling with anticipation. While she didn’t think she would get much out of some of the things that were included in the curriculum, such as composting, tree maintenance, or edible flower gardening, she was nevertheless impressed. Unsure where she was going with it all, I stood back and watched. Soon a pattern began to emerge. Each class was almost always followed by a visit to Alloway Gardens in Littlestown. She would arrive home with the car full of the plants covered in the class that evening.

While the diversity in Audrey’s garden was growing, the organization was still lacking. Not surprisingly, the solution would soon come via the Master Gardener program. Quite frequently they hosted talks by national, if not world experts in specific fields. Just when Audrey needed it most, they hosted a workshop with Dr. Nuss of Penn State, a garden design expert. For weeks she worked on a design for six major garden beds, including a 100-ft by 60-ft formal English garden. Dr. Nuss was impressed, but not as impressed as Audrey was by his suggestions to her plans. As she carried out his recommendations and the gardens took shape about her, she began to yearn to learn.

With the encouragement of her fellow Master Gardeners, Audrey enrolled in some night courses at Long Wood Garden just outside of West Chester Pennsylvania. While the evening round trips were hard, the knowledge she gained enlivened her. Soon she was purchasing so many plants at Alloway that they were forced to list her as a principal asset on their corporate tax returns. One course led to another and soon. Eventually she broke down and signed on to peruse a certificate of merit in ornamental horticulture.

Each course was packed with information and each required an excruciating amount of dedication to pass. For days before each exam, she crammed like a college student, even pulling all-nighters the night before. The more she read, the more she wanted to read. When she walked into her first Gardener Meeting, she had less then a handful of gardening books. Now she has so many that I’ll probably have to forgo a simple bookcase and instead add a new addition to the house just to hold them.

But Long Wood was her source of knowledge. The more Audrey learned at Long Wood, the more she was able to learn from her fellow Master Gardeners. Soon she was consulting with the composting guru on how to set up compost bins. She got expert input on what type of chipper shredder to buy, and she even got conned into beginning worm farming from the group’s worm mistress. Every Master Gardener had a specialty she could tap into. Soon they were not just fellow Master Gardeners, but her friends.

Today, her gardens are breath taking. The sequences of plant blooms are as if choreographed by a master. When the butterflies arrive from South America, the buttery fly garden is there to greet them. Red flowers galore stand waiting to nourish hummingbirds upon their arrival. Her gardens are havens for bugs, bees, birds and countless other treasures often missed in a hustle and bustle world. It’s no longer a surprise to see cars stopped in front of the house as their occupants gaze at the brilliant display of foliage. The gardens are always the fist stop and last stop for all visitors to our little farm.

Like other Master Gardeners, Audrey relishes the opportunity to share what she has learned. Be it giving lectures or workshops to aspiring new Master Gardeners, helping plan community gardens, telling a husband how best to trim a tree, serving meals made of edible flowers or simply hosting a weekly TV program called Garden Thyme, she loves it.

Audrey loves being a Master Gardener. She loves the comradeship and intellectual stimulation that master gardening brings. Becoming a Master Gardener has allowed her to live her dream. I am happy for her. My life is much, much richer with a Master Gardener than without one.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman