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Gardening for the common good

  • Larri Cochran watering at the Northampton Community Gardens —

  • Carol Wasserloos applies organic fish emulsion fertilizer at the Northampton Community Gardens. —

  • Honeydrop tomatoes

  • A raised bed, planted by Master Gardeners at Northampton Community Gardens, features kale in the foreground. A raised bed, planted by Master Gardeners at Northampton Community Gardens, features kale in the foreground.

  • Deb Jacobs weeds a WMMGA pollinator garden. —

  • Master Gardener Elaine Hyde with a giant volunteer sunflower in her garden at home

  • Phlox in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst which is maintained by members of the Western Mass Master Gardeners. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Helen Hurteau, a member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, trims a Butterfly bush as the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Helenium flourishes in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst, which is maintained by members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Helen Hurteau, a member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, trims a butterfly bush at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • left, Michele Pietras and Judy Ostendorf , members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, work in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Michele Pietras, a member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, trims a Butterfly bush as the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Front left, Judy Ostendorf and Michele Pietras, members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, work in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Judy Ostendorf, a member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, works in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • From left, Helen Hurteau and Judy Ostendorf, members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, work in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Judy Ostendorf , a member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, works in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden in Amherst. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Phlox grows in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • Paying it forward is a common theme among WMMGA members, like Judy Ostendorf, who worked earlier this week in the Hospice of the Fisher Home garden. —Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis

  • From left, Helen Hurteau, Judy Ostendorf, Michele Pietras, Carolyn Rufe, Dotti Caron, Kerry Lake and Cynthia Weigel, all WMMGA members, have been working diligently to keep the gardens at the Fisher Home in good order. A fire damaged the home in July. Gazette Staff/Carol Lollis



For the Bulletin
Thursday, September 01, 2016

In late July, fire damaged the Hospice of the Fisher Home, a modest one-story brick and clapboard building in North Amherst that provides end-of-life care for people. Although no one was hurt, the event was devastating to all involved. Staff and residents have been relocated for several months while the building undergoes cleanup and repair, including replacing the roof.

During this difficult time, Kerry Lake and several other members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association (WMMGA) have been hard at work in the Fisher Home’s gardens, which they planted beginning in 2013, maintaining through vibrant flowers, shrubs and herbs a sense of vitality at the site.

Despite the drought, the volunteers have kept the gardens alive with judicious weekly watering and soaker hoses. Lake plans to install several rain barrels once the new roof is in place.

“Kerry Lake and her crew of magicians have transformed our outdoor space into a place of tranquility and beauty,” said Theresa Ahrens, volunteer coordinator at the hospice facility. “On the morning after the fire, Kerry was at the Fisher Home making sure the gardens were still intact. The firefighters used special care and all was as her crew had created.”

Ahrens says Lake told her she and her team were determined to make sure the gardens would be ready when the Fisher Home re-opens.

“She has kept her word,” Ahrens said. “The Master Gardeners have not missed a Monday morning, coming even during the hottest days to plant, prune, water and care for the gardens they have established.”

Good works 

The WMMGA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the mission of promoting good and sustainable gardening practices. It is unostentatious and yet its impressive good works are evident throughout the Pioneer Valley and beyond.

Its roughly 250 members from Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties undergo a rigorous educational program that trains them to work on a variety of community gardening initiatives.

Some of their many projects include community gardens in Northampton and Belchertown that provide vegetables to food pantries, the garden at the Sojourner Truth Memorial Park in Florence, in honor of the great abolitionist leader, maintaining the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, and educational programs for the 4-H, at farmers markets and elsewhere.

On a recent Sunday morning, Lake installed a handsome metal sign marking the new memorial garden that she and her team created this spring on a small hill behind the Fisher Home. A Kousa dogwood and purple cotinus (smoke bush) anchor the ends of the garden. Phlox, rudbeckia and other sun-loving perennials, some donated in honor of Fisher Home patients, are planted in between.

“In its first season, the memorial garden has brought peace to our patients and their families,” Ahrens said.

For Lake and the handful of other WMMGA volunteers at the Fisher Home, the gardening work has personal significance.

“We are drawn to this project because we’ve had family members assisted by hospice elsewhere and this is an opportunity for us to give back to the organization,” Lake said, adding, “I’m not a medical person but I can garden.”

Lake helped launch the Fisher Home gardening project in 2013 when Marietta Pritchard, a Fisher Home volunteer, asked WWMGA member Cheryl Wilson (who wrote this column for more than 30 years!) if the organization would be interested in planting a couple of garden vignettes outside windows that did not already look out onto attractive views.

Wilson asked a group of WMMGA interns, including Lake, if they’d like to help. Their enthusiastic response was immediate, recalled Wilson. “They ran with it. They planned it, designed it, and got a grant to fund it. Some of them are still involved.”

Since then, the WMMGA’s work at the Fisher Home has expanded, under Lake’s supervision. The most recent additions include the memorial garden and a raised vegetable trug — a shallow oblong wooden container — that’s planted with peppers, lemongrass, basil and other herbs.

Garden pots nearby hold ripening cherry tomatoes. Ahrens explained that the raised bed allows “patients to be able to touch and feel and smell plants that remind them of days gone by.”

Lake said she and her team are gratified by the appreciation they receive from Fisher Home staff, patients and their families.

“They are always telling us how beautiful the gardens are,” Lake said. “The staff brings us cookies and tea when we’re working. They treat us like queens.”

Providing support

The Master Gardener program began in Washington state back in the 1970s, driven by the back-to-the-land movement. State extension agents found themselves flooded with calls from home gardeners wanting to grow food for their families.

“The extensive agency was accustomed to answering questions about 100-acre farm fields, but suddenly people wanted to know how to tend 100-square-foot vegetable gardens,” Wilson said.

The agents decided to set up a program to train master gardeners who could provide support for the burgeoning population of backyard gardeners. The program soon expanded nationwide.

The WMMGA would not exist today but for the tenacity of several early members. Like many Master Gardener organizations across the country that are connected with state land grant universities, WMMGA was founded in 1979 as part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Cooperative Extension Service.

In 1989, a budget crisis forced the state to discontinue funding for all Master Gardener training programs, including WMMGA. The 200 or so members formed an association, but with no central sponsorship they had no resources to support their work.

The program languished until 1995, when then-president Cheryl Wilson decided to relaunch the training program.

“It was either revitalize or die,” she explained. “At that point we were down to about 90 members.”

With the help of Ron Kujawski, then the Hampden County Extension agent for the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension, who helped found the program back in 1979, WMMGA began a new biannual training program. It was an immediate success, drawing many new participants eager to learn about gardening and further the educational and service mission of the organization. WMMGA is thriving and expanding; membership now stands at 250.

The WMMGA is recruiting new members to participate in the 2017 training program that will be held Tuesdays at Holyoke Community College in January through April.

The Master Gardener training sessions are conducted by university professors, professional horticulturists and experienced gardeners. They cover gardening from many perspectives — from entomology to soil structure, fruits and vegetables to plant pathology and wildlife pests. This year, the Seeds of Solidarity Education Center, a youth organization in Orange, will give a half-day session on growing food everywhere in this time of climate change.

In addition to coursework, trainees complete tests and volunteer for 60 hours, assisting Master Gardeners. There are many options for community work, including staffing public education events such as Springfield’s Earth Day celebration, the Big E and Franklin County fairs; gardening at approved locations, including the Hospice at Fisher Home, Northampton and South Hadley community gardens; helping out at telephone and email hotlines; and attending meetings and continuing education courses.

Right place, right time

For Lake, becoming a Master Gardener fulfilled a longstanding dream.

“Many years ago I read an article about the first Master Gardener program ... and I decided that at some point I wanted to do it,” she said. “After I retired and moved to South Hadley, I happened to meet someone who had just done the training program. I knew I was in the right place. I signed up for the next training session.”

Lake said she enjoys every aspect of her WMMGA work.

“I love the knowledge and training I’ve gotten. I love the comradeship that comes from working with fellow gardeners. And I love the community service and public education part of it.”

Paying it forward is a common theme among WMMGA members, who enjoy educating the gardening community, as they have been educated over the years.

“What good is my knowledge if I don’t share it with others?” Lake asked.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.