Sherry Blanton

Of all of the hats that Sherry Blanton wears, the one that reads ‘Head Gardener’ is probably her favorite.

Someone referred to me as “the gardener.”

The word “gardener” brings many images to mind. One may be the elderly gentleman overseeing an expansive manse in the countryside of England growing a cottage garden and heirloom vegetables. Another gardener drives around in an extra-large truck pulling a trailer loaded with interesting tools, including an enormous lawnmower upon which one can stand and mow a lawn in five minutes. There is the gardener who gets pleasure in a single pot of posies on the deck, or the fanatic who plants dozens of containers of exotic flowers (sometimes laughingly referred to a “hoarder”). We have the collector who rejoices over every newfound treasure (this is where that “hoarding” business comes up again). We are all better off for the gardeners who till the ground and plant the crops to provide our food.

Gardeners come in all abilities and ages. Local schools boast about their carefully tended outdoor classrooms, where children learn valuable life lessons about the goodness of connecting to nature. Physically challenged gardeners use raised bed gardens to satisfy their need to get their hands in the soil. My mother mowed her own yard and tended every plant well into her senior years. My childhood home was a mass of propagated azaleas, perennials and camellias to rival any garden in a magazine.

In 1998, the Alabama Master Gardeners and the Calhoun County Extension Service allowed me to add the word “master” before my personal title of “gardener.” That meant I had succeeded in learning a lot of very important horticultural information, passed tests and performed hours of community service.

I remain an active Master Gardener by continuing to volunteer and learn a set number of hours per year.

It is hard to think of myself as a master of anything. There is always something to learn: a tip to make our chores a little easier, new horticultural research, a new disease to frighten us, a new cultivar to grow.

As a member of this organization, I get to hang out with other “gardeners” who live and breathe gardening. We do not notice badges of honor like a bit of dirt under the fingernails, dirty knees or hair streaked with sweat — my kind of people.

We “gardeners” know we are gardeners. We identify ourselves as the lunatics who frequent local and out-of-town garden centers, who read the Plant Delights catalog as if it were the newest Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, who haunt the big box stores shopping for marked-down plants.

But who or what is a gardener?

PLANT TAXONOMIST

A taxonomist finds, identifies, classifies and names plants. Gardeners use the classification system developed 200 years ago to identify plants by their scientific names. Those scientific names are always written in Latin and include the genus, species, variety and cultivar of a plant. Rather than using the Latin name (for example: Quercus alba), we may use a plant’s common name (white oak), making it a lot easier for most non-professional gardeners to communicate about a plant.

A gardener will always need to identify a plant by its scientific name to get the correct plant for a landscape design or a certain purpose. Some plants have several common names, and often different plants have the same common name. Confusing, right? Learning those hard-to-pronounce names seemed tiresome 20 years ago, but now it is part and parcel of my gardening practice.

PLANT PHYSIOLOGIST

Although it is not simple, it is vital for the gardener to understand the processes that cause plant growth. The best of the best, retired biology teacher Janet Evans, teaches trainees in the Master Gardener program the importance of plant physiology, including how a plant uses nutrients and water, produces food, grows and breathes. Understanding these plant activities can help us understand why a plant does not thrive.

I even became proficient enough to explain photosynthesis (how a plant uses the sun to make food) to a group of small children. We put on a play at the library with children taking the roles of soil, bees, flowers, water, fertilizer and a smiling sun. We had fun and, perhaps, created a new gardener.

CHEMIST

Auburn professor Charles Mitchell, who teaches soil classes for the Master Gardeners, defines good, bad or poor soil. He talks about Alabama red clay. He tells amazing stories of the life in the soil we take for granted. (By the way, the words “soil” and “dirt” are not interchangeable).

Understanding the letters and numbers on a bag of fertilizer is critical to a successful garden. Plants require N (nitrogen), P (phosphorous) and K (potassium), each in a different strength and amount according to a plant’s growth habits. Mitchell emphasized the importance of reading the label and choosing the right product for the right job — lessons I can now preach.

INTERPRETER

Now I can even read a report from the Auburn Soil Laboratory explaining what my soil did and did not need. Even better, I can help another person interpret their soil test.

PUSHER

I push soil tests. From Day One of Master Gardener class, the instructor teaches that gardening begins with a soil test, and that the results of that test are as important to a gardener as a patient’s blood work is to a doctor.

When someone asks me for a plant diagnosis, my stock answer is, “Have you had a soil test?” I actually should wear a T-shirt or carry a business card that has that question printed on the back. Soil tests are the best money you can spend on that beloved garden patch, whether it contains begonias or beans.

CONSERVATIONIST

This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Gardeners must leave the least footprint on the environment. We must work toward sustainable landscapes.

We must learn how to use chemicals wisely, safely or not at all. We must understand the ramifications of pesticides and other chemicals on the pollinators we treasure — how some ingredients will destroy our bees, harm our butterflies and our birds.

We should be private investigators in the garden, identifying problems before we try to solve them. We should decide how much damage that culprit will cause and then employ a variety of solutions to correct the problem.

If we only have one of something, pick it off or shake it into soapy water. If leaves looks sickly, prune them off and see what happens, leaving that spray on the shelf.

We gardeners learn to be absolutely precise if chemicals are the answer, to read those directions VERY CAREFULLY and follow them to the letter. If a little is OK, more is never better.

Be careful with those mixes. The biggest accidents occur when we are measuring out ingredients. That leads to another hat that the gardener wears …

MATHEMATICIAN

If the label says to use one ounce per gallon and we only need a pint, or if we have to put down so many pounds of fertilizer per square foot, then math comes into play.

An extension agent gave me a card with measurements on it that has proved very helpful, especially to those like me who are mathematically challenged.

I use a deer repellant to protect plants and I have to mix the correct proportions; it is an exercise in logic that can elude me. Chemicals are expensive (and toxic), so I have definitely improved my math skills.

MARATHON RUNNER

Beautiful landscapes do not appear overnight. It takes time, patience and labor to amend the soil and build a garden. Be in this activity for the long haul.

My mother saved banana skins and other such delicacies to carry out to her compost heap; she called it her “black gold.” Composting was not the rage 65 years ago, and I was a bit grossed out by the containers of potato skins gracing the cabinets.

Everyone composts now, and there are all sorts of gizmos so we don’t have to keep the onion skins next to the sugar bowl. Composting takes effort and knowledge; its magic is worth the work.

CONTORTIONIST

Crawling under the bushes to hand pull a pesky weed helps keep the gardener limber. Hopping around the yard stepping on the ever-present lubber grasshoppers has certainly improved my dexterity, and decreased the number of grasshoppers lurking about.

ATHLETE

Exercise experts tout the benefits of daily physical activity. Carrying gallon buckets of water around a garden’s perimeter because the hose does not reach may equal a gym workout.

Rolling and unrolling a hundred feet of hose to give that plant in the corner a drink is another form of exercise.

Bags of potting soil, bird seed or soil conditioner are heavy. I have developed all sorts of ingenious methods to move those bags around (many of which involve getting my husband involved).

I prefer beautiful ceramic pots, but they can be a heavy weight in the garden, so lightweight pots have become my choice as I carry them from one spot to another.

I once saw a neighbor pulling a tractor tire up a hill with a rope tied to his waist. I wanted to invite him to push my overloaded wheelbarrow up the slope in my backyard, but I guessed he would have thought I was crazy.

‘JEOPARDY’ WHIZ

Gardeners’ brains are receptacles for all sorts of information, from the obscure to the well known. Some, like the subjects in a game of “Jeopardy,” may seem inane, but we are bound by the minutiae of the gardening world.

We know the last frost date and the first frost date as well as we do our own birthdays. We can recite chapter and verse on why crepe murder is wrong. We know the last date to prune a spring-blooming azalea (July 4) or the best time to prune an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea (late winter).

WILDLIFE MANAGER

Gardeners handle the annoying: raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, voles, moles and deer.

We roll out the welcome mat for the pollinators essential to the health of our world: butterflies, bees and beneficial insects.

Our birds become family.

We recognize good snakes and bad snakes, and do not take the life of a good snake just because it startles us.

It is imperative to learn the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, and leave the harmless ones to do their job of keeping small rodents out of the garden. Nothing upsets me more than someone saying that the only good snake is a dead snake — untrue!

ARTIST

Gardeners create remarkable containers and color beds out of dazzling plants. We combine colors, textures and sizes using soil, blossoms and leaves instead of canvas, paint and brushes.

As I point out a caladium leaf to my husband, I often tell him that it is as beautiful as a Monet painting. An orchid in full bloom can take one’s breath away. A visit to local orchid grower Art Moore’s greenhouse was much better than any art gallery I can remember.

PHOTOGRAPHER

Once we cultivate those glamorous gardens or harvest those giant tomatoes, gardeners need lots of pictures to show others.

I have photos of my first crop of potatoes; small and insignificant as it was, it was still a first.

We carry electronic brag books on our smartphones and are only too happy to share photographs with friends, family, neighbors or anyone we can catch.

I carried around pictures of my trees that were destroyed during the tornado until one day I realized that was last week’s news. Now I share photographs of gorgeous lilies.

MENTOR

Gardeners should emulate Hayes Jackson, whose love of plants and creatures is contagious.

Jackson, an agent with the Calhoun County Extension Office and the director of Longleaf Botanical Gardens, guides, shares, educates and leads by example.

He encourages anyone he meets to be involved in the very satisfying world of plants. He inspires young people to protect the environment and to love nature’s gifts. He is the kind of gardener I want to be — sharing with generosity my gardening knowledge and a plant or two along the way.

ADVOCATE

We spread gardening information, give advice to new gardeners, encourage and praise. We learn from other gardeners who know things we do not. We may be invited to present programs or, more fun, to write gardening stories for the local newspaper.

As a constant plant shopper, I have met some of the nicest people strolling in Lowe’s garden center. Gardeners are for sure good folks; complete strangers become friends as we exchange gardening war stories. I have spent many an hour helping one of these new “friends” choose the “the right plant for the right place,” my personal garden mantra.

NAY-SAYER

Some of the things folks take from social media as gospel are just plain silly, wrong or dangerous. Vodka is not a good thing to pour on a plant to get it to grow. I am not shy about telling someone, either. Master Gardeners are firm believers in research-backed information.

BEARER OF BAD NEWS

On occasion I have been asked to make a home visit to diagnose a plant issue. I remember shaking my head and in a kind tone telling a homeowner that a tree scarred with Weed Eater cuts would not survive, or that a beloved rose had become a victim of the particularly nasty rose rosette disease, and should be added to the garbage can.

I have visited homeowners who needed a bit of moral support or guidance. I told a wonderful young couple that spreading mothballs all around the yard would not keep away the snakes, but that clearing all the things away from the house would surely help.

VOLUNTEER

Recently, fellow Master Gardener and gardening buddy Janice Cain and I spent the morning sprucing up the Jacksonville Pocket Park. The heat index hovered around 100 degrees; both of us were as wet as the recently watered garden. We smiled and talked to the residents strolling to the farmers market on the Square. They complimented the garden and appreciated our efforts on the corner of Church and Ladiga. We patted ourselves on the back for the great condition of the garden and for the satisfaction of giving something to our community.

SO WHAT IS A GARDENER?

Most of all, a gardener is an eternal optimist who realizes that a tiny little seed can turn into a juicy tomato or an amazing flower, or that a brown bulb will eventually be a fabulous daffodil.

Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.

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