A Master Gardener is someone who completes a very intensive and extensive study of almost everything that grows, usually in the state one takes the course. The curriculum teaches more than most adults would ever need to know about the proper PH levels of gardening soil. But I have always loved spring wildflowers, summer gardens and stands of autumn-painted trees. And the January doldrums loomed large in my life two winters ago. So…

I registered for the University of Minnesota’s online program. (The University of Wisconsin did not have an online course or a scheduled Monroe County live session.)

I passed the online course, even though I got a question about Jump-in-the-Jacks wrong. I learned that dandelions and quack grass are not the only unwelcome bounders to invade a petunia patch. Identifying an early sprout of green as a future flower or a noxious weed could be difficult for me, even with a framed certificate of completion from U-Minn hanging on my sun room wall.

The hard part of becoming a Master Gardener comes after completing the written course. I had to do some actual gardening to become certified in the state of Wisconsin. Bill Halfman, the University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural agent for Monroe County allowed me to take the U-Minn course and do the really important part of becoming a Master Gardener, contributing 24 hours of community gardening (weeding my small perennial garden didn’t count) and spending at least 12 hours on continuing education here in Wisconsin in order to meet the requirements for putting MG after my name. (He provided the UW manual as a back-up to my U-Minn studies.) The continuing education part was easy. I listened to the Friday morning Garden Talk show on NPR and joined the Sparta Garden Club to rack up the necessary hours.

Finding ways to do physical tasks that qualified could have been a problem for me. But Mr. Halfman suggested I contact an experienced Master Gardener, who could help me get my hours in. And so I met Betty B., whose passion for beautifying and taking good care of the earth is very inspiring.

What a project she let me be a part of: working to make the Serenity House gardens in Tomah ever more beautiful for the residents to enjoy. (Serenity House is the hospice facility that provides end-of-life care for its residents.)

Betty put together an enthusiastic crew to get the two-year project done. Besides her husband Wally, Bruce and Jerry, Mary and I, followed her lead in preparing the different areas for digging and planting. We were fortunate to have a grant from the Jesse Parker Foundation to pay for plants, mulch and trees. And Mary’s successor as director, Laura F., approved and applauded our efforts.

The closest garden to the house is “Mary’s Garden,” named for Mary Rezin, the long-time director of Hospice and Palliative Care. (Mary retired from Hospice and completed a Master Gardener course in Juneau County this year.) Her garden includes a blanket of multicolored annual blooms in front of a water fall splashing into a fish pond, with a tall river birch tree standing guard over it, all for residents and their families and friends to enjoy while relaxing on the patio it faces.

The additions this year included a new perennial garden and the planting of 12 maple and crab apple trees in the front and back of the house.

The mulching of the new trees helped me earn enough hours to qualify as a Master Gardener this season. (I needed an hour and a half more to qualify by the Oct. 1 cutoff date.) An All American Do it Center employee arrived on a recent Monday with a very large truck load of mulch, which he dumped on tarps in the front and back of the house. (The trees, already quite large, had been planted professionally the week before.)

I confess, I petered out after just a couple hours of spreading mulch around the new trees. (I am a bit on in age, after all.) But what I found when I came to see the results of the all-day effort by the others was a sight to behold.

Mary’s Garden, the perennial garden, the native plants garden (planted last year) and the carefully placed new trees present a splendid display of nature’s beauty. I can brag about what a panoply it is because I played only a very small part in it. I am not patting myself on the back. I am praising the dedication, creativity and hard work of the rest of the team. But I can be proud of being even a small part of the effort to realize the dream that Mary had for the Serenity House gardens. And I am happy to call myself a humble Master Gardener.

Now what shall I do when the January doldrums are upon me again this year? I think I will review the UW Master Gardener course manual, especially the section on “Weeds of Wisconsin,” and get ready for a new season of working in the soil. I am definitely going to find out whether I should let maverick Jump-in-the-Jacks (also known as wild pansies) share garden space with proud nursery-bought pansies or put a purposeful spade to them and relegate them to the weed pile, pretty though they be.

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Sandra Humphrey is a resident of Tomah.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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