Photos by Gina Turner
“It’s a volunteer program that helps disseminate research-based information—either research we have performed here or research that has been done on the state level—to the public, so we can help improve lives and save money and time,”
The tomato lady
During a long career as a certified public accountant in Houston, Lyn Shah often thought about what she would do during retirement.“You’ve got to have something you like to do that will keep you active,” she says. So, remembering the passion for gardening she’d inherited from her grandmother, who lived on a dairy farm in Maine, Lyn decided to become a Master Gardener. After retiring and moving to Willis in2007, she enrolled in the Montgomery County Master Gardener class offered by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Lyn, a frequent volunteer at Master Gardener workdays everyWednesday, is now the co-manager of the vegetable area at the MasterGardeners’ demonstration garden on Airport Road. She has a special interest in tomatoes, her favorite vegetable. “They’re so much better if you can grow them in your own yard,” she says. “They taste so much better, and you can control the chemicals you put on them.”Like other Master Gardeners, Lyn often puts her Master Gardener training to good use by answering her friends’ and neighbors’ gardening questions. One day, she realized just how much she was known for her gardening expertise when, while shopping for groceries, she saw an acquaintance. The woman, recognizing Lyn, said, “Oh! You’re the tomato lady!”
Helping others is what Master Gardeners do. “It’s a volunteer program that helps disseminate research-based information—either research we have performed here or research that has been done on the state level—to the public, so we can help improve lives and save money and time,” says Michael Potter, the Montgomery County extension agent for horticulture.
Michael, who holds a Master’s in Agriculture Science from Texas A&M University Kingsville, has been an extension agent since2006. He has been in Montgomery County since 2012 and is pleased to be a part of the first Master Gardener program in the state. He juggles many duties, including answering 50 to 100 emails and 50 to100 phone calls per month. “You don’t know what’s going to hit you from day to day,” he says. Once, he had to lasso a heifer that had been stung by bees. On Wednesdays, however, he focuses on the Master Gardeners and puts “a big X” on his calendar.
Michael has a close relationship with the 350-plus MasterGardeners in Montgomery County. “They are basically an extension of me,” he says. “They are so willing to do things.” By reaching out to their various family members, friends and neighbors, they are able to help many people improve their gardening techniques, and therefore, the quality of their food. Master Gardeners also host adult and youth education classes throughout the year. “They teach me as much as I teach them sometimes,” Michael says. Although more than half of Montgomery County Master Gardeners are retired, they are extremely active. “With what they do around here, I don’t even consider them to be retired,” he says. “Some put in over 300 hours last year volunteering.”
Michael also appreciates the friendships he has forged with MasterGardeners. “A lot of these people become like my extended family. I have so many mommas around here,” he says with a laugh. “I have to be careful what Isay. If I ask for something, it may show up.” For example, he casually mentioned one day that it would be nice to have a pathway between the AgriLife Extension Building and the Master Gardener Building. The next thing he knew, a path and brick wall had appeared there, a testament to the power of suggestion.
One of Michael’s duties is to plan the Master Gardener classes that all prospective Master Gardeners take before becoming certified. The classes, which are held each January and February, consist of two classes per week and include 84 hours of instructional time. In addition to teaching some of the classes himself, Michael arranges for guest instructors, including professors at Texas A&M University and Stephen F. Austin State University.
A community organization
On a recent Wednesday, about 100 Master Gardeners turned out to work in
the demonstration gardens, plan for upcoming fundraisers and visit with their friends. At Wednesday meetings, Master Gardeners also listen to educational speakers on such topics as attracting pollinators, eliminating weeds, creating home greenhouses, and growing vegetables, herbs and fruit trees that thrive in Montgomery County.
Bonded by their mutual love of gardening, Master Gardenerssoon become friends, says Hilda Castagnos, president of Montgomery County MasterGardeners. “We help each other when we get sick. We are building a little community, as well as doing our work raising funds for our program and reaching out to the community,” she says. About 50 or more people go through the training program each year to become Master Gardeners. Once they complete the required classroom hours, Hildasays, they spend 60 volunteer hours in the demonstration gardens to gain experience. Then, they are ready to go out into the community to share their knowledge. Some volunteer with theJunior Master Gardener program, while others speak at garden clubs. Some volunteer in school programs, such as the Conroe High School Culinary Program, which garnered first-place recognition for the best educational program at the MasterGardener State Conference in 2019. Some, like Lyn, gain gardening notoriety among neighbors and acquaintances.
Most Master Gardeners find a niche at the demonstration garden, where they volunteer on Wednesdays. The garden has two greenhouses, and (with plant pollination in mind) even has a spot for beehives. In addition to the vegetable garden, there is an orchard, which includes a vineyard. There is also a bog garden, which utilizes natural drainage to form a pond, where water-loving plants grow. The relatively-new “earth kind” garden features plants that, because they don’t need a lot of water or fertilizer, are gentle to the earth.
Many Master Gardeners enjoy the floral garden, while children appreciate the discovery garden, which was designed so that they can learn about gardening. The herb garden attracts enthusiasts like Bibi Blonn, who has become an herb expert. The herb garden also boasts its own stonemason, Waymon Wooley, and a small Shakespeare garden, tended enthusiastically by Alice Thomas. It features only herbs that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s splays. For example, a healthy proliferation of rosemary is accompanied by a small sign that quotes Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you.” The demonstration garden even has an area with waist-high plants so that Master Gardeners with limited mobility can still tend plants.
By the numbers
Michael reports that in 2019, Montgomery Master Gardeners responded to2,226 horticulture questions on its helpline (936-539-7824), 298 emails and 667 gardeners who arrived in person to ask questions. The group also hosted 16 educational classes on Saturdays throughout the year, benefiting501 people. In addition, Master Gardeners held three plant sale fundraisers and two open garden events in 2019, reaching 3,000people. Members had 35 news columns that were published, as well as 83 Facebook posts, which reached 122,000 people. In total, MasterGardeners volunteered for 43,081.5 hours.Michael calculates this value at $1,095,562.55,which is equivalent to 29 full-time employees.“Their efforts save the county money,” he says.
Such volunteerism must agree with Master Gardeners. Many of the group have been members for more than 10 years. “When people join,” Hilda says, “they usually stay.”
Residents who would like to benefit from Master Gardeners’ knowledge while beautifying their own property may want to attend one of the organization’s plant sales. The fruit and nut tree sale is held each January, the spring sale is scheduled for March 28 and the fall plant sale will be held on October 10. The spring plant sale is particularly popular among local residents. “The spring sale is bumper to bumper with people,” Hilda says.
For more information about Master Gardeners, including information about howto join, visit its web site: mcmga.com.