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Tuesday
January 16, 2018
Magnolia Banner News

Masters of the garden

By J.D. Bailey
This article was published January 12, 2018 at 11:38 a.m.

Located in the heart of downtown Magnolia, at the intersection of Washington and Union streets, Cecil Traylor Wilson Garden has for more than a decade showcased well-manicured natural beauty in the city’s urban district. Filled with pergolas, water features, and small critters of all sorts, the property not only hosts weddings, prom photo shoots, and community gatherings, but the once-vacant lot is now filled with life and greenery.

But who maintains such a place? It isn’t the city, nor the county, but a small group of local horticulture and gardening enthusiasts called the Master Gardeners of Columbia County. The group consists of individuals who donate much of their time and energy to keep their community looking as alluring and charming as possible.

“I guess you could say we try to preserve natural habitats for plants and pollinators,” said Sue Cook, president of the Master Gardeners of Columbia County.

Founded in 1988 and run through the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension Service, the statewide program now includes more than 3,400 volunteers in 67 of The Natural State’s 76 counties. The master gardeners are not some randomly thrown-together group, either. They are highly trained horticulture hobbyists who attended weeks of workshops to attain their titles.

“It’s excellent training,” said Cook. “It’s in-depth, and they bring in experts from all different gardening disciplines so you can learn a lot. If you like horticulture, it’s very enjoyable.”

Cook and her husband Bob, a former president of the Master Gardeners of Columbia County and still an active member, came to Magnolia five years ago from the near 9,000-foot altitudes of New Mexico. There they both enjoyed gardening but, since moving, they’ve found the warm alluvial plains of southwest Arkansas to be a far better agricultural setting than the Rocky Mountains.

“It’s not exactly great for growing there,” laughed Cook. “That rocky, high-altitude soil is tough.”

Maintaining Wilson Garden requires much of the local group’s time commitment, but the volunteers also manage properties at CCAPS (Columbia County Animal Protection Society), the McNeil City Garden, and Stamps Library. The organization also helps support area 4-H youth programs through contest training and interaction.

“Most members donate around 40 hours of their time every year,” Cook said. “But some are up there around 100 hours. It’s kind of seasonal, but you can really put in quite a bit of time.”

Besides hands-on services, the nonprofit also hosts an annual horticulture enthusiast event called Garden Thyme. Taking place at Immanuel Baptist Church in Magnolia, this year’s speakers will be Janet Carson, Master Gardner Program founder and horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, and Natalie Bumgarner, University of Tennessee residential and consumer extension specialist.

“It’s great,” said Cook. “The speakers give great tips, then there’s an open question session. We will also have some excellent food.”

The event begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, and lasts until noon. The cost to attend is $10. Door prizes will be awarded – mostly donated by the master gardeners themselves – and vendors will be on hand.

To become a Master Gardener, individuals take part in a five-week training course. For 2018, the sessions will take place at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in El Dorado on Thursdays from 1 until 6 p.m. The program begins Feb. 1 and meets each week until March 22.

“I know the schedule may be hard for some, but I really enjoyed it,” said Cook.

When asked for her best gardening tip, the former elementary school teacher gave one definitive answer.

“Get your soil checked,” she said. “That’s probably the most important factor in growing good gardens, grasses, and plants — and it’s free. Arkansas is one of the few states left in the country that will send your dry soil samples off at no cost. It’s so easy. All you have to do is contact your local extension service, and they will tell you all you need to know to get better results for what you want to grow.”

The deadline to register for upcoming Master Gardener classes is Jan. 31. A late registration window also exists. Garden Thyme will hold registration the day of the event, but early registration is available. For more information on becoming a Master Gardener or any of the group’s activities, call the Columbia County Extension Service in Magnolia at 870-235-3720.

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