Learning from the masters

26 local gardens to be open during two-day 'Gardening with the Masters' tour

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Judy and Jonathan Knight love hiking, which goes a long way in explaining why they have a meadow for a garden.

To the untrained eye, much of their Warwick Neck lot may appear as if the Knights simply let nature take over. In a way, that’s the case, but it isn’t by accident that native plants and flowers have the upper hand or that neatly trimmed paths meander on the hill overlooking Narragansett Bay.

After building their house on the last open lot on Tea House Lane several years ago, the Knights wanted a natural setting in contrast to the manicured yards of neighbors. After a storm, runoff from the house is directed to “rain gardens” where it seeps into the ground. A slurry of seeds of indigenous flowers, grasses and ferns was spread across the site to start the meadow.

It doesn’t end there, nor is the meadow maintenance-free. On a recent visit, Master Gardener Judy pointed out milkweed and golden rod that have yet to bloom among the daisies and blue lupine with their splashes of white and blue against a green backdrop.

Judy paused. She had spotted an intruder. She would be pulling out the knotweed, an invasive species that in all probability had been introduced by a bird.

The Knights’ meadow and backyard garden is one stop on the Gardening with the Masters 2019 tour to be held Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30. Of the 26 gardens on the full tour, nine are located in the central region, including the Knights’ and that of Elaine Hovey, who also lives on Warwick Neck.

The tour is an outgrowth of the Master Gardeners program run by the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, specifically the Cooperative Extension, which started in 1904, less than two decades after the university’s opening in 1888.

The Cooperative Extension “is the arm of the university that brings science out to the people of Rhode Island to help them solve problems. And one of the ways we do that is through the Master Gardener Program,” said Kate Venturini, program administrator of the Mallon Outreach Center at URI.

The Master Gardeners program hosts the Gardening with the Masters Tour once every two years. Master Gardeners are volunteers who have been “trained by university faculty and staff in science-based horticulture,” according to Venturini.

“People don’t become Master Gardeners to make a living off of it. They become Master Gardeners to educate the public on science-based gardening,” Venturini said. “It is a very selfless thing, and our gardeners are extremely valued.”

The Cooperative Extension provides Rhode Island with more than 40 demonstration gardens throughout the state where members of the community can observe how volunteers tend the gardens. They also provide free soil pH testing multiple times throughout the week, hold free public presentations and operate a gardening and an environmental hotline.

“It’s meant to be an outreach to the public to educate them about what’s available. People who come can have absolutely no understanding of what’s going on, but they’ll get ideas from visiting. It’s a way to get people good information because we’re all learning,” said Judy, a Master Gardener since 2011.

She added: “I don’t like the title because I don’t feel like I’m a master at anything. And it’s the kind of thing where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”

The Knights’ garden serves as an example of what Venturini says are the criteria for a Master Gardener to be on the tour.

“We choose those who are willing to put in all the work, because it takes months to get the gardens ready, and those who showcase the practices we’ve taught them,” she said.

An additional requirement is the volunteer’s ability to communicate information to their audience. If a person can’t explain their methods well, then the visitors, all of which are highly encouraged to ask as many questions as they like, won’t be learning the art of environmentally sound and sustainable gardening, Venturini said.

The Knights have planned a scavenger hunt to engage those visiting their meadow. Visitors will be challenged to find different plants and features.

A guidebook with a map and addresses to the 26 houses in Rhode Island and Connecticut serves as a ticket to the tour. It also provides descriptions of the properties and the gardens. The guidebooks cost $25 for one person and $22 each for two or more. Guidebooks can be purchased online at web.uri.edu/mastergardener/tour. Additional information is available by calling 874-2900.

This year’s tours include gardens in Charlestown, Narragansett, Peace Dale and Stonington, Connecticut, as part of the Southern Region; East Greenwich, North Kingstown, Providence, Riverside and Warwick as part of the Central Region; Newport and Portsmouth as part of the Eastern Region; and Chepachet, Cumberland, Foster and Seekonk, Massachusetts, as part of the Northern Region.

The money raised will go directly into “supporting all of the educational work we do throughout Rhode Island,” Venturini said.

“This event is so important, as we only do it every other year,” she added.

More than anything, Judy said it is the learning process that she enjoys the most, as it will never end. This is exactly how she and her fellow gardeners want visitors to think about the experience.

“I want people to be able to say there’s so much they have learned from visiting the different homes and asking the homeowners what they’ve done and why they’ve done it,” she said.

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