Just as the memorial fir tree has grown, so, too, have the plots

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Standing tall: Carole Henry stands beside the concolor fir tree, planted in the early 1990s in memory of a Master Gardener. 

ALBANY COUNTY — In the sunshine of an April afternoon, Carole Henry walks between carefully tended amoeba-like gardens and reaches down, as if greeting old friends after a long winter.

“This is a Mahonia, a grape holly,” she says, pulling off one of its dry, leathery leaves. “It had a rough winter. I’m hoping it bounces back.”

She points then to a blue spruce that had a worse winter. “We lost the top in the last big windstorm,” Henry says. “It took 30 feet.” The entire tree may have to be cut down, she says.

Henry is the coordinator for the Master Gardeners at Albany County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension.

On Monday, she strolled the grounds next to the extension building on Martin Road, across the street from Voorheesville’s high school, and explained the genesis of the gardens. They began with a single tree, a concolor fir, that was planted in 1992 in memory of a deceased Master Gardener. The tree now towers over the single-story building, probably 40 feet tall.

“Anybody can walk here, at any time, from dawn to dusk to look at and learn from the gardens,” says Henry.

Master Gardeners are tending the beds and ready to answer questions every Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon, until the end of October.

“Each garden has a set purpose,” says Henry. “This is a cottage garden … It has a mix of perennials that bloom at different times … soft and soothing.” Connie Metcalf oversees the cottage garden.

“We all work together,” Henry says of maintaining the garden. “But Connie has the vision.” The garden features a quaint birdhouse, complete with copper roof. The late Robert Horn built the birdhouse and another one nearby, which looks like a Celtic tree spirit.

“The White Garden,” overseen by Sarah Slingerland, is next. A single hyacinth — white, of course — is in bloom, to feed the soul.

“The principles of an all white garden design are not arbitrary; they are constant,” says the placard. “They are the tools that no gardener can vary until one has mastered them. It is through this mastery that distinction and individuality are reflected in one color design. Distinction is the note of quality, taste, and originality for which all gardners strive.”

A shade garden, as it name implies, features plants that thrive in the shade beneath the garden’s large trees.

The gazebo garden, centered by — what else? — a gazebo, was refurbished last year with peonies, says Henry. “They give off fragrances that dance in the wind,” she says, and remembers a client she had years ago in Philadelphia who was blind. The roof-top garden featured plants known by their scent and texture.

Plants that are resistant to drought, pests, and disease are highlighted in the low-maintenance garden. Henry points out coral bells, lamb’s ear, and Russian sage.

“The Serenity Garden” has a statue of Buddha that stands out now since the elephant grasses and elderberry, which will grow 15 feet high, are currently cut back, nearly to the ground.

“The Knot Garden” is framed by a hedge in a perfect circle, centered by an urn standing on a bed of white stones. Peering over the edge of the hedge, you can see shrubs with different colors of foliage, planted to look like multi-colored ribbons woven into an intricate, geometric knot.

“It looks best from above,” comments Henry.

The grass garden, overseen by Keith Lee, displays ornamental grasses of different sizes, shapes, and colors. “They were popular in the early 2000s,” notes Henry.

A vegetable garden, fenced against predators, has raised beds lined up in neat rows. The rhubarb and raspberries are already up.

Raised beds, Henry explains, allow a gardener to make her desired soil mix. “They’re especially good in the city,” she says, “because you don’t know what’s been in the soil … You don’t disturb what’s there.”

Family heritage

Henry says that horticulture is in her blood.

“My mother was a horticulturist,” she said. “I grew up learning about plants.” At age 4, she was sitting in on a class about Japanese floral design.

Her grandmother was a rose propagator in the 1930s and ’40s.

As a high school student in Delaware, Henry was actively involved in the Future Farmers of America, and won a first place for her state in floriculture and horticulture, coming in second nationwide, she said.

She went on to graduate from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in plant science, and launched a career in landscape design.

In recent years, she moved north for the snow — Henry is a cross-country skier — and, in addition to managing an Eastern Mountain Sports store in Niskayuna, she had her own landscape business.

“We built a house in Charlton, and I did all the landscaping,” she said. “I like unusual, old-fashioned plants that you don’t often see anymore.” One of her favorites in the Franklinia tree.

“It’s  a very beautiful tree with exceptional fall color — reds and purples,” Henry said. “And it has fragrant white blooms from August through fall.”

She’s yanked up invasive species from her yard and put in old-fashioned perennials, letting them go to seed. She’s also established an area for pollinators. “A lot of bees and butterflies are struggling,” Henry said.

Dandelions, she said, are a good early food for bees, and she’s also planted milkweed and echinacea.

“All my neighbors spray their lawns,” she said. “I don’t spray.”

She does provide the food sources and nectar that hummingbirds like. So, without any feeders, she gets to regularly watch hummingbirds in her yard.

Master Gardeners

Two years ago, Henry took the job as coordinator of Master Gardeners for Albany County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“Back when Lincoln was president, land-grant colleges, like Cornell, were set up,” Henry explains. “The extension services are part of the land grant. Cornell oversees what we do. There’s an extension office in each county … Programs in each are based on the needs of the area.”

Albany County’s Master Gardeners began in 1977, and one of the Master Gardeners in the original class, Phyllis Rosenblum, is still volunteering.

“She has 800 tomato plants in her basement right now,” said Henry.

They will be sold on May 18, along with other plants, at the Master Gardeners’ annual fundraiser. The Garden Education Day also includes a bake sale and garage sale — and the line of patrons stretches out of the parking lot and down the street, Henry said.

“It helps us do educational programs with kids, garden clubs, community events, workshops,” she said.

Organizers used to accept donations of plants from people’s gardens for Garden Education Day but now can accept only donations of plants grown from seed or cuttings in sterile soil.

This is because of the invasive Asian jumping worm. “The Asian jumping worm is very destructive especially to the forest ecosystem so reporting where they are found and killing those found is important,” said Henry. “I have had specimens brought into the lab from parts of Altamont, Guilderland, and Albany.  People should be encouraged not to swap plants dug from the ground because they can be passing the invasive worms onto other people’s gardens.”

Currently, Albany County has 112 Master Gardeners; about 80 percent of them are retirees, Henry said. About 80 percent are women and about 20 percent are men. They are selected through a formal application and interview process and then each volunteer undergoes 10 weeks of training.

The class meets once a week for an all-day session. “We cover all horticulture topics — botany, soil health, vegetables, fruit cultures, climate change,” said Henry. “We teach them how to test soil. We have a lab for pH testing and for identifying insects and plant diseases.”

Henry does the diagnostics with Lindsey Christianson, an entomologist with the Capital Agricultural Program.

The Master Gardeners staff a hotline that anyone can call with gardening questions. It is open for six hours a day, from March 1 to Dec. 1. The questions are researched and answers provided, free of charge. The Master Gardeners also give presentations to garden clubs and other community groups.

Master Gardeners volunteer at least 60 hours a year for the first 12 years, although Henry notes that many volunteer for more than 100 hours and a few put in over 200 hours per year.

After 12 years, 20 volunteer hours are required. After 20 years, there are no more hourly requirements as the Master Gardeners achieve emeritus status.

Last year, Albany County’s volunteers put in over 8,000 hours, Henry said.


Cornell outlines a set of values for the Master Gardener programs across the state, and Henry described how Albany County’s extension fulfills those locally.

The Master Gardeners grow different varieties of vegetables and herbs, planting the same seeds that are planted by Master Gardeners across the state. “It’s part of the research Cornell is doing to see how well they grow in this climate,” Henry said.

The Martin Road gardens fulfill the mission of “creating and maintaining gardens to support learning.”

“There are maps of the gardens and everything is labeled,” said Henry. This instructs visitors. Additionally, workshops are held from time to time. Also, the Master Gardeners are involved in community garden projects with demonstration gardens in the city of Albany — at the Schuyler Mansion, the Ten Broeck Mansion; the Myers House, an Underground Railroad station; and the Pine Hills Library.

“In the city, we try to encourage stoop gardens,” said Henry. “We give away pots, soil, and herbs.”

She went on, “We try to connect with the community. At the Pine Hills Library, we work with the librarians and the children for Pollinator Week, teaching them about butterflies and bees.”

The Master Gardeners also sponsor garden-based learning projects at St. Anne’s Institute, at the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology, at the Albany School for the Humanities, and at the Delaware Avenue Community School’s Friendship Garden.

“We show them how a plant grows from seed to seedling, and how to transplant it to the ground and care for it … Kids get to taste what they grow,” said Henry. “And they learn about new cultures when they eat foods they haven’t eaten before.”

Last summer, a Garden Adventure program was started, supported by the Albany Police Athletic League. “PAL  transported kids from the city here … It was run through our 4-H department,” said Henry. “This year, we hope to work with the Hilltowns, too, for kids that might not have the opportunity for camp.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, Henry said, “We sometimes go out to senior centers for workshops where we’ll provide pots and soil and things like lettuce they can harvest and eat.”

These projects fulfill the values to “offer inclusive educational programming” and to “foster diversity by preparing educators and volunteers to build relationships beyond familiar networks.”

To fulfill the value of “sustainable garden practices,” Henry said, “We teach people to compost and to make the soil better, to stay away from pesticides.”

At the back of the extension’s parking lot are demonstrations of many different methods of composting, each with accompanying explanations. The central idea is to have bacteria break down waste into rich organic matter to enrich soil.

Bokashi composting, for example, is anaerobic — without air — fermenting food scraps into usable compost. Practiced by farmers in Japan for centuries, it has recently been introduced into the United States.

A key garden — in the shape of a key — will be set up with compost in the center. Water carries the nutrients from the compost to the rest of the garden, Henry said.

Another tenet is: “We  believe in the power of reflection to help us ‘do less, better.’ In an era of ‘too busy-ness,’ we strive to pause and consider wise action in all our program efforts.”

“Doing less is better,” said Henry. “Let’s say with grass: Everybody wants to fertilize.

“But the best way to get rid of crabgrass is to overseed with grass. You don’t have to use chemicals … It’s less harmful to the environment.”

She went on, “With all the advertising, it’s ingrained … You get a call: ‘What do I spray to get rid of this?’ You have to talk people through this: ‘Don’t kill ground bees. They’re necessary for pollination.’”

“We promote trust and safe spaces as we engage in learning and collaboration … “ says the final value.

“We all try to work with each other and help each other out — bounce questions off each other,” said Henry.

She concluded, “I’m grateful for the Master Gardeners I have. Their dedication goes beyond what they’re required to do. They put in over 8,000 hours last year … We’re trying to promote we’re here as a resource for the community … I couldn’t do what we do without them.”

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