In a triangular garden at Sleepy Hole Park, a swallowtail butterfly’s egg rests peacefully, almost invisible, on a stalk of fennel. Nearby, bright green striped caterpillars munch on the plant, growing bigger and greener as the days go by. Butterflies float from flower to flower, resting their delicate wings as they collect nectar from butterfly bush, lantana and zinnias. Bees vibrate among purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susan, and hummingbird moths hover like their namesakes as they nectar on the blooms.
Nearby, squash and corn are beginning to produce vegetables, and potatoes grow unseen as grasshoppers jump among their above-ground greens. Lamb’s ear and mint and many beautiful flowers provide stimulation for the senses.
In between, the signs of human guidance are almost invisible. Foot-shaped stepping stones, well maintained fencing, perfectly shaped garden sections, a rain barrel and trellised entrance all betray the fact that this garden isn’t entirely given over to entropy, though the insects might well prefer it. The learning and demonstration garden at Sleepy Hole Park is one of more than half a dozen locations around the city where the Suffolk Master Gardeners maintain gardens that are open to the public.
“We’ve got some beautiful gardens we maintain, and I think they beautify the city,” said Janet Carr, one of the co-presidents of the Master Gardeners. But the main purpose of the Master Gardeners is to educate home gardeners on their hobby. “One of our major goals is education,” said Jim Winters, the other co-president. “How do you help the home gardener? How do you help the person that says, ‘I’ve got some kind of green bug eating my flowers’?”
Many of the organization’s programs focus on educating children about gardening. The garden at Sleepy Hole Park was started as a children’s learning garden by Suffolk Parks and Recreation employee Cheryl Pisani and has grown from there. Programs are held at 10 a.m. the second Wednesday of the month during the warmer months and will run through October this year. “We want to get kids involved,” said Brad Halcums, a Master Gardener volunteer. “They think tomatoes come from Walmart. We get them exposed to different things. Just because you see a bug doesn’t mean you have to step on it.”
But educating adults on gardening has become especially important these days, as more people become concerned about supporting pollinators like bees, helping improve water quality and knowing where their food comes from. “With the way the economy is and the way mass food production is, a lot of people want to know where their food comes from,” said Wanda Gerard, a longtime volunteer and former president of Suffolk Master Gardeners. Testing soil before fertilizing and planting a smart garden from the beginning can improve the environment immensely, the volunteers said.
“Gardeners can have a lot to do with helping clean water,” Winters said. “You can do a lot with what you plant and how you plant it to slow down the stormwater runoff.” Master Gardeners hold and participate in many events throughout the year to meet the public and provide information. They have a section at the annual Taste of Suffolk festival in September. The Master Gardeners say they enjoy using their hobby and expertise to serve their community. Master Gardeners were created to support local agricultural extension agents in educating the general public. Virginia alone has more than 4,000 Master Gardener volunteers who donated more than 400,000 hours of service to the state last year.
“If you are paying somebody like the county agent to do that, that’s millions and millions of dollars we’ve saved taxpayers,” Winter said. The Suffolk Master Gardeners’ work can be found at Bennett’s Creek, Sleepy Hole and Lone Star Lakes parks as well as at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church and Liberty Spring Ruritan Park, among other locations.