Mission keeps Master Gardener busy _lowres

Advocate photo by C.J. FUTCH -- Claire Fontenot, 78, a retired nurse, has been a Master Gardener since 2001 and has volunteered a large portion of her time and talents to developing the Independence Park Botanic Garden's collection of day lilies, irises and ginger plants.

Claire Fontenot has served many roles over her nearly 15-year service as a Louisiana Master Gardener, from her first volunteer job fielding home gardening calls from the LSU AgCenter hotline, to conducting seminars and classes at area libraries for home gardeners.

In fact, the 78-year-old retired nurse has tried just about everything that fits within the master gardeners’ mission of educating the public about plants and gardening.

But when most people think of Fontenot, they think of irises, day lilies and ginger plants — specifically the 800-plus variety collection at the Botanic Garden at Independence Park.

When Fontenot began, the park had just a few rows of the flowers, and she, along with a team of other volunteers, not all of them master gardeners, began a five-year long project to expand the garden, increase the collection, and carefully catalog and map each variety that had been planted.

That, she said, turned out to be a lot of trial and error.

“I tried a lot of different methods, and they didn’t always work,” she said.

Part of what the Botanic Gardens wanted to do, she said, was offer some of the varieties for sale, she said. In order to do that, “I needed to make sure what I was offering (in bulb or rhizome form) would come up as the variety they wanted when it bloomed.”

She first tried a method of marking the plants with a wire just after they bloomed, she said. When they died back, she dug up the roots and, using the wire as a reference point, hoped to be able to identify the roots as the correct plant.

“Well, that didn’t always work. Sometimes, I’d dig down, and there would be four rhizomes coming off the plant” that would often blend into the rhizomes of its neighboring plant, leaving them difficult to identify with any certainty, she said.

For the next cycle, she carefully marked each plant with a tag, with the intention of coming back when the blooms began to fade, and dug the plants up with their tags.

That might have worked, but when she came back to catalog the plants, they’d already been cut, inadvertently, along with their identifying tags.

Against the protests of some other gardeners she’d asked for advice, she decided there was only one way to identify the blooms with any integrity.

“I had to dig them up while they were blooming, put them in a pot and isolate them,” she laughed, with a twinkle in her eye. “And I did it. That’s part of the reason it took me so long, but we finally got it done.”

And it was a considerable task. Today, there are about 100 iris varieties in the collection and about 1,000 day lilies. Now, the garden offers between 20 and 25 varieties of iris for sale, along with a general mix of irises, and about 20 kinds of day lilies.

When Fontenot completed Louisiana Master Gardener training in 2001, one of her first volunteer jobs was helping answer the home gardening information line at the LSU AgCenter extension office.

“In those days, that line got a lot of calls,” Fontenot said. Technology changed all that, she said, and the help line quickly became more Internet based. A lot of the information was posted on the AgCenter’s website, and their roles as Master Gardener volunteers changed with it.

She’s served in many different capacities over the years, she said, and can attest to the need for more volunteers, though the number of Master Gardeners has grown.

For all those who have thought of going through the program but haven’t for one reason or another, she said, don’t rule out the possibility without talking to someone about it.

“If you don’t like to talk in front of crowds, if you have some mobility issues — even if you don’t like to be outside, there’s something for you to do,” she said.

It’s also open to those with little gardening experience.

“I never really had any, until I went through the class,” she said.

Master Gardeners are part of the volunteer staff of the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. Master Gardener programs are all-volunteer programs sanctioned by land-grant institutions in each state and function as an extension of the college or university. In Louisiana, the program is sponsored by the LSU AgCenter and is directed by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service.

According to the LSU AgCenter website, Master Gardeners are required to complete 40-50 hours of intensive, practical horticulture training and contribute 40 hours of volunteer service in their first year. To remain a Certified Master Gardener, a minimum of 20 hours of LSU AgCenter-sponsored volunteer service, in addition to six hours of continuing education, is required.

The fee for participation in the Louisiana Master Gardener training program is $150.

The program is having an informational meeting at 10 a.m. June 3 at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden, 4560 Essen Lane, for people interested but need more information. The next Master Gardener class begins July 7.

For information about the Botanic Gardens, visit www.brec.org/index.cfm/page/380/n/55.