The Practical Gardener

One of the first things I did when I moved to Asheville was to start networking with local gardeners. And the first group I connected with was the Men’s Garden Club of Asheville. I was involved in the planning for the National Men’s Garden Club Conference held in Asheville a few years ago, and I periodically attend the local meetings to hear speakers. Although I eventually decided to direct my volunteer energies elsewhere, I have maintained connections with a few active club members and so have kept sight of the good work they do.

One project that’s been years in the making finally came to fruition a couple of weeks ago with the dedication of their new greenhouse out near the Nature Center. The city Parks and Recreation Department is leasing the greenhouse site to the club, and the new facility will be used to produce cost-effective annual plantings by Parks & Rec, among other purposes (more about that later). But the greenhouse is only one facet of the club’s work to beautify Asheville over many years.

The club boasts about 100 members, and it continues to grow. I’ve always been amazed at the wealth of horticultural knowledge represented by the roster. Many members are retired and have fine gardens of their own in addition to their work with the group. But achieving the seemingly simple goal of helping to beautify Asheville requires enormous amounts of time and effort. Current ongoing projects include installing and maintaining gardens at the Smith-McDowell House, the Northland Mini-park (next to Fresh Market), Asheville Community Theatre, MAHEC and Pack Library, among other sites.

The greenhouse — a 20-by-60-foot professional-quality structure — was bought used about three years ago with money squirreled away from the club’s annual spring and fall plant sales, plus a portion of membership dues. My gardening pal Gerry Hardesy has been the point man in setting up the greenhouse. Surprisingly enough, there was no one in the club who had solid experience with a commercial-size greenhouse. Gerry says they overcame that obstacle by reading and asking lots of questions. After several years of work, the net result is a structure fitted out with propane heat (for those cold winter nights) and an automatic watering system.

A 20-by-32-foot hoop house on the site will provide winter protection for potted shrubs. As I write this, it’s covered with shade cloth to protect the plants set aside for the Sept. 21 plant sale from the summer’s heat and drought. A 40-by-100-foot area has been set up for growing in-ground shrubs earmarked for assorted beautification projects around the city. The water for the plants comes from a spring-fed pond on-site; it gets pumped into twin 250-gallon tanks kept in the greenhouse.

Gerry tells me that the club is now considering how to use the new growing site for the betterment of Asheville. Liberty Corner Enterprises puts mentally challenged adults to work preparing mass mailings for businesses and organizations in Asheville; among other things, the group folds and mails the garden club’s monthly newsletter. Some of those folks decided that they wanted to get involved with the greenhouse project too. They’ve periodically helped with seeding, and they’ve been a big help. And though the site won’t be open to the public, club members are brainstorming ways they can bring local schoolkids in on field trips to learn about growing plants. There’s also been talk of a veggie-growing program to contribute to MANNA Food Bank. For these men’s fertile imaginations, the possibilities are endless.

The 3-acre Azalea Road site is well organized; it’s taken a great many volunteer hours on the part of at least 60 members to get the various growing areas to where they are today. But the greenhouse is the crown jewel of all the club’s work. It’s a boon for the city too. Until now, the plantings Parks & Rec does each spring along city roads and streets have been bought from big-time, out-of-state commercial plant factories. It takes a big annual budget to add color to Asheville, and to my way of thinking, it’s worthwhile, because it enhances the ambiance of our beloved little city.

But under a new partnership with the Men’s Garden Club, these gentlemen will start the plants from seed in the greenhouse each February, so they’ll be ready for spring planting. It won’t be a free ride for the city, but it will produce significant savings. Meanwhile, long-term propagation projects have begun producing shrubs from cuttings to be used in future landscape projects, some many years distant. It’s one more example of the kinds of unique relationships forged between city government and grassroots organizations that help make Asheville the great place it is.

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