How does a garden grow?

Master Gardeners to host family-friendly events

By Bernadette Suski-Harding, Special Writer
   Barbara Bromley vividly remembers watching termites build a tube on her neighbor’s foundation, and yellow jackets feast on the “most delicious yellow plums I’d ever had.”
   She was 5 then, and already hooked.
   As she grew, she paid close attention to her father, a Mayflower descendent who preferred a dirt-under-his-nails career in agriculture to the cashmere topcoats and ascots of his lineage. Fresh from post-graduate stints at UMass and Harvard, Mrs. Bromley’s father, William Bradford Johnson, became the extension specialist in vegetable crops, with a specialty in tomatoes, at what was then known simply as Ag College, now Cook College.
   ”I learned a lot from watching him, some of it good, some of it bad,” Mrs. Bromley says of her father, who died in 1988. “He was very devoted to the industry. I’m very devoted to the environment.”
   So it’s no surprise, really, that she has dedicated her life to gardening and, for the last 20 years, training Master Gardeners.
   ”I think I was destined to do this all my life,” says Mrs. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturist.
   ”When I came out of Rutgers University (almost 35 years ago), I thought I was so smart,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started answering questions for the public that I really began to learn.”
   Now, as the Master Gardeners of Mercer County approach their 20th anniversary, Mrs. Bromley takes pride in the numbers: well over 600 Master Gardeners trained, and more than 250 still active.
   ”That’s a great retention rate for a volunteer group,” she says, because remaining a Master Gardener is nearly as intense as becoming one.
   ”There’s 60 hours of instruction, and then volunteer work, just to become a certified Master Gardener. And to maintain the certification, each member must complete 10 hours of continuing education and 30 hours of volunteer work each year, with at least half that time spent on the Help Line, answering questions from the public,” she says. (The Help Line is staffed weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. November through February, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March through October.
   ”It’s not always what you know, but can you find the answer?” she says. “It may be as simple as ‘When do I prune my lilac?’ Or it could be as complicated as ‘Why did my tree die?’ That’s not an easy one to answer. It could be an insect infestation, or a disease, or too much rain, or pesticides, or planted too deep, or how long it takes trees to recover from transplanting.
   ”Sometimes, you never find the answer,” Mrs. Bromley says.
Family-friendly events
    Volunteers also help plan and run events that occur throughout the year, like Midsummer Night in the Garden, which is set for July 17, from 7-8:30 p.m. and the 11th annual Insect Festival, which is set for Sept. 7, from 1-4 p.m. Both events are at the Mercer Educational Gardens on the grounds of the Mercer County Equestrian Center, 431 A Federal City Road, Pennington.
   ”We held the Midsummer Night event for the first time last year, and it was absolutely fabulous,” Mrs. Bromley says. “You get to walk around the gardens and ask volunteers questions about the plants that were grown there.”
   As for the Insect Festival, well, let’s just say it buzzes with activities for all ages.
   ”When the Master Gardeners originally started it,” Mrs. Bromley says, “we thought, ‘This will be fine. We’ll have people come in and look around and look at bugs and stuff and then they’ll leave.’ We couldn’t get anyone to go home!”
   Over the years, the award-winning Insect Festival has grown to include displays on harmful and beneficial insects, games, crafts, hayrides, a puppet show, mural painting and more.
   ”It’s a wonderful day. My grandchildren love it,” Mrs. Bromley says.
   And it’s eye opening, particularly for anyone who isn’t overly fond of bugs.
   ”Most people are afraid of insects, so the idea is to make the insects that live in the water, and the ones that are responsible for our food, to make them a little less frightening,” Mrs. Bromley says.