Mastering the Art of Gardening

By Janet Nicol

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A stroll through Barry Roberts' yard in south Surrey reveals this master gardener's enthusiasm about cannas, a flower blooming in many colours and forms. And enthusiasm is a key ingredient for joining the Master Gardener's Association of B.C.

“I am fascinated by botany,” says Barry, the group's president, following a tour of his spacious front and back lawn of shady cedars, fruit bushes and meditative ponds. “Why do some plants grow and others don't?”

“It's about finding the right plant for the right place,” he muses, answering his own question.

Barry and other volunteer master gardeners in Vancouver share their hard-earned knowledge with the public at several year-round events, operating out of VanDusen Botanical Gardens.

“Our mandate is to educate people in environmentally responsible gardening practices,” he says. “We teach avoidance of chemicals, particularly toxic chemicals in the garden and tolerance of some pests and weeds. We also promote minimum water usage and drought-tolerant plants.”

The master gardener program, involving a rigorous 12 full-day training session, is so popular, applicants are turned away. “We have a limited number of spaces and have to maintain standards,” he explains.

Once through the gate, more volunteering, training and testing is required over a two-year period before becoming a qualified Master Gardener. Members must continue to contribute a minimum of 30 volunteer hours every year. This could include talks to elementary school children, special projects or workshops at garden clubs and community centres. Members also produce “fact sheets” on various aspects of gardening. The group's impressive collections of brochures include photographs and valuable advice, and are distributed at no cost.

Barry says the idea for a master gardener program began at Washington State University in the 1970s as a way to address the overwhelming public need for local gardening answers. Today, Master Gardener groups exist in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and 46 U.S. states. The B.C. chapter has a membership of more than 700 and includes Vancouver, Victoria, Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, the Thompson Shuswap and Prince George.

“We are made up mostly of seniors,” says Barry. “We seem to have the time. And many of the founders of the B.C. group are still active 28 years later.”

Barry, a retiree himself, moved from employment in the publishing world in England and settled in Canada six years ago. When he isn't gardening, he tirelessly volunteers his time and expertise.

Despite amateur status, master gardeners are avid learners, welcoming professional horticulturalists and other members of the academic community as guest speakers.

And as a gardener educator, Barry encounters both challenges and benefits. A common folly is people who tell him “myths” about gardening.

“Putting nails in the ground will not produce iron nutrients in the soil,” he says, with a smile and a shake of his head.

“Canadians use common names for plants,” he also notices. “There's an avoidance of their real name. Not learning the Latin-based plant names hinders gardeners' ability to know plants.” Most garden enthusiasts in Barry's home country learn the names, so he doesn't excuse the complexity of the pronunciation as a rationale.

“The size and availability of gardens here is a benefit,” he agrees. “There are some great private gardens in Surrey, Langley, Victoria and on Vancouver Island.”

When Barry strolls through a garden, he appreciates its diversity, but he also has a passion for a collection of a single family of plants.

“There are families that are limited, and others that are diverse. Bill Terry grows poppies,” says Barry, of a B.C. gardener he admires. “He has collected species of poppies from all over the world.”

Every summer, Barry and his wife host a fundraising garden party, on the landscaped lawn outside their white two-storey colonial-style home. His collection of cannas is in full bloom as hundreds of members of the public arrive to the quiet residential street in August.

“There are many facets to gardening,” says Barry. “I've learned more about trees and shrubs and soil preparation. There are so many facts; you can never know it all. You are always learning.”

For more information about the Mastering Gardening Program, visit or call 604-257-8662.



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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

"There are some great private gardens in Surrey, Langley, Victoria and on Vancouver Island." Maybe it is a fact that Barry closes his eyes when he drives to Van Dusen botanical garden in Vancouver from Surrey--how else could he miss the many wonderful private gardens in Vancouver? More likely Janet Nicol, the writer, suffered a 'senior moment'.

Posted by Jean Allan | March 11, 2011 Report Violation

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