On Lowcountry summer days, many locals retreat from the oppressive heat by staying inside cool buildings surrounded by their own comforts and electronic distractions. Others, like certified Clemson Extension Master Gardener Patty Miller, find happiness outside coated in sunscreen and potting soil, toiling in a garden filled with exotic plants, fragrant flowers and buzzing bees.
Miller, a Charleston native, has always enjoyed spending time in gardens and solving the confounding puzzles linked with the outdoor hobby. “I got started gardening because as a young child, my mother would send me out into the yard to pull the weeds as punishment,” she remembers. “But, really there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing those weeds suddenly gone. It was instant gratification.”
Even while raising her own family and then working alongside her husband, Dr. Marshall Miller, she found time to re-charge her soul by retreating to the family’s yard. Hours were spent tending to various flowers, cuttings and seedlings that she cultivated over the years. When Dr. Miller retired, he realized the time his wife would spend in the yard would only increase. So, as a gift to her, he registered his wife for the Master Gardener classes with Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.
Miller resisted at first. She was not sure she could commit the time to the labor-intensive studying. “He kept pushing,” Miller says sweetly of her doting husband. “There was so much material; a whole botany book. There was a term paper due every week and we were tested regularly … This was not for beginners.” Then, Miller realized the course could take her love of gardening to a new level and perhaps down paths to meet others who also shared her gardening passions.
Amy Dabbs, consumer horticulture area agent for Clemson University Cooperative Extension and the Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator, says people enjoy gardening because it's a universal language. "People do it on different scales, ability levels and budgets. What Charleston has going for it is we have a lot of varied horticulture and a wonderful growing season.”
She explains that when someone becomes a certified Master Gardener, they become a resource for the community and for the Clemson Extension program. “They take what the (Clemson) agents and speakers teach and share and then they go out and put the face on it for the community. They are the boots on the ground, the people who are typically very friendly and willing to share.”
Just as you don’t pull on a plant to make it grow quickly, you don’t become a certified Master Gardener overnight either. It takes time, patience and hours of work in both the classroom and while performing mandatory volunteer hours. One aspect of the process Miller enjoyed was having the ability to do the coursework online from home. Dabbs agrees the online program is a great feature and says the whole program is akin to a college survey course involving reading materials, research and class discussions about the study of botany, entomology, soils and plant diseases.
Following the coursework, participants are then required to volunteer 40 hours with the Clemson Master Gardener office in their area. Twenty-one hours are spent in an office answering the phones and fielding questions from the public. The next 19 hours are spent doing a variety of community service projects including mentoring in schools, working at farmers markets or working at the Clemson Extension office editing materials for the public.
Miller says she enjoys working at area farmers markets and in local schools with children as part of her continuing education requirements. “To work with children…and then help them create gardens, where they own their own little plants, there’s a certain amount of pride and satisfaction they get.” She enjoys seeing children watch the transformative process of a seed becoming a thriving plant helped along with proper care, love and attention.
The same parallels are drawn by Miller while tending to her own plants and relating it to raising her family. She confesses there are endless hours of love, worry and dedication that no one sees. “You worry and fret about them like you do your own children. Will they be OK? What’s wrong? Why do they look sick?” Her current dilemma is trying to handle hungry Japanese beetles without harming the friendly bumblebees or her plants. “I just love the bees. I don’t want to hurt them.”
That work and dedication keeps Miller in the yard four to five days a week, hours at a time planting, digging and protecting. Once her work is complete, she relaxes by the pool with her husband or they invite friends and family to enjoy the benefits of her serene garden. She enjoys sharing clippings from plants, talking about her latest projects and having her guests ask advice on growing their own varieties. As a certified Master Gardener, Miller knows she has the proper tools and resources to offer the right information.
Miller and Dabbs both realize that being a gardener is often looked at as a solitary endeavor. But they recognize the irony that being a Master Gardener requires participants to stay social and help others to keep up their certification. With a multitude of luncheons, continuing education courses and volunteer activities, the Master Gardener program allows participants to connect with those who share similar gardening interests.
The program also is a great way for people to stay physically fit and well-read on a variety of topics. Laughing at the fact that she was hesitant to start the program, Miller says, “It’s actually a great hobby for retired people.”
Dabbs agrees. “Gardeners are always willing to share. Whether it’s sharing a seedling or passing on advice, the Master Gardeners Association is always welcoming and we’re willing to help pass information along. It’s a dynamic and different group of people.”