Virgina Shoemaker: A Master Gardener

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL

When Morenci resident Virginia Shoemaker stepped into her flower garden during a sunny afternoon last week, she didn’t like what she saw.

“Just look at them,” she said, motioning to the dozens of Japanese beetles munching on her passion vines. “I spray them with the hose in the morning, but they don’t stay gone for long.”

She gave one of the plants a shake to jar the pests loose, then turned to inspect another specimen.virginia

Hovering not five inches from Virginia’s face was a massive bumblebee, easily the size of her thumb. In an instant, she forgot her irritation with beetles.

“Missy wouldn’t hurt you. No, she wouldn’t,” she said to the bee, delighted. After the pollinator flew away, she added, “I’ve learned that if I don’t bother them, they won’t bother me.”

Virginia has accumulated mountains of knowledge about gardening during her lifelong pursuit of the hobby. A member of the Morenci Garden Club for nearly a half-century, she has also authored a gardening column in the Observer since the 1980s.

But there’s always more to know about the craft—Virginia learned this during the 52 hours of instruction she received on the way to earning a Master Gardener’s certificate from the Michigan State Extension earlier this year.

At 79, she reckons she might be the oldest person ever to complete the program.

Every Thursday morning beginning in January, Virginia and Morenci resident Carol Van Havel carpooled to Hidden Lake Gardens, where they attended classes spanning subjects from plant science to pest management, from lawn care to indoor plants.

Carol, who is also a lifelong gardener, read about the class in a newspaper and brought the idea of attending to Virginia. While Carol is always keen on taking courses on hobbies and crafts that interest her, Virginia had a different motive.

“I just wanted to know what I didn’t know,” she said.

“She’s forgotten more than you can teach most people,” Carol joked.

Virginia estimated that most enrollees were in their 40s and 50s, but said her advanced age didn’t pose any obstacles to her learning the material.

“You can always learn. There’s always something new to learn. It’s too bad my physical body doesn’t keep up with that,” she said.

The 30-mile car rides got tiresome toward the end of the 13-week curriculum.

“Let’s be frank,” Virginia said, “by the time it was over, I was quite grateful.”

However, her work as an aspiring master gardener still wasn’t complete—students also have to volunteer for 20 hours of service at Hidden Lake Gardens, and an additional 20 hours outside of the facility.

Instructors credited Virginia with half of that time for writing her column, “The Gardener’s Grapevine.” She completed the rest of the requirement by donating cards she made of pressed flowers to Hidden Lake Gardens.

Carol completed her 20 hours by planting gardens at Morenci United Methodist Church and the church parsonage. She still has the Hidden Lake Gardens work ahead of her.

The Michigan State Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteer Program was formed in 1978 to create trained gardeners who can educate their community through volunteer activities. More than 23,000 Michigan residents have earned the designation.

Interacting with the other students was a valuable learning experience Carol said.

“Really you learn a lot from each other as well as the instructor,” she said. Good gardeners are also self-taught.

Every year, Carol experiments with a new plant. This year, it’s Big Mama lima beans—their vines have taken over the clothesline near her backyard garden.

Completing the program has given Virginia a sense of accomplishment. She loves learning new things.

“If I lived over in Adrian, I would take a few college courses in constructive English, creative writing and ancient history.”

Meanwhile, as Voltaire said, there’s always work in the garden—Virginia has been cultivating the patch of land behind her home for nearly 60 years.

She still likes to clock as many hours as possible of morning work when it’s not too hot out, but relies on her daughters and sons-in-law for help with the heavy work.

“My gardening is my life,” she said.

– August 23, 2006 
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