A Tale of Two Gardens

Students learn about composting from a Master Gardener volunteer.

Extension Master Gardener volunteer Wayne Huot demonstrates the importance of composting.

Research-based knowledge and creativity, plus hard work and enthusiasm, come together in county Cooperative Extension demonstration gardens throughout North Carolina. This is the tale of two of those many gardens and how they serve their communities.

Knowledge Blossoms at Brunswick Botanical Garden

Each year, 300 or more South Brunswick Middle School sixth graders descend on the beautiful Brunswick County Botanical Garden to spend a day actively exploring the science of plants. From Extension-trained Master Gardener volunteers, the students learn about plant anatomy, composting with worms, beekeeping, the importance of consuming fruits and vegetables, and much more.

In July at the International Master Gardener Conference in Portland, Oregon, the volunteers and their county horticulture agent, Sam Marshall, were honored with a Search for Excellence Award for their success with the event.

children seated at picnic tables listening to Extension Master Gardener volunteer.
Volunteer George Wong-Chong talks to Brunswick Middle School students about plant terminology before they embark on a plant scavenger hunt.

Called Hands on Horticulture, the program has taken place for four years, providing students with scientific knowledge that aligns with statewide educational goals for science and math. “We supplement what they are learning every day in their classrooms,” Marshall said. “The students have a good time, but they learn a lot about ecology and ecosystems.”

Teachers benefit as well: As one said, “Your program was better than we could have asked for. I even learned some things that I plan on using in my own classroom.”

While Hands on Horticulture is the largest youth outreach program for the 3-acre garden, it’s not the only way the botanical garden enhances the community. Brunswick County Extension also uses the garden as an outdoor classroom for teaching consumers, members of the commercial landscape industry and others.

Located at the county government complex in Bolivia, the garden includes a new edible landscape garden as well as a rain garden that demonstrates the role plants can play in managing runoff and enhancing the environment. Admission to the garden is free and open to the public every day of the year, and it is accessible to wheelchairs.

Have a passion for plants? Consider becoming an Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

Path curving through newly planted garden
The Choice Plants garden at the Johnston County Ag Center was born of a partnership among Extension, its Master Gardener volunteers and the Johnston County Nursery Association.

Garden Highlights Choice Plants in Johnston County

 A new Choice Plants garden in Smithfield gives home gardeners and landscapers a first-hand look at some of the best-of-the-best plants for the Southeastern United States.

Plants that carry the label of “Choice Plants” are underutilized or little-known plants that have been tested in trials at NC State’s JC Raulston Arboretum and are then screened by green industry representatives who help select the best.

Creating a garden to highlight these plants — including a weeping boxwood shrub, a dwarf viburnum and Chinese redbud named in honor of NC State’s late basketball coach Kay Yow — was the brainchild of horticulture agent Marshall Warren.

Not long after he joined the Johnston County Extension staff in 2015, Warren saw potential in turning a stark plot outside the county’s Ag Center into a garden that could be used to introduce the plants to consumer and commercial horticulturists.

In the Choice Plants garden, Marshall Warren and Jody Boronkay standing at a wooden structure known as the bee hotel.
Marshall Warren and Jody Boronkay beside the garden’s bee hotel, designed to attract native pollinators.

Warren thought that a garden of Choice Plants would provide him a place where he could provide hands-on educational programs for both audiences. Not only that, he envisioned that the garden could make the area a stunning backdrop for weddings and meetings that draw hundreds of people to the Ag Center’s auditorium each week.

For help establishing the garden, Warren turned to the Johnston County Nursery Association. The association has been a Choice Plants partner since the program was started in 2012, and members provided the plants for the garden – not just the Choice Plants, but also several native plants that attract pollinators.

When it came to constructing the garden, Warren offered a workshop showing landscapers and others how to install a retaining wall and pathways of concrete pavers. He also enlisted the help of his Extension Master Gardener volunteers in installing and maintaining the garden.

In addition to the plants, one of the garden’s eye-catching features is a bee hotel. The fanciful structure, also designed to attract native bees, was donated by a Master Gardener volunteer, Jody Boronkay, in memory of her aunt, who had been a Master Gardener in another state.

According to Bryant Spivey, the Johnston County Extension director, “the Choice Plants garden not only beautifies the landscape at the Johnston County Agricultural Center, it is a great educational tool with signage to educate landscapers, homeowners and others interested in ornamental plants that work well in our county and region. It is my hope that features like this draw visitors to the Ag Center to learn about improving their landscapes.”

Looking for unique plants for your landscape or garden? Check out the JC Raulston Arboretum’s Choice Plants program or visit the Choice Plants garden at the Johnston County Ag Center in Smithfield.

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