By Caroline Richardson
Program Assistant, NC State Extension Master Gardener Program
Extension Master Gardener volunteers (EMGVs) of Henderson County have provided both a beautiful destination and a resource for horticultural information on the grounds of the Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
“It all began in 2008 with a request from the playhouse,” recalled Tamsin Allpress, Extension Master Gardener volunteer. “They wanted to add some seasonal color with annuals. At the time, the grounds of the playhouse were in need of some tender, loving care.”
It didn’t take long for the playhouse’s board of directors to appreciate the talents of the EMGVs and ask for more of their help. Over a decade later, thanks to the dedication, cooperation and hard work of EMGVs, the garden draws visitors year-round and showcases plants that grow particularly well in the western part of the state.
Today the garden boasts over 200 species of plants and is organized into 62 distinct beds. As the garden expanded and matured, a challenge presented itself.
“More and more visitors to the playhouse had questions about the plants and tried asking the playhouse box office staff,” said Allpress. The growing demand for plant information led EMGVs to put together a plant list booklet that playhouse staff could refer to when questions arose. Although helpful, it didn’t address the many people who spent time in the garden when the playhouse wasn’t open.
EMGVs decided to invest in QR, or Quick Response, code labels which, when scanned by a smartphone, open a link to a webpage. Although most gardens use QR codes for each individual plant, the playhouse garden and EMGVs chose to use one QR code per bed to create a virtual representation of the garden. When a QR code is scanned, visitors are brought to a website that features photos of the bed. By seeing a photo of the plant located in the actual bed where it is planted, visitors can learn the name of the plant, while also discovering other plants.
The photos are taken by EMGVs themselves, most using a cell phone camera. They are uploaded to the website, where the EMGVs enter plant names and the date the photo was taken. Photographs show the plant’s features as it changes over the course of the year.
“EMGVs are continuing to add photos to the website. If a plant is added or removed from the garden, EMGVs can upload a current photo and update the website,” Allpress said.
Recently Allpress learned that the garden is even reaching communities on the other side of the globe. While in the garden one day, she met a woman who had just finished teaching an English class (via Zoom) to children in Wuhan, China. Due to COVID-19, the children have been in lockdown for five months and not permitted to leave their apartment building.
“The teacher gave the students a virtual tour of the garden. She described the trees and flowers and was even able to show them the thick, spongy moss in our moss garden. It’s fascinating to think our gardens have reached all the way to China!” Allpress shared.
Garden maintenance is a weekly endeavor and a team effort. As a side benefit, EMGVs have found that the playhouse garden provides them a recruitment and training ground. Newly certified Master Gardener volunteers are able to work alongside more experienced volunteers. And often friends who are not Master Gardener volunteers join the workdays. This extends the reach of the Extension Master Gardener program by introducing others to the resources NC State Extension offers.
“After a while of working in the gardens with us, several folks have decided to apply to the Extension Master Gardener program,” Allpress said.
While performances at the Flat Rock Playhouse have been cancelled for the season due to COVID-19, the gardens surrounding the building continue to soothe, inspire and refresh visitors. The Extension Master Gardener volunteers of Henderson County have given the community a gift that keeps on giving, especially during difficult times.
Many thanks to project volunteers Mary Smith, Georgia Bonesteel, Barbara Dubroff, Georgina Winslow, Pam Tiles, Sharon Cafferty, Ron Rich, Jack Rhichard, Herb Humphries, Ann Booth, Ann Renner, Christina Shaffer, Kathey Smith, Ellen Bernstein, Catharin McCarthy, Liz McCormick, Barbara Witt, Joe Robustelli, Greg Massey, Beth Rountree and Tamsin Allpress for sharing their gardening knowledge and skills with those who visit the Flat Rock Playhouse.
To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener program in Henderson County, contact Steve Pettis, N.C. Cooperative Extension horticulture agent, at 828-697-4891.
About the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Program
NC State Extension Master Gardener volunteers connect people to horticulture through science-based education and outreach that empowers North Carolinians to cultivate healthy plants, landscapes, ecosystems, and communities. To learn more about the NC State Extension Master Gardener program in your community, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension center.