2015Story By Kate Smith
Photography By Ethan Sigmon
Beyond the unassuming brick walls of Brunswick County’s Bolivia Government Complex lies one of the county’s best-kept secrets: a beautiful botanical garden. A verdant oasis among an expanse of brick, concrete and asphalt, the Brunswick County Center for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and its unique botanical garden has been an invaluable resource for residents for the past nine years. The center’s knowledgeable staff members hold educational seminars for commercial and residential gardening using research-based information generated at North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University.
The botanical garden began as a study garden in 1996 and was also used by the Cooperative Extension’s master gardeners and members of the local 4-H for educational purposes. As the garden expanded over the years, the center’s staff had the idea to use the garden as an outdoor classroom. Staff members, including Commercial and Consumer Horticultural Agent Sam Marshall and Horticulture Program Assistant Michelle Spencer, utilize the garden for programs such as pruning workshops and classes for farmers to teach them about new varieties of fruits and vegetables.
Marshall and Spencer lead me on a tour of the garden and Cooperative Extension grounds, pointing out some of the features like the rain garden, which is planted in a depression parallel to a nearby roadway. The small garden is populated with water-loving plants that help reduce rain runoff by allowing water to absorb in to the ground. Rain gardens, Marshall explains, are perfect for low-lying areas, help with soil erosion and improve soil quality by filtering street runoff.
Resting against the outside wall of the center’s building are a number of wood logs that will be used for an upcoming class on shiitake mushroom growing. The center introduced the class last year and received an overwhelming response.
“We had close to 60 participants, which for a free workshop is pretty incredible,” says Marshall. Last year’s class was designed to incentivize commercial production of the mushrooms; this year’s sold-out class is tailored exclusively for home gardeners.
Eight rectangular raised beds cover the grassy area next to botanical garden. These will be used for the upcoming vegetable-growing classes. The produce grown here will be used for canning classes and programs to educate the public on how to prepare fresh vegetables. Marshall and his colleague Morgan McKnight work to integrate horticultural classes with some of the Cooperative Extension’s family and consumer sciences programs.
“We are trying to better educate people about how to prepare fresh foods and how that is part of a healthier lifestyle,” says Marshall.
One of the Cooperative Extension’s educational missions is to provide information that makes gardening accessible to everyone. Spencer points out a raised “ability garden” on a nearby paved walkway. The structure is elevated so that someone who is confined to a wheelchair can comfortably reach the bed, and the entire garden is accessible from three sides so that all parts can be reached.
Choosing plants that thrive in southeastern North Carolina can be difficult for new residents. With Brunswick County growing so rapidly, the Cooperative Extension staff is thinking of instituting a newcomer’s day in which new residents will be encouraged to visit the botanical garden. Master gardeners could offer a tour and point out the different types of plants and explain why they work in this area. All of the plants in the garden are at mature height, so new residents could see first hand what a particular plant would look like in their home garden.
Beyond the botanical garden and its hands-on learning environment, the staff at the Cooperative Extension provides other services to local residents. They assist farmers and the public with their gardening and agricultural needs, whether that is through soil testing or identifying a particular pest that is plaguing a garden. Their goal is to help promote a larger understanding of ecosystems and the interaction plants have with the surrounding environment.
“We have residents who come to us with a wide range of problems,” says Marshall. “People bring in all kinds of crazy stuff to this office.”
He tells a story about how he helped a man who was struggling with a bagworm infestation by suggesting that he plant flowers from the aster family because these plants attract a parasitic fly that helps with controlling bagworm populations. “The interaction plants have with everything else is what I try to teach people,” says Marshall. “Landscaping should really be diverse and should have some sort of function.”
In addition to the farmer and consumer classes, the center offers pesticide-training classes for commercial landscapers. These classes focus on the responsible use of pesticides and address other questions landscapers may have regarding lawn and garden maintenance.
“We handle a lot of questions about weeds,” says Marshall. “We do our best to educate people about the products that are available and how to treat, and when to treat.”
Marshall and his colleagues periodically hold off-site programs to promote the work of the Cooperative Extension beyond the Bolivia location. This spring they are offering a series of “Backyard Naturalist” courses that will be held over the course of 12 weeks on Thursday evenings at the Wilmington Brewing Company. Through these, the staff hopes to reach a new demographic of residents who are not able to attend some of the center’s weekday workshops.
The series of classes also will include family-friendly field trips every other Saturday.
“We’re trying to teach people about the concepts of ecology in their own backyard,” says Marshall. “So, you learn about plants, but you also learn about the interaction plants have with insects and animals and, like with the rain garden, the interaction plants have with the environment. We want to promote environmental stewardship and show how you can do your own part in your own backyard.”