By Mason W. Canales
Killeen Daily Herald
The sun hadn't been up long Wednesday when a huge mound of soil outside the Bell County Annex, which houses the Texas AgriLife Extension office, started to dissipate.
Barb Frey, a Master Gardener in training, transported the soil from the earthen heap to several box gardens with a shovel and wheelbarrows. Once in the boxes, Master Gardener Donald Wyatt, already covered in sweat from the Texas heat, mixed the fresh soil with a tiller machine.
"This is his second home," Frey said about Wyatt while tipping over the wheelbarrow.
"I can't garden at home," Wyatt said, whiping sweat from his head. "I have too much shade, so this gives me an outlet to garden and experiment."
The two sets of able hands turned into many after the sun rose to its 8 a.m. position as about 20 of the nearly 150 Bell County Master Gardeners helped with garden work Wednesday.
But for all 150 Master Gardeners, the title means more than digging in dirt and watching plants grow in their care. It is an organization of learning, teaching, fellowship and, most importantly, volunteering.
"The name is a kind of misleading in a way," said Mel Myers, a Bell County Master Gardener. "It is a group that loves to garden. We study plants, flowers, vegetables or whatever ... but actually it is a volunteer organization."
Above and beyond
Master Gardeners must volunteer at least 50 hours a year through education or outreach programs on gardening, Myers said, but most work way beyond the requirement.
The halls outside the AgriLife Extension office in Belton are lined with at least 20 plaques showing members who volunteered hundreds of hours each.
The volunteering programs are all different and everyone manages their own, Myers said.
"We don't know what all we are doing unless we are out here talking about it," Myers said.
The Bell County Master Gardeners help operate programs with Keep Temple Beautiful, the Junior Master Gardeners and the Killeen Municipal Court Community Gardens.
The Killeen Community Gardens were started in October 2008 behind the Killeen Civic and Conference Center, Master Gardener Beverly Wickersham said. It was created by former city judge Barbara Weaver to give children an opportunity to participate in community services instead of paying ticket fines.
Wickersham is one of many Killeen area Master Gardeners who helps operate the community garden.
It is the Master Gardener's role to help educate these children on how to maintain and construct the garden, Wickersham said.
A handful of gardeners spend a portion of their Saturdays educating about 22 children.
The process has led to building box gardens for seasonal plants and harvesting crops of vegetables, Wickersham said. The gardeners also taught children about rainwater harvesting, EarthKind plants, mulching and more.
"The farm area takes the most effort and time," Wickersham said. "This was the original idea, to raise crops and then harvest that and take it to the various food care centers in the Killeen/Harker Heights area. ... We have delivered in excess of 1,000 pounds of produce this year."
While the children are only required to work in the gardens for about three hours Saturdays, the gardeners work at the community garden about three times a week for about five hours day.
Master Gardener Ursala Nanna of Harker Heights also helps educate the children working at the Killeen courts.
"I am a Master Gardener because I am a pioneer at heart, and because we have reached past the point of taking from Mother Nature and it is time to give back," Nanna said.
That is why Nanna helps with the municipal garden, but it her desire for knowledge that made her yard earn four certifications from the state.
Her yard is a Monarch Butterfly Waystation, a Best of Texas recognition, a Wildlife Habitat and an Agriculture Demonstration and Applied Research project site.
The yard includes all Texas native or adaptive plants that are very draught tolerant, several desert and cactus gardens, rain water ponds, and a rainwater-collection system that can harvest more than 12,000 gallons of water.
"If (the plants) can't take whatever Texas doles out, they are not in this yard," Nanna said.
She waters her plants once every two weeks with the harvested rainwater. She composts her own soil, cultivates her own plants, does a major trimming about twice a year, regularly wanders through her garden to see what is surviving and what is not, but mostly just watches her garden as a backdrop to her house.
"On a daily basis, I mostly just enjoy the garden," Nanna said.
She spends more time watching the wildlife it brings in than maintaining the plants.
She has been able to accomplish lots with little effort, because she follows the seven principles of being EarthKind: a water conservation design, restricted use of lawn grass, use of draught-tolerant or water-efficient plants, water harvesting techniques, appropriate irrigation methods, use of mulch and proper maintenance practices.
She admitted not all masters think the garden she helped create is beautiful, but that is what makes the Master Gardeners a great organization.
"There is a lot of little facets that are there for everyone, such as herb gardeners," Nanna said. "Each person's likes are different, what attracts one group doesn't the other group, and that is what makes us so diverse."
Contact Mason W. Canales at email@example.com or (254) 501-7554. Follow him on Twitter at KDHheights.