Friction among the flowers under master gardeners' new supervisor

Barbara Trueheart tends to plants in the greenhouse used by the master gardeners program. Some have taken their concerns to county freeholders.
Barbara Trueheart tends to plants in the greenhouse used by the master gardeners program. Some have taken their concerns to county freeholders. (ANGELO FICHERA / Staff)
Posted: March 25, 2014

SOUTH HARRISON It was the second day of spring, and the sun beamed into the South Harrison greenhouse as a small contingent of volunteer gardeners filed in throughout the early morning.

Sheltered from the chill, the Gloucester County master gardeners worked to the faint sound of spraying hoses and the quiet buzzing of fans.

"It cheers you up," said retired teacher Barbara Trueheart, 62, of Washington Township. Another gardener likened the county facility to Oz, a magical place where the gardeners - volunteers under Rutgers University's county cooperative extension - can always escape the bitterness outside.

But stretches of plant tables sat empty Friday morning, which gardeners say is a rarity at this time of year as volunteers usually prepare scores of plants, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs for an annual sale and expo held each Mother's Day weekend.

"By now, we would have all of this full," Trueheart said.

That sale has been canceled this year, drawing the ire of at least some of the master gardeners in a program under Rutgers' New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Its purpose is to train adults in horticulture so they can help educate and assist with programs in communities across the state.

Several members have written to county freeholders, and they reiterated their concerns at a meeting Wednesday, fearing the county group was being pushed toward derailment.

Those protesting the cancellation, among other changes, contend that their supervisor, the county agricultural agent, has implemented a number of changes in recent months with little explanation.

"Some of our program has been jeopardized," master gardener Dottie Hansbury told freeholders. "We have given to Gloucester County over 54,000 hours [of volunteer service over the years]."

Freeholder Director Robert Damminger told the group the board would work to help resolve any issues.

Gardeners typically begin planting in the greenhouse in early January, but they were not permitted to begin until the first week of March.

"It's kind of self-defeating, what's going on," said Coley Lyons, 75, of Woodbury. "We can't get the projects we're supposed to be doing."

The agricultural agent, Michelle Infante-Casella, who was the county's second agricultural agent for 18 years before assuming the primary role last year, maintains that her changes were welcomed by most of the more than 160 volunteers in the master gardener program.

"They're getting some miscommunication," Infante-Casella said of those speaking against the changes. "If they really want to find the truth, they can come right to me."

Infante-Casella, who works primarily with commercial agriculture, said she planned to hold a class to reiterate sanitation policies in the greenhouse but said poor weather was to blame for scheduling issues. Master gardeners were allowed to begin working in the greenhouse March 7.

Even so, the tension has raised questions as to the group's purpose.

Infante-Casella likened some beautification projects to the efforts of a community gardening club, saying the master gardeners needed to refocus efforts on educational components.

"It's really not a landscape service," she said. "It's never been that purpose."

Gardeners assist at a number of sites in the county, including the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Monroe Township. Infante-Casella and gardeners said the group would still plant donated flowers at the cemetery before Memorial Day weekend.

"It's more of a difference of opinion of the purpose in the master gardener program," Lyons said.

Trueheart, who taught prekindergarten and kindergarten children before retiring in 2006, maintained that educational moments can be found at every turn, noting that the group works with schoolchildren through a junior gardeners' program.

The annual expo and sale in Clayton, she said, included free seminars throughout the day on topics such as growing tomatoes, raised-bed gardening, and attracting birds. Volunteers estimated the group raised more than $4,000 last year.

Infante-Casella said the event would not be held this year because the group didn't have a clear-cut objective for fund-raising.

"That was never really clear," she said, adding that she would reconsider the event next year. She said money raised typically went to a graduation for new members each year, which would still be held.

Seeds and supplies, Infante-Casella said, are typically donated.

She said some members were taking issue with change - including a new project form requirement, an effort to better track the group's successes each year. "We weren't finding out what they were doing or what impact they were having in the community.

"We have not done a good job promoting all the wonderful things our volunteers do," she said. Infante-Casella said she was now ensuring that all money was processed through the university, rather than being kept in a separate account.

In an e-mail, Larry Katz, senior associate director of Rutgers' N.J. Agricultural Experiment Station, said: "Periodically, the faculty member in charge of the county master gardener program will make changes to realign the focus back to its core educational mission. When this happens, there is occasionally some resistance to change."

The dispute, several volunteers agreed, has disrupted what is otherwise a source of solace for gardening aficionados.

As gardeners tended to the trays in the warm greenhouse Friday, Ines Terway, a retired third-grade teacher, said the program keeps members, many of them retired, active and healthy.

She added of the change in management style: "It really didn't go over well with all the people who have already done their duty to the world - left all the politics behind."



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