Masters of the Garden

Three passionate, certified Master Gardeners tell their stories and share gardening tips. Plus: Think you have what it takes to become a Master Gardener? Find out where to go and what you need to do.

It is not unusual for Renée Richeson to find admirers in her front garden. Although she may not know them, she almost always sends them away with a plant of their choosing. Sharing her expansive beds with the public is a core part of her gardening ideology.

Marilyn Waisanen was determined to install a new rose garden in the front beds of her Swiss Avenue home. However, because of the historical designation of her neighborhood, she needed documentation to prove that a rose garden was originally intended for the plot. After scouring numerous records from the early 1900s, she put together a presentation for the landmark commission authenticating the height and size of every proposed bush.

This type of effort is all in a day’s work for Dallas County Master Gardeners.

Graduates of a rich educational program designed to train community volunteers in the finer points of local horticulture, Master Gardeners are retired doctors, lawyers, executives, and everything in between. Some have nourished a penchant for gardening since childhood and have already dedicated substantial portions of their lives to cultivating plant life. All embrace the desire to expand their immersion in the beauty of tillage, be it through designing butterfly gardens, harvesting squash and beans, or simply growing a breathtaking rose.

The roster is long, as Dallas is a mecca for Master Gardeners. There are more than 350 members in the local chapter. The course isn’t intended for fair-weather dabblers, instead turning out gardeners with the commanding ability to optimize a wide variety of landscape conditions and bring vitality to our native and adapted plants. The program also pushes Dallas’ overall horticultural needle forward by tying mandatory volunteer commitment to certification. The training credo is simple: We are teaching you to be better stewards of the earth. And as such, Master Gardeners are encouraged to promote and provide gardening edification throughout the community. It is a mission so compelling, classroom space has expanded and gardening projects flourish throughout the city. Undertakings span multi-purpose community plots, nonprofit shelters, and school programs in districts with special challenges.

Dallas Master Gardener Program Details

An offshoot of a national program, local Master Gardener certification is offered through Texas Cooperative Extension-Dallas County. Classes are instructed by Texas Cooperative Extension staff, specialists from Texas A&M University, and experts from across the state. Training includes specialized courses on lawn care, garden flowers, trees and shrubs, vegetable gardening, home fruit production, water conservation, and insect, disease, and weed management. The class meets 12 full days, scheduled throughout approximately three months. Rigorous home study and hands-on fieldwork are required, as is passing a comprehensive examination. A minimum of 72 hours of educational community service within the first year is also mandatory.

For more information, call the Dallas County Master Gardener help desk at

photography by Dave Shafer

Pot Luck
Belinda Stuart, Dallas County Master Gardener class of 2005, believes that container gardening is a way to add color, beauty, and life to small areas. Because the eye naturally travels to focal points such as front steps, side porches, poolside patios, and even balconies, these spots should be especially pleasing. Her knack for arranging striking containers initially caught the attention of members of the Junior Charity League, to whom she made many donations. “All of a sudden I started getting calls from people asking me what to do when the plants die,” she says. Shortly after showing a few how to replant and manage their containers, her reputation took off. Today, she designs, produces, and manages seasonal color in containers for a number of clients. Raised in Hope, Ark., Stuart grew up working in the dirt (digging potatoes, actually) and credits her love of gardening to both her immediate family as well as the one she married into. It was the year she spent renovating the beds and gardens at her in-laws’ farmhouse in France that cemented her devotion.

“I had to become a Master Gardener to keep up with all the questions my friends ask,” she explains. “The program is an endless source of information and inspiration.”

Stuart’s Tips for Beautiful Potted Gardens

• The best pots to use are ceramic. Plastic and lightweight pots that look like terra cotta dry out too easily. Terra cotta holds in more moisture, but it may chip and break over time.
• Understand the difference between sun and shade plants, and watch for changing patterns in light. Most plants do well with consistent light, but over the seasons, the amount of daylight fluctuates.
• Use an irrigation line that is connected to your sprinkler head to automatically water your pots. You can run as many as eight connectors on a sprinkler head, so you may run that many small lines into your pots. Ask your local garden center about irrigation lines.
• Plant spring containers in the fall. Use a variety of bulbs and establish greenery. Try using plants that will make it through the winter and look prettier in the spring, such as kale, cabbage, snapdragons, dianthus, violas, and pansies.
• During cold snaps, do not use pillowcases and sheets to cover containers. These may absorb moisture, become heavy, and damage plants. Most nurseries and gardening shops sell material that breathes well and is safe to use.

photography by Dave Shafer

Survival of the Fittest

One Monday, Renée Richeson quit her job at Neiman Marcus. The next day she started plans to put 101 plants in the yard of her Lakewood home. That was 13 years ago. Looking back, she feels that leaving her office job was the best decision she ever made. Becoming a certified Master Gardener accelerated this course, boosting her ability to conquer newfound outdoor challenges.

A firm believer in water conservation and Xeriscape design, Richeson prefers hardy plants that thrive naturally in the Dallas climate. “I’m a little Darwinian,” she says. “I don’t coddle any of my plants. They need to be able to survive on their own.” One of her prize creations, an enormous century plant, is an extraordinary cactus (pictured right) that blooms only once after 10 or so years in the ground before expiring. Richeson received the baby cactus from her parents years ago and deposited it in a box on her back step for several months. The cactus graduated to a prime space in the front yard after Richeson observed its tenacity. Today, the century cactus stands nearly 20 feet tall, poised to deliver its swan song.

Cactus, horsetails, bamboo, rosemary, native grasses, rocks, and cast-iron sculptures fill most of her three-lot yard. In addition to the hardscape and water-wise plants, Richeson has created eight raised beds for fruits and vegetables, much of which she contributes to an annual plant sale supporting the Multiple Career Magnet Center, a DISD special needs school. “A garden is an excuse to share,” says Richeson, who has volunteered in the school garden every week for the past eight years.

Richeson’s Water Conservation Tips

• Work with native plants. They are always the hardiest and require the least water. Native grasses can be beautiful accents in a yard. Consider Mexican feather along borders and beds.
• You cannot over mulch. Proper mulching helps keep soil moist and cooler in the summer heat. I use approximately 500 bags a season in my yard.
• Consider hardscape as part of your overall landscape design. Use stones and boulders in and around beds. A lawn doesn’t need to be all grass.
• When you need a change, move things around in your yard. Sometimes just rearranging your plants provides a new look.
• Share your plants with others. When people compliment you on your garden, offer then a small plant. It is a great way to get them started.

photography by Dave Shafer

Harvesting Homemade Pies

Marilyn Waisanen is cajoling her apple trees to bend and grow over the arbor in her backyard. Much of the large garden, including the apple and peach trees, was already established when she and her husband acquired the historic Swiss Avenue home three years ago, yet she stays very busy finessing the old and adding some new. Noting that there is just so much pruning and training that can be done in a season (without stressing the trees), she remains determined to train the tree to grow flat over the frame. In the meantime, she is enjoying the plentiful produce. “It is so rewarding to pick your own fruit,” says Waisanen, a Master Gardener certified in two states. “Everyone loves the pies I make, and I am not that good of a baker. It’s the fresh apples and peaches that make them so great.” Nine apple and three peach trees grow amidst other fruits, vegetables, and an extensive array of flowers, including bountiful azaleas and a new rose garden. Waisanen spends at least two hours a day weeding and tweaking, using primarily organic means to tend to her garden. “I have always loved gardening but had little time…then we built a new house with about an acre of landscape, and I wanted to do it myself, so I enrolled in the Master Gardener program,” she says. The rest is history.

Waisanen’s Fruit Tree Growing Tips

• Choose a site that gets at least six hours of sunlight, has good drainage, and has enough space so that the trees will have good air circulation when they mature.
• Get a soil test before planting and make recommended adjustments. Typically, our soil is too dense. Blend expanded shale and compost with native soil.
• Always trim and prune in February and March. Summer pruning increases the chances of bug infestation and disease.
• Don’t let young trees overproduce fruit, or they will become stressed and underproduce in the future. The first year, don’t allow more than three pieces of fruit to a branch, spaced about 6 inches apart. The second year, the tree should handle 10 to 15 pieces per branch. After that, unless the branches become weighted down, let them produce naturally.
• The best way to avoid disease and pests is to plant a disease-resistant tree and encourage beneficial insects by using pesticides and fungicides sparingly.
For more information, check and choose the tab on fruit and nut resources.


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