A group of gardening volunteers has ventured into local history, linking local towns' fates with their soil and plants.

The result is the 40-page Atlantic County Master Gardener Association Calendar: Historical and Horticultural Highlights of Atlantic County, N.J. It took the volunteers a year to complete, and expanded on their usual work of answering gardening questions on the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County help line, and designing and planting public gardens.

"It's a book. That's what I tell everybody," said past Atlantic County Master Gardener Association past President Grace Wagner, 73, of Northfield, who led the effort.

The calendar is being distributed free as a way to promote gardening, local history and the Master Gardener program, said Atlantic County horticulturist Mona Bawgus, who runs the Master Gardener program for the county and for Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

The Master Gardener group is made up of people with varied backgrounds and talents, and they were used to their fullest.

"Seriously, without Mary and Nancy, I couldn't have done that job," said Wagner. She was speaking of certified Master Gardeners Mary McDermott, 54 of Mays Landing, a writer; and Nancy Jansen, of Northfield, a graphic designer. The group even has a professional printer in John Drexel, of Galloway Township.

Wagner said about 15 Master Gardener volunteers contributed to the calendar, by researching, writing and finding historical photos. Wagner couldn't even begin to estimate how many hours she and about a 14 other volunteers have put into it over the past year, she said. But Jansen probably put the most time in, since she had to take the information compiled by others, and create a beautiful product.

The 16-month calendar runs from January 2013 through April 2014. Master Gardeners profiled the history of 16 Atlantic County towns, with information about a plant important to each. Current community garden projects in Atlantic City, Galloway Township and other places, are also described.

"We tried to bring out the historical uniqueness of the area, based on the environment we live in," Bawgus said, citing how cedars growing around Egg Harbor City leached tannins into streams there. When some duck hunters found the cedar water rejuvenating, one opened a large spa in the downtown in 1900. Its remnants are still visible in the serpentine wading pools behind the municipal building, and in the 16-sided "vapor" bathhouse, now the Egg Harbor Historical Society's Roundhouse Museum.

The calendar opens in January 2013 with a description by McDermott of how shipbuilding was a dominant industry in 19th Century Mays Landing, largely because of the pitch pine, local oaks and red cedar that grew there. In Hammonton, sandy and acidic soil made the blueberry industry possible, as described by volunteer Sandy Templeton, of Hammonton, in the May 2013 entry.

It includes month-by-month garden tips, and reminders about important dates, like the Little Gardens Club of Atlantic City tour in July, and the 4-H Fair in August.

Wagner came up with the idea after seeing a gardening-only calendar put out by another Master Gardener group.

"It kind of grew from what I originally had in mind, which was just a basic garden calendar with photos of beautiful flowers, birds, a normal run-of-the-mill garden type," Wagner said. But the need for funding for the project meant expanding into local history as well.

The Atlantic County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs has provided $1,200. The Atlantic County Historical Society, and the Little Gardens Club, provided smaller amounts, and some support also came from Atlantic County, Rutgers University and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County.

"I think it's very well done," said Cindy Mason Purdie, administrator for the Atlantic County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs. "The funding we put towards it comes from the New Jersey Historical Commission, and one of their focuses is to introduce more people to New Jersey history. This is a unique method of doing that."

There is also a fact sheet on soil testing in the back of the calendar. Master Gardeners will tell you, it remains important to find out what kind of soil you have before you plant.

The group is seeking new members. It's next 20-week training starts 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Jan. 8 and runs Tuesdays through May 28. Call Bawgus at 609-625-0056.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

Free calendar

The Atlantic County Master Gardener Association Calendar will be distributed through Atlantic County libraries, museums and historical societies; garden clubs and nurseries, or can be picked up starting in mid-December at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing. Call 609-625-0056 for information.