John Collette knows a lot about which plants do well - and which ones don't - in South Jersey's sandy, salty, windy beach towns and along our local bayshores.
He's the chief gardener for an 8-acre property right off the bay in Atlantic City, a historic landmark formally known as Gardner's Basin.
In spite of that green-thumb-sounding name, Gardner's Basin is much better known for being the home of the Atlantic City Aquarium, plus a few popular bars and restaurants, than it is for its gardens. But the truth is Collette and his fellow volunteers from the Atlantic County Master Gardeners program have turned the grounds into a blooming showpiece over the past five years, despite an often harsh and uncooperative environment.
And these master gardeners want to share their knowledge with other shore-area gardeners on what to plant, and what to avoid, around our local beaches and bays. To do that, they're planning Master Gardeners Day at Gardner's Basin June 15 - next Saturday - an event where they promise to focus in part on concrete examples of how plants survived Hurricane Sandy at Gardner's Basin, or how they got lost in the flood.
"People spend a lot of money" on their gardens, said Collette, an Atlantic City native who now lives in Mays Landing, but gets credit for being the first master gardener to adopt Gardner's Basin as a pet project. "And if you get the wrong stuff, you're going to lose it."
Another volunteer and master gardener, Annette DiPietrae, has compiled a seven-page list of Sandy-surviving plants around the Aquarium - complete with a numbering key to identify them by their locations on the property. She also has detailed descriptions of good places to plant the 38 (or more) types of survivors on her list, and tips on the actual planting and maintenance of those survivors.
A shorter section of the list points out plants that didn't tolerate the saltwater flooding well, including azaleas and Rinegold cypress - and a description of where to find them on the grounds, too. Other popular plants that don't enjoy the beach lifestyle, particularly baths in saltwater, include rhododendron and dogwood, the master gardeners say.
With her list, "Anyone who comes here can do a self-tour," says DiPietrae, who lives in Egg Harbor Township.
She adds that one point behind the gathering next weekend is an effort to attract more people to become master gardeners - which would translate into more volunteers for Gardner's Basin, since they work there as part of their training. Another new master-gardener crop, in the program run by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, is set to graduate Friday, following a training program that started in January.
The Basin's gardeners have plenty to keep them busy right on the grounds.
"Last year, we planted 1,600 bulbs - tulips, hyacinths and daffodils," DiPietrae says, but they also all do research when they get their hands out of the dirt. Knowledge is key, and knowledge has a way of growing more knowledge.
"Gardening is like medicine, or the law - it's so vast, you really have to specialize," Collette says. "My specialty is plants that grow in a seashore environment."
They include a shore classic - hydrangeas, which happen to be the very first item on the list of plants around the Aquarium.
"These are all hydrangeas, and they were all under saltwater," Collette says, leading a brief stroll around the grounds. "Now they're all doing great. ... And these irises were all under water."
They look healthy too. Then there are the lilacs - "Lilacs love this environment," Collette goes on. "They can't get enough of it."
And the people at Gardner's Basin can't get enough of their master gardeners. Jack Keith, the executive director, says their dedication amazes him.
"You would need hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the manpower they bring here," he says, standing out by one of their gardens. "And you could never replace the love."
He sees Collette and other volunteers there almost every morning, watering and doing more chores.
"And if the sprinkler system goes down," Keith says, "they're hauling buckets around."
The city-owned property does get attended by city workers, and they have access to heavy equipment when it's needed for big projects - all of which is a huge help, Keith acknowledges.
"But if you have 8 acres and just a handful of workers, you can't give it that TLC," he says.
The master gardeners give so much time and effort, there's talk of building them a greenhouse on the Gardner's Basin grounds, Keith adds.
And those gardeners enjoy helping out at this Atlantic City tourist attraction. Then again, they enjoy helping out, period. One service they offer is "ask a master gardener" - people can call or email in questions, and the master gardeners will do the research it takes to answer them. It's all volunteer, of course, and as part of their training, all master gardeners have to devote at least 40 hours in their 85 hours of training to tracking down answers to whatever questions come in.
But their Saturday session at Gardner's Basin will be different. The questions and answers won't be online or on the phone. They'll be face to face - and face to flower, or whatever other plants the amateur gardeners of the local world are curious about.
"We're going to actually show them what happened," Collette promises, waving an arm at another group of Sandy survivors. "This is living proof. It's not like reading a book."
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