JENNIFER JACKSON'S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Though small, garden big on beauty
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Mary Robson, left, and Valerie Parker cup their hands behind the small plaque with Robson's name on it in the Master Gardeners Park on Sims Way. -- Photo by Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News

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MOST PEOPLE TAKE it for granted: the small garden plot on the left, circumscribed by pavement, as you drive down the Sims Way hill into town.

In a former incarnation, it was a dahlia garden, a celebration of color in summer, a reminder of encroaching autumn, when all that remained after the blooms faded and were sheared were stems sticking out of the dirt.

Now planted with shrubs and perennials, the little plot is probably the smallest public garden in Port Townsend.

But for Mary Robson, to whom the garden was dedicated last week, the fact that it is a small place cultivated for beauty is its charm.

"I wish my mother could be here today," Robson said. "She always said 'Brighten the corner where you are.'"

The dedication, held at The Cup restaurant behind the garden, was organized by the local Washington State University Master Gardeners, who took up their trowels and started transforming the plot in fall 2005.

With the plantings coming into their own, they decided to dedicate it to Robson, a horticulturist with the WSU Extension program.

At the dedication, Mike McFadden, a local Master Gardener, read a letter from Tonie Fitzgerald, head of the state Master Gardener program.

"Your early and ongoing commitment to the WSU MG program was tireless, and helped put Master Gardeners on the map . . . or even better, on people's refrigerators as a household name," Fitzgerald wrote.

A Seattle transplant, Robson, who moved to Port Townsend in 2004, served as coordinator of the King County WSU Master Gardener program from 1987 to 1995, supervising 600 volunteers.

That number increased to 1,000 when she joined the WSU Extension horticulture faculty for King and Pierce counties.

Robson also wrote a gardening column for The Seattle Times and is the co-author of four books on gardening in Washington and Oregon.

Welcome addition

"When we heard she was moving here, a cheer went up," local Master Gardener Valerie Parker said at the dedication.

In her letter, Fitzgerald also commended Judy Johnson and the local Master Gardeners for creating the garden as the perfect tribute to Robson's career.

Johnson, a landscape designer and Master Gardener, led the volunteer effort to transform the plot from a dahlia bed into a mix of plants that would provide color and texture year-round.

The transformation was more than just aesthetic, Katherine Baril, the current WSU Extension director, pointed out.

"It went from being water- and chemical-based to one that is sustainable and conserves water," Baril said.

Jefferson County Commissioner David Sullivan called the Master Gardener program a great example of public-private partnership in which a small amount of money mobilizes a large number of community volunteers.

And two years ago, using money they raised through garden tours and plant sales, the Master Gardeners started a community grant program that has dispersed more than $14,000 to support community and school garden projects.

The grants promote economic development, feed people and allow people live on the land, Sullivan said.

Helping gardeners

"My mother, who didn't like housework, said that when you garden, you get help," Robson said.

"When you garden," she told the local Master Gardeners, "you give help."

But there was no money and no community service component when Sally Robbins, then chair of the WSU/Jefferson County Extension program, organized the first Master Gardener training in Jefferson County in 1991, with the help of Pam Rondeau, administrative assistant.

Until then, Robbins said, people had to commute to Clallam County, where they took classes from Extension agent Jack Waud.

"The Jefferson County Fair board let us use their upstairs conference room at the fairgrounds for the first class," Robbins said. "At first we could only do education. It couldn't be related to community service."

The local WSU horticulturist, Clay Antieau, taught Master Gardener classes, Rondeau said, but after he left, she always was lacking for instructors.

When she got in a bind, she would call Robson, who would come over from Seattle.

"She was my lifesaver," Rondeau said. "She would teach anything."

Jim Kropf, director of WSU Extension's Western District, attended the dedication to thank Robson for her service on behalf of the university and extension staff.

"Your curiosity and eagerness made us all better teachers," Robson said, "and made us go on even though a little piece of paper said we were retired."

Her mother's saying, "Brighten the corner where you are," epitomizes a garden by the side of the road. It is from a popular hymn, written in 1913 by Ina D. Ogdon.

Ogdon planned to be a traveling evangelist, according to the song's website, but instead, stayed home to take care of her ill father, which she saw as another way to serve God.

One line of the verse, "Here for all your talent you may surely find a need," is especially appropriate for Robson, who discovered she had a talent for growing things when she took Master Gardener training in King County in 1985.

Another line of the hymn, "Here reflect the bright and Morning Star," mirrors the garden's location, with its panoramic view of the waters of Port Townsend Bay.

Stars are also cut into the garden's wooden bench, commissioned by Carol Brannan as a memorial to her husband.

Ed Brannan, who grew up on Chesapeake Bay, was a Vietnam veteran who died at Harrison Hospital in 2004 of leukemia, the result of being exposed to defoliation chemicals during the war.

The couple lived in Port Ludlow during the seven years he was ill, traveling often to the San Juan Islands, where his ashes were scattered.

A fitting remembrance

The inscription on the bench, built by Linda Graebel, is from Sarah Williams' poem, "From the Old Astronomer."

It ends: "Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light. I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

"It's much better than a headstone in a cemetery nobody visits," Carol said of the bench.

Ed was a sailor and liked to work on his sailboat, so the view of the boat haven below is appropriate. That's where metalsmith Ray Hammar made the arbor that frames the bench.

Hammar, who started out making mobile garden sculptures, now fabricates structural pieces -- stairways, gates -- in his Sequim workshop, Blue Collar Artwork.

An evergreen clematis grows over the arbor.

Nearby, an amethyst smokebush blooms in spiky bursts, like starlight frozen in space.

But most people who drive by will never stop and see the smokebush bloom, or walk the circular gravel path to peer at the resilient plants lining it, or sit on the bench framed by the clematis and look out over the water.

Which is all right with the people who took the time to create something of beauty in a little corner of their world.

"I have a friend who says that whenever she is coming back from Seattle and sees the garden," Robson said, "she knows she is home.

The WSU Master Gardeners of Jefferson County award grants of up to $1,000 for community gardening and education projects twice a year. The fall deadline is Oct. 1.

For more information, go to http://mg.jefferson.wsu.edu.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.

Last modified: August 18. 2010 1:27AM
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