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From the Ground Up

master gardener Laura DePrado first approached Rutgers Cooperative Extension horticultural consultants Rebecca Magron and Joe Gyurian with the idea of helping the residents of Anderson House learn about gardening, she had a general of idea of what she wanted to take place:

A few tomatoes, some education, a little life change – and a whole slew of smiles for the women who are recovering from substance abuse and other personal issues at the halfway house in Whitehouse Station, But two years and two phases later, DePrado cannot believe her eyes when she looks out at the vegetable and herb garden house residents built and now maintain alongside her fellow master gardener volunteers.

“It’s such a huge success,” said DePrado, walking through the carefully plotted square featuring multiple varieties of flowers, tomatoes, green and red peppers, squash, pumpkins, eggplant, peas and more. “And the program is still evolving. When we came here in 2009 for the first time, there were no goals behind education and horticulture. It’s amazing to see how far these women have come.”

DePrado is referring to the house residents, not her team of 17 master, but she might as well be.

Without the knowledge, time and dedication of people such as Joan Hoffman, Gay Orfe and Bobbi Godleski, the 18-week project that began in February and ended in July never would have grown out of the ground.

“It was exciting to see the thrill on their faces,” said Orfe, a Hunterdon County master gardener for the past four years. “They started out by saying, “I don’t know how to do this,’ to actually doing this. Residents were out there doing it themselves with measuring tapes and rakes and hoes, and they were really learning. They really took ownership of it.”

Side by side

The goal of the second phase of the project – the first phase was a garden courtyard on the right side of the house that was completed in 2009 – was to create, design, build and maintain a garden.

The 17 master gardeners rolled up their sleeves with 25 to 30 residents over the duration of the project, and the garden has netted so much fruit – and vegetables – that the house’s kitchen counter is a cluttered horticultural mess.

That’s music to the ears of Magron and Gyurian, who have a greater love for all things green (and red, orange and yellow, too) than most people.

“It was a joy to work with all of the master gardeners and the residents and the staff of Anderson House,” said Magron, who works in Hunterdon County. “This is the only program we have that is in this type of environment.”

“It’s interesting that we can provide the science and the horticultural background, but it takes real special people to take that and deliver that to various community groups,” said Gyurian, who represents Somerset County. “Camaraderie and personal relationships develop, and it becomes something even more. I think all of the master gardeners got more than they ever thought they would get.”

Ongoing process

The master gardeners and residents continue to work together on maintaining the garden, which should be active well into October. On Sept. 20, the master gardeners helped the residents arrange some flowers for the graduation of Sarah, who had completed her stay at Anderson House.

They harvested flowers, peppers and other edibles, and joined together to create a series of decorated seed pots.

“It was an absolutely fantastic experience,” Godleski said. “It was gratifying that they became gardeners and became interested. They started to really enjoy the process.”

During the same maintenance session, another resident, Grace, was so proud of what she had grown that she loaded up her shirt with tomatoes and peppers to show everyone else.

Grace graduates from the house in November, but DePrado hopes that legacy will continue well on into the future. She has a few ideas she would like to kick around with Magron, Gyurian and the staff at Anderson House, but plans probably will not be laid out until November or December.

“The beautiful part about the program is everything mirrors life. Residents and master gardeners have fears, lack of self-confidence, life issues and setbacks,” said DePrado, who recently received the Linda M. Ciccantelli Scholarship – given to someone demonstrating excellence in the study of horticultural therapy – from the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network. “We can all identify with something no matter what we are doing. That is what this program is about.”

Orfe and the other master gardeners hope it sticks around, too.

“We have 12 phases to do and we have only done two,” she said, laughing and referring to the popular 12-step process many recovering substance abusers go through. “We have to do another phase.”

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