Master Gardeners put a number on volunteer work for the county

Master Gardener Cecil Hightower

They’re doing more than watching their garden grow. The Jefferson County Master Gardeners were honored Monday, June 3, at Jefferson County Commissioners Court for contributing 7,225 volunteer hours to the county in 2012. As a sign of their hard work, the organization presented the court with a mock check for $157,432.75, an estimate of what it would have cost Jefferson County if it would have had to pay for labor at $21.79 an hour.

“We do this out of the goodness of our heart. You can’t put a price on things you do from the heart, but we did just that with the check,” said Cecil Hightower, chairman of the garden for Jefferson County Master Gardeners. “We thought it would be fun to put a price on that to see what this time that we volunteered in 2012 would have amounted to.”

May 18, the organization helped to prepare Veterans Memorial Park in Port Arthur for Memorial Day services by planting flowers and cleaning up areas of the park. This was only one example of volunteerism by a program that provides home horticulture training to individuals who then give back to their communities by creating gardens, educating the public and doing research.

“We all just took a bed and worked ‘em and weeded ‘em and planted fresh flowers,” Hightower said. “They had a great ceremony that day. They gave us an award for helping.”

At the June 3 Commissioners Court meeting, each commissioner was presented with a plant from the organization’s test garden near the Jerry Ware terminal at the Jack Brooks Regional Airport on Jerry Ware Drive.

The garden, which was opened in 1991 by Vince Mannino, then Jefferson County Extension agent, is supported by both Jefferson County and Texas A&M University and is open to the public. 

When visiting the garden one will notice a wide variety of herbs including lemon thyme, rose geranium — an herb that has a scent one might expect in a fancy perfume — lemongrass, rosemary and oregano.

“Texas beds” contain plants and flowers exclusively native to Texas including bluebonnets, which flourish in the spring according to Hightower. This bed also features a memorial commemorating Jefferson County Master Gardeners who have passed away.

Hightower said the organization donates vegetables from the garden to local food banks. Vegetable beds include squash, okra, string beans, cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes.

“The heirlooms are years and years old,” he said. “People save seeds from generations back.”

Hightower recounted the interesting origin of another tomato plant in the garden — the Box Car Willie.

“A guy in 1929 during the Depression started this strain of tomatoes,” he said. “The reason they called it that is because the size fits perfect in packing boxes and they were able to ship ‘em.”

Beautiful rose beds line the garden, as well as lines of muscadine grapes, which give the site the look of an old-style vineyard.

“Table grapes don’t grow well in our region of Texas, but the muscadines do,” Hightower said. “It’s a native of Southeast Texas, and we have nine varieties here — everything from red to white. They’re very sweet; they’re seedy, but very good. They make tremendous jelly. Some of our ladies (in the organization) offer a jelly-making class each year.”

Hightower said muscadines have an extra chromosome that gives them super anti-oxidant potential and anti-cancer properties.

The garden uses little to no pesticide, but occasionally a little Sevin dust is needed to combat worm problems, he said.

In the garden, Peggy Martin Roses also flourish — a flower most famous for surviving 20 feet of salt water over the garden of Mrs. Peggy Martin in Plaquemines Parish, La., after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The fruit that Hightower said he is most anxiously awaiting to harvest, however, is the red grapefruit.

“I can’t wait for the grapefruit because I just saw a recipe for grapefruit jalapeno margarita,” he said. “It’s grapefruit juice, lime juice … you slice a couple of jalapenos in it and let it sit for a couple of hours and add your vodka. On the rim instead of salt, you mix sugar, salt, cayenne and cumin. It’s got a kick.”

The garden also contains two of the world’s hottest peppers — the ghost chili pepper, which measures between 330,000 and 1 million units on the Scoville scale in comparison to a jalapeno pepper, which measures between 3,500 and 8,000 units, and the Trinidad Scorpion, which measures between 1.2 million and more than 2 million Scoville units and was named the hottest chili pepper by New Mexico State University as of February 2012.

In addition to having the opportunity to work in one of the most interesting gardens in Southeast Texas, being a member of the Jefferson County Master Gardeners gives people from all different walks of life a chance to share a common interest, Hightower said.

“We transcend all socioeconomic classes (with) a love of gardening,” Hightower said. “Some people show up in their Mercedes while others come in their clunker trucks. All of that just falls away as we share our gardening experiences.”

The organization provides numerous educational opportunities and horticultural-related events throughout the year, Hightower said.

“I don’t care if you’ve gardened your entire life, you’re going to learn something new just about every week out here. We have a myriad of specialty classes — citriculture, irrigation, and pest control — through Texas (A&M) AgriLife that we can take. It’s a way to form new bonds and new friendships. Mother nature has brought us all together in this beautiful garden,” he added.

Certification classes will be offered in July. For more information about the garden or to learn how to become certified as a master gardener, contact Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at (409) 835-8461.