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Natural beauty
Forsyth Master Gardeners show off the fruits -- literally -- of their hard work at their annual tour
Sharon O'Kelley prunes just a small section of a bush in her yard Wednesday afternoon. O'Kelley says the majority of her pruning will take place just before the Master Garden tour. - photo by EMILY SAUNDERS

Not even a historic drought could deter seven Forsyth gardeners from creating patches of paradise worthy of a garden tour.

The participating gardens on Saturday’s Forsyth County Master Gardeners Garden Tour feature a koi pond, stone-walled courtyard, fig trees and a cherry blossom-covered fountain.

Visitors can take a self-guided tour of each garden, and gardeners and docents will be on hand to answer questions. Proceeds go to the nonprofit organization’s educational projects.

“What is really nice about these gardens is they’re all very diverse,” said Norma Caskey, a Master Gardener who is chairwoman of the event. “We have a pocket garden at Vickery Creek and we have (one that) is 10 acres.”

Dennis Whittle is the gardener behind the 10 acres on Wallace Tatum Road. The various gardens throughout the property were 28 years in the making.

“What’s unique really is that we grow so many vegetables,” Whittle said. “People kind of worry about the price of everything, and I think it’s a good deal that you can do yourself.”

Whittle’s garden, which he’s grown and tended with his wife Linda, began with asparagus and blueberries nearly three decades ago.

A former teacher and 19-year principal at Midway Elementary in Alpharetta, Whittle now teaches education courses at North Georgia College & State University. His wife has also taught kindergarten special education.

One of the primary rewards of gardening is “to see how these things have grown up and still be productive after all those years,” he said.

“It continues to be a work in progress. There’s always something to do ... there’s never a day I can say ‘Gee, I have nothing to do.’ There’s always something to prune, something to pick, something to work on,” he said.

“I don’t think a lot of people quite understand the satisfaction from growing your own food and knowing exactly where it’s been.”

When food safety issues make news — like when recent concerns over tomatoes caused some stores and restaurants to pull them from their shelves and menus — Whittle doesn’t have to be cautious.
“I don’t have to worry about salmonella,” he said.

In addition to planting herbs, annuals and perennials, Whittle’s garden also has various fruits and a walking trail.

Sharon O’Kelley has only been working on her Burgess Creek Drive garden for four years. But as a water-wise gardener, she has seen much growth in her drought-tolerant shrubs and perennials.

O’Kelley has been prepping her garden for the event for the past two years.

“It’s a lot of hard work. I’ve been doing a lot of pruning and taking extra special care of everything,” she said. “I’ve let nature take its course with a lot of this stuff, but I wanted to make sure it looks good.”

Through the use of rain barrels, O’Kelley has been able to catch water during storms. But as rain slows, her supply diminishes.

“It’s exciting but it’s a little nerve-racking, only because of the lack of rain.”
O’Kelley said she expects about 400 people will take the tour this year and is excited to show them “what they might be able to use in their own gardens.”

The opportunity to learn is one of the main attractions of the tour, Caskey explained. Because Master Gardeners are trained through the Forsyth County Extension Office, they receive ongoing education and research information about gardening, which they will relay to guests.

“It’s also a way to educate the public that the county extension service is out there,” she said. “It’s a good way to find out how people that live right here do their own garden.... It’s got our local climate, local plants and regular people.”

Gardens were chosen by a selection committee, Caskey said. Once the selections were made, the Master Gardener community joined together as a “lean, mean team.”

“It was a community effort. All the Master Gardeners jumped in and helped to get each of the gardeners where they needed to be so they can be their best on Saturday,” she said.

“I can’t even tell you how many volunteers we’ve had from the Master Gardeners’ community to help out with all the activities.”