By Joe Earle
joeearle@reporternewspapers.net

Master gardener Stella Chamberlain prepares irises that will be replanted next year.

The morning air felt surprisingly fresh and cool after so many hot August days. Dark clouds filled the sky. A light breeze rustled the hilltop garden while Phil Edwards broke up the dried soil and his granddaughter watered plants.

“It’s wonderful out here this morning, isn’t it?” Edwards asked.

Stella Chamberlain agreed. She was separating irises, removing individual plants from large clumps that had grown in one of the garden’s raised beds. She would put the individual roots in pots of topsoil and cover them with pine needles so they could survive the winter. Next spring, they would be ready to be replanted.

Edwards and Chamberlain are gardeners. Master gardeners, in fact. On this weekday morning, they were tending the DeKalb County Master Gardeners Association’s garden at Brookhaven Park.

The garden sits behind a chain-link fence. Its carefully tended beds grow cucumbers, sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, squash and other vegetables in addition to the irises. The gardeners gave up on tomatoes years ago because the park’s squirrels ate them. The vegetables produced in the garden go to charity to be distributed to needy families, Edwards said. The garden produces hundreds of pounds of produce each year.

Now Edwards, who’s 69 and a retired doctor, and the other gardeners who regularly tend the garden worry about its future. Brookhaven residents are promoting changes in Brookhaven Park, saying it should be cleaned up and renovated into a community showplace and gathering place. One neighborhood group drew up plans for park improvements, Edwards said, and the plans did not include the master gardeners’ garden.

“It would be gone,” he said.

Phil Edwards tends a row in the DeKalb County Master Gardeners’ raised beds at Brookhaven Park.

Bert Weaver, a fellow master gardener who volunteers regularly at the Brookhaven garden, feels the same way. “We’re not very happy about that,” Weaver said.

But for now, they say, they’ll see how things go. The garden requires attention, and proposed changes in the park may have to wait for better economic times. Three gardeners – Edwards, Weaver and Loretta Parker – each take a day of the week to work in the garden. Weaver takes Tuesdays, Parker Thursdays and Edwards Saturdays. On days when more workers are required – harvest days, for instance – other master gardeners volunteer to join them.

The master gardeners group took over the Brookhaven plot in 2003, Edwards said. County officials offered them the space, which had been a children’s playground. The land was terribly overgrown, Edwards said. “It was fallow,” he said. “It was weeds.”

It took a couple of years of composting and tending the garden beds to get the soil in shape. It yielded its first crop in 2005, Edwards said. “This is – what? – our sixth or seventh year here?”

Why do they do it? “For two reasons,” Weaver said. “One is we like to garden. When you garden, you enjoy it, but you also like to have a purpose. In this case, the purpose is providing fresh vegetables for people who couldn’t afford them otherwise.”

Weaver, who’s 76, also tends a vegetable garden at his home near Embry Hills. But he calls himself a “jack of all trades” as a gardener. He raises flowers, shrubs and trees. “I’ve always enjoyed getting my hands in the dirt, and still do,” he said, chatting on a cellphone as he watered plants one recent afternoon.

At his home in central DeKalb, Edwards raises primarily Japanese maples and perennial plants and shrubs. His garden was on the Georgia Perennial Society tour, he said. When he’s not at the Brookhaven garden, he said, he’s often either working in his own garden or at another master gardeners’ project, a bird and butterfly garden.

He enjoys watching the activity at Brookhaven Park. Gardening done, he took a seat beneath a pavilion nearby that the gardeners have planted with black-eyed Susans, lamb’s ear, swamp sunflower and, of course, irises.

On most days, he said, the park attracts a few residents who want to let their dogs go for a run. On Saturdays, he said, it fills with people playing volleyball. Cars roll by on Peachtree Road, on the other side of the overgrown fence that hides the park.

“We don’t want too many people to find out about this place,” Edwards said. “This is a wonderful place that is shielded for protection. People don’t know about this place.”