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Victoria Educational Gardens.

By Michael Bracken
Managing Editor

What began in 2000 as a small beautification project by the Victoria County Master Gardeners Association (VCMGA) has become more than an acre of educational gardens surrounding what had been the officer's club on the former Foster Field Air Base, an area adjacent to the old Aviation Control Tower at the Victoria Regional Airport.

The first phase of what is now known as the Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) opened in 2003 with a children's garden, a vegetable garden and a greenhouse, and subsequent phases have included 17 mini-gardens, four demonstration areas, and four permanent structures, all connected by wheelchair-accessible walkways.

The airport property belongs to Victoria County, and both the local Texas Cooperative Extension office and the 4-H were located there before VCMGA members began their beautification project. The group originally planned to do some landscaping around the old officer's club, said Pat Plowman, a VCMGA member who has been with the project from its inception, but they soon realized the location's potential.

Plowman said they drew up a rough plan to create the gardens and were surprised when the Victoria County Airport Commissioners approved their ideas. There was only one problem, Plowman said, "We didn't think of all the work."

"Our official groundbreaking was at our Garden Symposium in May 2001 and actual work was started in the fall," Plowman explained. The VCMGA had about 50 members when they began work on the VEG, Plowman said, and they provided all the labor necessary to create the first phase of the garden except installation of the pavers.

The VCMGA now has about 125 members, some of them master gardener interns, working on the VEG. (The interns are required to do 20 of their 50 volunteer hours at the VEG as they progress toward master gardener status.) Members continue to provide most of the labor to maintain and improve the VEG, but the county provided earthmoving help when dirt had to be removed from an old swimming pool, and crews from Aquascape built the water garden in two days as a community service project.

As part of the development process for the gardens, members of the VCMGA researched the former military base, using field maps to locate a swimming pool, airfield dining facility, patio with flagpoles and a fountain, and other features that had disappeared or been covered over. Each of these existing features has been or will be accommodated in the VEG's growth. The patio with flagpoles and fountain was used in the development of the container garden, and the foundation of the dining facility will be used for a pavilion with restrooms.

Because the VEG is located on a former military base, Plowman explained, a few military elements are incorporated into the design, including a military honor garden with laser-inscribed brick pavers that pay tribute to the men and women who are serving or have served in the U.S. armed forces.

Children's Garden
The original plans included six phases, said Plowman. "We started with the children's and vegetable gardens because we were most interested in doing educational programs for children."

The children's garden is located on the west side of the building and includes butterfly, birding, sensory and native areas. "The features in this garden lend well to the science curriculum for the schools - butterflies, insects, plant needs and growth," Plowman said.

The native plant area includes jasmine, Mexican feather grass and horsemint, and the sensory garden includes plants to see, touch and smell, such as lamb's ear, foxtail fern and Shasta daisies. Even though it's a sensory garden, Plowman said, "We don't let them eat anything."

Two circles surround the children's garden. "The rainbow circle and animal alphabet circle were included for fun activities for the younger children," Plowman said.

The rainbow circle is planted with the colors of the rainbow and includes bulbine and Carolina Breeze in the orange section of the rainbow and Belinda's Dream and Variegated Ligustrum in the red section. The animal alphabet circle features alphabet pavers and features plants with animal names for nearly every letter of the alphabet. "We made the alphabet pavers, then tried to find plants with animal names," Plowman said. "We did find a plant for the majority of the letters." For example, B is for batface cuphea and E is for elephant ears.

There's also a huge purple birdhouse in the children's garden that serves as a classroom.

In addition to the children's garden, the west side also includes a vegetable garden, a greenhouse and storage. The children's garden is mostly flowers, but the vegetable garden is "interesting to kids," said Plowman, because so few children know where their food comes from.

"The children's and vegetable gardens are the ones I consider most significant, mostly due to the potential for teaching kids and adults about different aspects of horticulture," Plowman said. "Kids enjoy learning about the caterpillars and butterflies, the insects and the vegetables, while adults can learn what plants to use in butterfly or hummingbird gardens, what vegetables to plant in each season or what plants are native."

The expansion area on the other side of the officer's club includes 17 mini-gardens. The gardens benefit the entire community, Plowman said, because "the mini-gardens show what can be done."

The mini-gardens include an annual/seasonal garden, antique rose garden, daylily garden, heirloom garden, international garden where plants are labeled with their country of origin, iris garden, meditation garden, military honor garden, ornamental grass garden with large wind chimes made from cylinders, patio container garden with the original fountain, patriotic garden, perennial garden, pocket herb garden, shade garden, tropical garden that surrounds the water garden, Xeriscape with a bubble urn fountain, and a water garden with a waterfall, bog and land bridges.

The water garden is the only one of the 17 mini-gardens that the VCMGA created with extensive help from outside the organization, according to Plowman. "When we started this part of the garden we had planned to build the water garden ourselves." After digging the hole with the help of a backhoe, Plowman said, "We decided it was more than we could handle."

"I made a call to The Pond Crew (an Aquascape company) in San Antonio for a consultation," Plowman said. After learning about the purpose of the VEG and VCMGA's concern about the water garden's progress, representatives from Katy and Rosenberg agreed to help the VCMGA create the water garden. "They met with us and incorporated their design ideas with ours. We coordinated all the deliveries. Their guys were here two days and we had a wonderful water garden," she explained.

"This water garden is another tool which will be used to teach children about ecosystems," Plowman said. "Several individuals from the community donated some large koi to the garden, and we already have babies!"

Demonstration Areas
In addition to the gardens, the VEG includes four demonstration areas.

The EarthKind Rose Trial area features 15 roses, three each of five different varieties. The program, associated with the Texas A&M Agriculture program, is for testing selected rose cultivars to determine their suitability and endurance in varied growing conditions, according to Plowman.

The Ground Cover Demonstration area features four different ground covers. "This was a late change," Plowman said. "We needed to cover up some old concrete slabs."

The Turf Grass Demonstration area features 11 different turf grasses and is useful for comparing the features of various types of turf grass that grow in the mid-coast region, Plowman said.

The Weed Demonstration area is useful for identification of weeds and information on their management. "We are rethinking this demo," Plowman said, and in the future may use the bulletin board to label various weeds and their controls. "The weeds overwhelmed us!"

Water Conservation
"After all the rain we had this July it is hard to think about having to conserve water," Plowman said. "But learning to conserve water at this time is very important. We have two 3,000-gallon tanks to collect rainwater from the roof of the officer's club. Plans are to use this water for the container plants on the patio and for the gardens closest to the tanks. Also, we had an irrigation system installed and we will set up drip irrigation for the other gardens. Drip irrigation helps save water by less evaporation and supplies the plants with a deeper level of watering."

They also intend to harvest rainwater collected from the pavilion's roof once the pavilion is erected.

Other water conservation techniques at the VEG include French drains, a dry creek bed, a bog filtration system and a rain garden.

The Future
The sixth and final phase of the VEG is to build a 6,000-square-foot pavilion with restrooms on the existing slab that once supported the Foster Field Air Base Dining Hall. After that, VCMGA plans to maintain and improve the existing facility.

The front gate is always open for visitors and the Victoria Educational Gardens take about an hour to walk through - longer if visitors stop to read all the signs and plant identification tags, Plowman said.

The VEG is supported by donations, grants, two plant sales each year, and a garden tour in partnership with a local school, Plowman said.

"This project was a grand learning experience for our members," Plowman said.

Thanks to the efforts of the VCMGA, a small beautification project has become an excellent resource for both avid and weekend gardeners, and an example of how much dedicated volunteers can accomplish when they garden together.

About VCMGA and VEG
The Victoria County Master Gardeners Association began when the Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County launched a Master Gardener program with 23 trainees. The VCMGA formally organized in 2000 and received 501(c)3 not-for-profit status in 2001.

The Victoria Educational Gardens is part of the educational program of Texas Cooperative Extension and Texas A&M University, and is a scientific-based educational project based on good gardening that is completely planned, constructed and maintained by the VCMGA.

For More Information
Victoria County
Master Gardeners Association
P. O. Box 1723
Victoria, TX 77902

Victoria Educational Gardens
333 Bachelor Drive
Victoria, TX 77902

VEG is by the old Aviation Control Tower at Victoria Regional Airport. Drive out Hwy 59N, turn left on Big Bend Drive. Turn left on Waco Circle. You will dead-end into VEG.


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