Susan Rose giving green thumb a rest
Hundreds of volunteers in Mesa County’s Master Gardener program will need to strike two words from their most-used sentences soon: Ask Susan.
Those who answer random gardening questions on the Master Gardener desk or pull weeds in the gorgeous demonstration gardens will be without that ever-patient person who seems to always have the answers.
What kind of grass is this?
Is this ascochyta leaf blight?
What’s that really poky weed with the yellow flowers?
Susan Rose, Master Gardener program coordinator and horticultural education specialist with CSU Extension, is retiring after more than 14 years of being the person everyone asks, well, everything.
It seems that someone with the last name Rose would naturally be attracted to the horticultural world, but she came by the career in a roundabout way. She started as an artist.
Rose worked as an art instructor and ceramics artist when she first came to Grand Junction with her husband, Chris Martensen, and their young son in 1975. Rose’s father grew up in the family home where they now live, near downtown Grand Junction.
She eventually launched her own pottery studio and spent a year working out of her home. She found solo work kind of lonely and wanted a volunteer opportunity where she could learn and meet different kinds of people. She read Curtis Swift’s newspaper column about the Master Gardener program and signed up.
“I thought maybe I could learn something, and I did ... in spades,” she said.
Rose’s beginnings in horticulture explain a lot about how she is able to work with all different types of volunteers in the program now. She didn’t have a natural green thumb. In fact, she was so desperate to grow anything in their bare, hard soil that she mistakenly harbored an invasive weed.
“We had this intriguing little tree shoot up,” she said. “And then there were six of them, and I actually transplanted them to the front yard.”
This fast-growing tree turned out to be a problem they actually paid landscapers to exterminate later — Rose had been encouraging the Tree of Heaven to grow in the yard and it took over. For those not familiar with the plant, it’s also referred to as “stink tree” or “tree of hell,” because it’s so pernicious.
The Tree of Heaven lesson is just one Rose has learned over the years.
“I learned it’s like being a plant detective,” she said, of the diagnostic aspect of helping homeowners with problems. “Curtis (Swift) taught me you’ve got to be like Columbo ... ask just one more thing.”
Rose was hooked after she successfully answered her first phone call to the desk. She was terribly nervous and not very confident, but her mentor, Carl Hochmuth, assured her she could take the call. “I hung up and said, ‘I knew the answer!’ I was so surprised.”
The knowledge she gained from working with the extension agents and other volunteers, as well as the daily research she conducted on all things horticultural, earned her the title of expert. She passed on that knowledge to everyone willing to learn.
One by one, she taught them all about the little blue line that runs down the center of a Kentucky bluegrass blade if you hold it up to the light. She reminded them how to make wet slides of roots to examine them for fungus, in case you forgot since high school biology class.
All that investment of knowledge pays off, since volunteers are able to help roughly 10,000 different contacts per year, and it all starts with Rose’s training.
Jerry Brin, one of about 260 active program participants who took the course for the first time in 2006, called Rose a “linchpin” in the program.
“I know none of us are irreplaceable, but with her knowledge and the way she interacts with the apprentices and advanced Master Gardeners and everyone, those are going to be tough shoes to fill, no doubt about it,” he said.
Rose is a great mentor and friend, said Kathy Kimbrough, who has been in the program since 2001. Kimbrough remembered how patient Rose was when she first started volunteering and asked a lot of questions, and how vital her support turned out to be when Kimbrough was determined to bring commercial lavender to the valley and form the Lavender Association of Western Colorado. Fifty people came to the first meeting that Rose helped organize, and she even sat up front with Kimbrough to help her not be so nervous.
“She just kind of threw herself at it and said whatever you need, we’ll help,” Kimbrough said. “I am forever in her debt.”
After she retires this month, Rose plans on retiring her alarm clock for a while. She’ll actually have time to work on her own yard for a change. She’s going to take long walks and put that fishing license to good use. And she and her husband plan on taking time to travel across the West.
She’ll miss the daily interaction with lifelong friends she’s made, and the intellectual challenge. But luckily, Rose plans on taking a break from the program for a while and eventually coming back to volunteer as an advanced Master Gardener. She’ll just trade in one green nametag for the other and keep answering questions that begin with ... ask Susan.