Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

Profile of a Master Gardener
Judy  Ripley 

For Master Gardener Judy Ripley, a landscape design consultant who lives on the headwaters of the Corrotoman River, gardening in the Northern Neck is all about going with the flow. In a landscape rich with native species her design ethos is simple. Take a look around and see what’s thriving then augment, augment, augment.

When this Pennsylvania native, mother of three, and grandmother of eight retired after a career in nursing and life-care facility management serendipity brought she and her husband to the Northern Neck. After looking at a few other locations a friend suggested they try Virginia. A stay in a B&B and a few forays into quiet river corners and they were hooked; the couple picked up stakes and moved to the area in 2001. “We abandoned the children!” she jokes.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Ripley, a founding board member of the Native Plant Society of the Northern Neck and member of the Rappahannock Garden Club and Northern Neck Master Gardeners, has logged over 1,000 hours of service since achieving Master Gardener status in 2003.

I spoke to Ripley recently to find out just what makes this passionate Master Gardener tick and why, for her, the Northern Neck is a place like no other.

Q: So, why retire in the Northern Neck?

A: I’ve always had a love of water. I married a guy who loved going to the woods and mountains but after 30 years and building a place from scratch in the Appalachian mountains I said I wanted to try being closer to the shore. We looked at the Jersey shore and a few spots in Delaware then a friend said the Northern Neck of Virginia is like no place else on earth. We came down and at first I said, ‘I don’t see anything here.’ Then someone told me I wasn’t looking in the right place, that I needed to just drive down any side road and there will be something really cool. He was right. Now we live just 1,000 feet from where George Washington’s mother was born. It’s like a mystery full of history here.

Q: Why become a Master Gardener?

A: I’ve always loved gardening. When I was a child I took over an area in my parents’ yard. I remember once working a whole day in a little patch near the back of our property where I grew zinnias when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It had rained and things had gotten muddy. My two siblings were with me and when the three of us showed up at the back door covered in mud my father—who was a little strict—was not happy. But the longer he hosed us down the funnier the whole thing got! I didn’t have much time for gardening when our three children were little and I was busy with my career and all the rest. When we moved down here I decided I wanted to learn to garden sensibly.

Q: Have there been any particularly memorable projects you’ve worked on?
A: Well, I’ve been dubbed the “Master Gardener Beggar” by the Northern Neck Master Gardeners because I begged my way top to bottom for a project we completed at Lancaster High School. They asked for help from a Master Gardener and so we got together volunteers from the school and the community and solicited donations— including some beautiful Belgian block and just thousands of tulip bulbs—to create two beautiful raised beds on either side of the main entrance of the school and a raised courtyard garden fully planted with bulbs, trees, and shrubs. Everyone pitched in and now the front of the school looks beautiful.

Q: Is it all work being a Master Gardener?

A: When we teach seminars every year for the primary schools in Lancaster and Northumberland I get to become a character according to which seminar we are teaching. I become “Chesy” when we are focusing on the bay and the health of the waters—I wear a green wig and some of the products of the bay. When we do the soils program I become “Mud.” My aim is to put some fun into the learning and the children seem to enjoy the process. There are usually 5 work stations for the children to work through. Everything from a wormarium and permission to say “worm poop,” to models that explore the idea of erosion and pollution when water (rain) is poured on a farm.

Q: In your work as a Master Gardener what are you the most proud of?

A: That would probably be our overall ability to connect with the community and help change the focus to the health of our land and surrounding water.

Q: How did you get into landscape design work?

A: When you become a Master Gardener you have to declare an expertise so I decided to go with residential landscape design. I do things a little differently than other designers though. I don’t create large drawings which can be expensive to the client and the designer; I don’t think everybody wants that. Instead I use digital photos and sketches to give people an idea what they can do. I think landscape design is like interior design. I may make a suggestion but my clients can make decisions about what specific plants to buy based on what’s available and what they can afford when they’re ready to do it.

Q: How do you describe your designs?

A: I rarely design a ‘beautiful’ garden. More often I look at the space and help people see what will work there for the land and the water. I had a client last winter who had a big-time drainage problem. We looked at ways of diverting some of the water but instead of fighting it we decided to put in water-loving plants that would accept the inundation of water that the space was getting.

Q: What is your own garden like?

A: Well, in my bayscaping I have Sweet Bay Magnolias, hollies, oaks, Black Gum trees, lowbush blueberries, Loblolly Pines, laurel… it’s all beautiful and it all belongs here. With all this, why fuss with anything extra?

Q: Do you have a favorite space in your garden?

A: I guess it would be outside my screened-in porch. I have a cruciform garden with a fountain. It’s like me, a little bizarre! It has lots of beautiful color… lavenders, pinks, and reds and it’s packed with herbs. It is as beautiful to look at from the outside as it is from the inside. I think that’s what a garden should be.

Q: Do you have any advice for Northern Neck gardeners who’d like to improve their landscapes?

A: Open your eyes and look around and see what’s growing then try to augment it. I think so many people come down here who have lived in other places and want plants that look like “home” instead of looking at what we’ve got right here. We need to learn from nature what’s going to grow. If you use plants that don’t belong here you may become frustrated and disappointed when they don’t thrive or they die. If you use plants that are already happy growing in this area you immediately reduce your maintenance. Remember, right-plant right-place.

Q: So, why do you do all of this?

A: I think that one person at a time, we can make a difference by using compost and rain water, recycling, and planting species that are adapted to this area. I want to be a respecter of nature…
to respect it and to learn from it.