A labor of love

Retirees, volunteers help grow Fellows Riverside Gardens

Marcy Dubec of Boardman, the full-time gardener at Fellows Riverside Gardens, stands in a display of tulips. (Correspondent photo / Kathryn Adams)

YOUNGSTOWN — A popular activity for many people during the spring and summer months is to visit Fellows Riverside Gardens, a 12-acre botanical garden at the northern end of Mill Creek Park.

The beauty of the colorful flowers — both perennials and annuals — as well as trees and shrubs arranged in a variety of designs attracts more than 400,000 visitors a year. It all comes as a result of year-round work by staff and volunteers, many of whom took on the gardens as a post-retirement project.

Sarah Spetsios of Brookfield has been the garden supervisor for four years. She oversees the staff and volunteers who care for the grounds. The tulips that folks are enjoying now are a result of 40,000 bulbs that volunteers planted in the fall.

Soon the bulbs will be dug out by groups of volunteers and the beds will then be filled and prepped for summer annual planting. Compost is added along with slow-release fertilizer. Tropical plants also are added to the displays.

Marcy Dubec of Boardman has been the full-time gardener at Fellows for 17 years. She chooses the 40,000 tulip bulbs as well as the 45,000 annuals that will bloom and grace the grounds during summer months.

To have these flowers ready, Dubec begins in winter by picking the variety of flowers and colors she wants to use in her displays.

“The growing of pansies begins in December while the annuals are started in January or February,” she said.

These flowers begin as seedlings in flats and then are transferred to a greenhouse on site where they are watered daily. The seedlings grow and then when ready the mass planting by volunteers begins on the grounds. The annuals are then fertilized and watered all summer long.

Stan Vuletich of Berlin Center is referred to as “Stan the Dahlia Man” around Fellows Riverside Gardens. He has been volunteering since 2007 and found his niche in retirement by dedicating himself to growing 20 different types of dahlias for Fellows.

The retired electrical engineer said, “Working at Fellows is relaxing and gives you the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people.

“Some people think that dahlias are hard to grow, but if you have full sun, they are easy to grow. (Dahlias) originated in Mexico and are a pretty hardy flower,” he said.

His involvement began when he became a Master Gardener and then found himself teaching a class about gardening and propagating plants, particularly dahlias. He now supervises the volunteers who are interested in growing them.

Vuletich stores the 2,000 dahlia plants at his home, where they are dormant from November through February. In March, they are brought into the greenhouse, where they are watered and fertilized and when ready are planted by Vuletich and other volunteers on the grounds.

Vuletich finds himself at Fellows in all seasons, but April and May are his busy months as he cares for the dahlias four to five hours per weekday.

“Once the growing season starts, I’m here every weekday.”

Debby Metzger of Lowellville has been volunteering at Fellows Riverside Gardens since 2012, when she retired from Akron General Medical Center. She enrolled in a Master Gardening class, which got her interested in learning more about plants.

She retired five years ago and was able to increase her hours, becoming chairwoman of the five plant sales that take place at Fellows yearly. The proceeds of the sales support projects at Fellows Riverside Gardens defined by MetroParks.

She said she particularly enjoys giving advice to people who come to the sales and want help discovering how to grow healthy plants.

Metzger finds herself at Fellows usually four days per week in the spring and summer. “It takes a lot of work to keep the gardens in the shape they are in. Volunteers are essential,” she said. “Where else could you work under such a beautiful environment?”

She said she enjoys working with plants, taking them from seedlings to pots. “My work is very satisfying. I feel like I’m a little part of this big picture,” she said. “You can’t get into a botanical garden for free in other states.”

The Master Gardener class was transformed into the Horticulture Certificate Program, she said. Participants will learn more about topics such as summer gardening in Ohio, garden design and pruning. It’s a series of classes with hands-on training with 10 hours of participation.

The staff and volunteers work around the weather, Spetsios said, “This past winter was very severe and the late cold snaps affect the plants. We constantly have to strategize and deal with mother nature.”

Something the staff and volunteers also deal with constantly is pest management. They monitor trees, shrubs and flowers for pests and disease and treat as needed.

A frequent problem with roses is the Japanese beetle. To fight them they use neem oil. Spetsios said it should only be sprayed on roses in the early morning or late in the evening, before pollinators appear (bees and butterflies).

Another frequent problem is the presence and activity of deer. A deer fence is placed around the perimeter of the gardens to keep the deer at bay. Spetsios says “they love tulips and eat summer annuals like impatiens and shrubs … however they don’t like daffodils.”

Liquid repellent is sprayed on the flowers usually in the spring. She also said deer love hostas while the rabbits love purple cone flowers, so both are sprayed with repellent.

Spetsios said in her job as garden supervisor, she is always planning several seasons ahead.

The favorite part of her job is “seeing the fruits of my labors and in the spring seeing how it all works out,” she said. When the growing season comes along and the public visit, her staff “have the passion to make it the best they can.”

Spetsios calls her work “a labor of love.”

Dubec said that when she sees the public enjoying her creations, she feels a sense of satisfaction: “I made that!”



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