Frank Baxter and Skip Bowling: NSVMGA Founders Trail Blaze Their Way Through Life
Although they had been together for decades, EMGs Frank Baxter and Skip Bowling didn’t discover their shared interest in gardening until they took a pre-retirement survey to figure out what they should do in their next phase of life. “The survey uncovered a lot of what we already knew: World travel, church, classical music,” said Skip. “Gardening came as a bit of a surprise.”
Leaving their careers behind in the Washington, D.C., area, the pair decided to move from Arlington to Warren County, where they had a weekend cottage they named Moonday Lodge, since they purchased it in 1969 on the very day Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Friends, who owned a Christmas tree farm in Blacksburg, had convinced them to follow suit. In 1989, they sold their cabin and purchased 28 acres with a ¾-acre pond, just outside of Brownstown, where they established a Certified Tree Farm and got to work building their retirement home, showcased on the Virginia State House & Garden Tour in 1995. Although their story sounds like a dream come true, success didn’t come quite so easily.
“The first year, we planted pulpwood,” said Frank. “We had a drought, and things didn’t go so well. The second year, we experienced severe deer damage. The third year, we joined the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association to learn what we clearly didn’t know.” The third year was the charm. Through trial and error and a lot of hard work, Frank and Skip were planting between 1,000 and 2,000 Christmas tree seedlings per year. White Pine, Colorado Blue and Norway Spruces. They sold their trees to individuals, but also in bulk to the Boy Scouts and to a commercial garden center for re-sale. “We didn’t make any money at it, but we were busy planting, trimming and digging,” said Frank. In time, Skip became so proficient at making Christmas wreaths that he received several competitive ribbons for his creations and once was asked to make wreaths to adorn the White House, which he declined.
Their tree farming experience connected them with Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Extension service, and in 1994, they became two of the first 14 people to take part in the Extension Master Gardener program, based in Front Royal. The certification enabled them to start their own unit, and the NSVMG Association was born. Frank served as president for the first three years.
The original group attracted members primarily from Warren and Page counties, but every year, there would be a new class of eight to ten people. “As more people became certified, the organization grew along with the number of projects,” said Skip. Frank attributes the exponential geographical growth – the addition of Frederick, Clarke and Shenandoah counties – to moving the class around to different communities, making it easier for people to certify. “Once a community started a project, it became a lightning rod for other projects, attracting more members,” he said. They proudly describe their first major project in Front Royal: Assisting in the design, construction and maintenance of a Memorial Garden at Calvary Episcopal Church, consisting of four different “garden rooms,” including a columbarium. With Master Gardeners stationed in each room to explain major features, the gardens were featured on the State House & Garden Tour and was awarded Second Place by the Front Royal Beautification Committee. Other projects included the re-landscaping of the Warren County Court House, The Government Center and the Samuels Library, where Frank served on the Board of Directors.
When they moved to the Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury retirement community in Winchester six years ago, Frank and Skip were ready to give up the physical demands of the tree farm, but not gardening. With the help of residents, who raised $80,000 for the cause, they oversaw the installation of a large, fully-equipped greenhouse for horticulture therapy. They also put up two raised-bed gardens on an empty parcel of land. “Now there are about 38 plots in the Westminster-Canterbury community garden,” said Skip. “It’s a beautiful patchwork of edibles and ornamentals.” There are pollinator gardens, an entire bed of roses, and even an herb and culinary bed that the residents help tend specifically for the chef at the complex. “It’s interesting to see how different all the gardens look, how individual gardeners approach planting and design, and how everyone is always learning something new from someone else,” said Skip. The residents not only share their gardening knowledge, but also surplus flowers and produce. As a service to the broader community, resident volunteers use the greenhouse as a base to host annual programs for the Frederick County Homeschool Association, teaching students about seed starting and nature.
Frank and Skip also saw an opportunity to improve the miles of trails surrounding the property. More than just a nice place to walk their dog, Gabriel, the trails are now used for tree identification tours and, more recently, the monitoring of bluebird nesting boxes, for which Frank and Skip are newly certified. Like most EMGs, Frank and Skip have observed that one thing may pique your interest and get you started, but the broad exposure of the MG program opens your eyes to so many other things. Their newest project is bonsai. “We were in the Christmas tree business,” said Frank. “We’re good at pruning.”
Their trailblazing leadership extends beyond the community into their personal lives. Of all their accomplishments, Frank and Skip are most proud of their enduring relationship of 57 years. In 2009, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia sanctioned their union with blessings. Their Blessing Ceremony was held at Calvary Church in Front Royal. They were legally married in Washington, D.C, in 2013.
This fall, 27 years after Frank and Skip laid the group’s foundation, the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners will be holding information sessions and interviews to form the Class of 2022. Learn more about becoming an Extension Master Gardener and sign up for our email list to receive an email about the next class.
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