Reprinted from the MGNV Special Garden Newsletter May-June 2012. Alice was a planner and founder of the Shade Garden, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
By Christa Watters
Updated by Elaine Mills
Alice Nicolson has been a master gardener since 1980. She began volunteering at the Help Desk at Cooperative Extension that year and has been an unfailing participant in Master Gardener activities ever since, sharing her expertise, her love of taxonomy (it’s even part of her e-mail handle) and her keen sense of observation with each generation of incoming students.
Alice came to gardening later in life, as many of us do. She grew up in Lebanon, where she was born to expatriate American parents in the American Hospital on the campus of the American University of Beirut, where her father was on the faculty. At the age of 16, Alice returned to the United States to finish high school and attend university. After graduation from Swarthmore College, she earned a master’s degree in Mammalogy with a minor in Plant Taxonomy from Cornell University in 1960. It was at Cornell that she met her future husband, Dan Nicolson, in taxonomy class, and they married in 1959. After graduation, he was offered a position as a botanist at the U.S. National Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The couple moved to an historic old farmhouse in 1963, where they have lived for nearly 50 years.
The Nicolsons had three children, and when they were young, Alice had little time to devote to gardening. But as they grew older, she began to volunteer at the National Herbarium. Realizing that she wanted to know more about gardening, she registered for a Master Gardener class taught by extension agents from Virginia and DC. In those days, she said, the classes were far less rigorous, requiring only about 40 hours of classroom time for certification. Once certified, she began volunteering: “I was interested in it all. I liked doing plant clinics, and Extension always needed help. We volunteers needed to support them in their educational work.”
And she began applying her knowledge to her own garden. On an unseasonably warm day in February 2012, the year her family sold and moved away from that farmhouse, Alice stood in that garden showing a visitor the glories of swaths of massed crocuses, in bloom in an array of colors and sizes. Under huge old trees, hellebores with purple, green, pink, and speckled white blossoms nodded in a light breeze. All enthusiasm, Alice told how she wanted to encourage her neighbors to make their street a showplace for crocuses. “Think how wonderful it would look if everyone planted masses of them in their yards, to brighten up early spring each year,” she said.
Alice’s favorite thing about gardening is “when something does beautifully: a fabulous crop of peppers one year; a dying plant that revives. And talking to people [about gardening].” That love of plants and of educating other gardeners was evident in the MG class in 2011. Alice often showed up during the evening classes, bringing along flowers or plant material that she set up at the back of the room for students to examine during break. It might be a comparison between forsythia blooms and jasmine, or an array of those hellebores floating in a bowl so we could examine and appreciate the full beauty of the blossom faces.
Asked what her favorite plant is, Alice responds in a way any true gardener can wholeheartedly understand: “Whatever’s in bloom right now!”
Her advice to new gardeners: “Improve the soil. If you don’t have good soil, you can’t do anything. If you do, it makes the rest easier.” Also: “Read. Go to nurseries. Try things out. Start with a skeleton list of plants and build from there.”
Alice has several publications to her credit, and taught Plant Taxonomy and Identification to the Master Gardener trainees in the Metro Master Gardener program from 1982 to 1984. She was president of Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia 1987–1990 and again 1995–1996. She was a cofounder and board member of Master Gardeners International Corporation (MaGIC) from 1988 to 1993, and edited MaGIC Lantern, a quarterly newsletter of MaGIC from 1988 to 1992.
“The Internet is changing our role” as Master Gardeners, Alice believes. “We used to be straight information providers; now we function as cheerleaders. People learn in different ways. Demonstration is still a really effective communication device.”
Beginning in 1989 and continuing until 2000, Alice coordinated and designed the Master Gardener Demonstration Shade Garden in Arlington’s Bon Air Park. In cooperation with Arlington’s Parks and Recreation Department, local nurseries, and more than one hundred MGNV volunteers, she supervised the planting and maintenance of a shady garden containing more than a hundred varieties of ornamental plants suitable for use in shady gardens in this area. She also developed a brochure and a blooming sequence chart for use by the public: “We wanted to communicate that you could try some plants besides hostas. We put names on everything, and we sent someone each week to take note of what was blooming and thriving, for the blooming sequence chart.”
Alice actively recruited others to become Master Gardeners, including her friend Audrey Faden in 1987. Anne Mazaitis took the classes in 1991, “and there was Alice,” Anne recalled. “She opens worlds for you. She is a walking encyclopedia.”
Alice mentored Audrey and encouraged her to start the Waterwise garden in Simpson Park in Alexandria in the early 1990s. The name “waterwise” was Alice’s suggestion, Audrey recalled. She and Anne Mazaitis also helped with the development of the Shade Garden, and later, when MGNV started the Sunny Garden, all three participated. “We were called ‘the three A’s’ and have remained dear friends ever since,” said Audrey. Jennifer Frum met Alice in 1989 when she took the Master Gardener classes: “Alice was supportive and generous with her time – a font of information – and her knowledge of MGNV’s history and of botany have both been really helpful to the organization.”
Kimberly Haun, longtime Horticulture Technician in the Arlington Extension office and now on the staff in other roles, met Alice in 2004 and was motivated and impressed by her depth of knowledge and her emphasis on always using the Latin names for plants.
“Alice knows every weed and plant,” said Celia Denton. “She is very curious, and if she encounters something she doesn’t know, she’ll go home and research it. But she also loves and appreciates beauty in addition to the science.”
“She’s a real stickler for quality in the Master Gardener program,” said Extension Agent Kirsten Buhls, who has delighted in Alice’s shared knowledge and love of botany and taxonomy. “She has a particular interest in phenology, making us aware of the coincidence of certain events in nature. For instance, when forsythia blooms, it’s time to apply grub controls.”
“In my opinion, she is ‘The Master Gardener’,” said Anne Mazaitis. In March 2014, Alice provided an update on her life and gardening activities. She and her husband Dan now reside at Collington, a continuing care retirement community in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Dan lives in the memory care wing, and she has two dogs to keep her company. Alice brought many plants with her from Alcova, their historic home in Arlington, and has transplanted them into a garden, which surrounds the three sides of her end unit cottage.
Alice also serves as chair of the residents’ Ground Committee, and works with landscape maintenance crews and other residents to improve the 125-acre campus at Collington. They battle Canada geese and a fairly large deer population, so she finds it a whole new gardening experience. “I do miss Arlington and all the friends and my old gardens,” she says, “but it’s kind of fun to start a new one!”