Interview with Sandy Venton, Vice-Chair

Newsletter (NL) – How did you become interested in gardening?

Sandy Venton (SV) – I must have been very young, because one of the first pictures taken of me is leaning over in the garden to smell the tiger lilies. My mother was an excellent gardener of both flowers and vegetables and I learned a great deal from her. I actually started to garden when I was about 4 years old.

NL – What kind of a garden/s do you have?

SV – My garden is made up of long perennial beds which hold peonies, roses, irises, lilies (mostly martagon lilies which are my passion), and I permit my husband to garden in a small space at the bottom of the slopes, where he plants his tomatoes and cucumbers.

Iris ‘Bride’s Halo’

NL – What are the things that give you most pleasure in your garden?

SV – My major pleasure right now is seeing my tree peonies flower. They were started from seed in 2016 and this is the first year for a white rockii hybrid and the third year for the very dark pink rockii hybrid (it missed its second year). My motto in the garden is “go big or go home” and just because I can, I’ve started more tree peony seeds. There are seven seedlings showing now, but I anticipate that there may be more. Where I’m going to put them is an entirely different story.

Tree Peony ‘Boundless Bright Sky’

NL – You have an extensive horticultural knowledge in particular of roses, peonies and lilies. What was your way of acquiring this knowledge and how do you keep up with your specialties?

SV – I read a great deal and have a fairly decent and comprehensive library on many plants, which I refer to on a continual basis. I suppose that learning by trial and error doesn’t hurt, and I’ve made many mistakes during my gardening lifetime. I will try a certain plant 3 times. If, after the 3rd time it doesn’t last, then I feel that I’ve at least given it a chance. It also doesn’t hurt to think that I have been gardening for the past 71 years and I picked up knowledge here and there during my “travels”.

Itoh Peony ‘Cora Louise’

NL – You are also a judge of the North American Lily Society. How did you become a judge and what is the judge evaluating?

SV – To become a lily judge, it is necessary to grow many lilies of the various divisions, such as Asiatics, martagons, trumpets, and oriental/trumpet hybrids. Then it is necessary to take a judging course, write the exam and pass, become a student judge for 3 NALS accredited shows, and then become an accredited lily judge. I became a judge in 1992 and have been judging both local and national shows ever since.

There are different classes that make up a lily show. Some are to show the best of a single cultivar, but the interesting part is the seedling classes. They are the ones that showcase advancement in breeding, and those are the ones that people would like to use for their crosses. It’s a show, and people see lilies that perhaps they hadn’t seen before.

A lily judge looks for a stem with at least one open flower, the spacing of the flowers (placement on stem), the condition of the flowers, the vigour of the stem, the substance of the flowers, the form of the flowers and the colour of the flowers. The stem can be either a martagon, asiatic, longiflorum, trumpet, oriental, oriental/trumpet (OT) and species. A judge must know the flower itself and whether or not it meets the standard.

Martagon Lily ‘Megan Evans’

NL – Why and when did you decide to become a Master Gardener?

SV – I hesitate to say this, but I had no intention of becoming a Master Gardener until I was finally nagged into taking the course the first year it was offered in Winnipeg. I didn’t write the exam for about 5 years until I was notified that I had better take the exam, which I did. I took the course at RRC which was given under the auspices of the University of Saskatchewan. I’m not sorry that I did!

NL – You served and serve on boards and committees including The Prairie Garden, the Manitoba Regional Lily Society, the North American Lily Society and you are a Director of the St. James Horticultural Society. How does the MMGA differ from these organizations?

SV – As a member of The Prairie Garden Committee it was a matter of writing and editing articles for publication. I served with them for at least 10 years, and finally gave it up this past year. I am currently the secretary (for life?) of The Manitoba regional Lily Society and have been with them since before 1992. I was a director, then secretary, then Cdn. VP and finally president of NALS, and as a past president I still attend meetings and judge at the national shows. I am also a director of the St. James Hort. and I think that it might also be a life term.

NL – What motivates you to serve on the MMGA board?/ and or what is one thing that you would like to see the MMGA develop?

SV – I believe that MMGA serves a purpose in educating those who are interested in horticulture, whether it’s flowers or vegetables. The MMGA study group is very important and I’m lucky enough to have been asked to come onto the board as a member at large and now as Vice-chair. I am pleased to see MGGA using the University of Saskatchewan syllabus, which allows the students to take the course at their own speed, so that there is a commonality in the lessons given.

NL – What do you see as the strength of the MMGA

SV – The strength of the MMGA is the information it imparts to both novice and experienced gardeners, whether by the @Ask on the website, or various speakers on their horticultural experiences, the garden tours, the plant sales and other ways to get in touch with people. If MMGA can encourage people to garden or to appreciate gardening, then I am pleased to be a part of it.

Itoh Peony ‘Hillary’

NL – What advice would you give to new (and old) gardeners

SV – Rome wasn’t built in a day, gardeners are not born, and try to push the envelope with regard to Zones as much as you can. A perennial bed can’t be made in one year – it’s a labour of love, mistakes, and victories. Nobody came out of the egg knowing everything, and if a genus of plant interests you, read up as much as you can about it. Book learning goes only so far, but a hands-on in the garden is worth many books, particularly if you learn from your mistakes, whether you purchased the wrong plant for your Zone, or by killing plants. I finally learned that when I order from mail order nurseries and the plants come bare root or with very little soil, I pot them up so that they can get a leg up when put into the garden. I lost many plants by just planting them straight into the flowerbeds. They didn’t stand a chance against plants that had been there for many years.

I suppose that the best advice I can give is don’t have Zone envy. Zone envy is wanting to grow camellias, rhododendrons, crape myrtle, magnolias and other plants that won’t survive in our Zone 3 climate. But on the bright side, we can grow cold weather plants – lilacs, peonies, apples and crabapples and our southern neighbours gnash their teeth when they think about it. Do what makes you happy.

Photos by Sandy Venton

Published: July 2022