By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna branch of the Schenectady County Public Library is a haven for bookworms, students and young children attending storytime, but it also attracts a unique community group: gardeners.
Any passerby on Nott Street is likely to notice the full, colorful gardens that wrap around the building on all sides, but may not realize the eye-catching landscape is tended to by a group of volunteers as sunny as the blooms they look after each week.
On clear Thursday mornings at 9 a.m. from May to September, a group of Niskayuna residents with varying levels of expertise gather to plant, pull, prune and otherwise perfect the 16 unique gardens at the library.
“Usually we get, I would say 180 to 200 hours of volunteer time throughout the summer,” said Elaine Bair, a longtime volunteer gardener.
Like many others who lend a green thumb to the library grounds, Bair and a friend joined the group after retiring 11 years ago, mostly to socialize and enjoy themselves. Both still contribute a couple hours to the project each week.
“There’s a sense of community that comes with it because typically you’re meeting people that you don’t already know,” said Bair. “We come from all different kinds of backgrounds.”
Bair knew almost nothing about gardening when she joined, but said the group, which counts three master gardeners among its members, is a pleasant place to learn. In New York state, master gardeners are trained through Cornell Cooperative Extension, which accepts applicants by county.
The trainees are required to volunteer consistently for a year or more in exchange for their instruction.
“In our training, we learned about specific plants and also about horticulture in general,” said master gardener Sylvia Cosgrove. She noted the front garden, facing Nott Street, was designed 20 years ago and needs careful attention to keep it healthy and beautiful.
“Gardens evolve over time, and some plants are very suitable for particular areas and others maybe struggle,” Cosgrove said.
Fellow master gardener Diana Gelfand agreed. “As things grow, the light changes, and sometimes you put something in and it’s not happy,” she said. “Sometimes I move plants three times.”
The trio of master gardeners who tend to the library’s flowers and shrubs make most of the logistical decisions regarding which flowers to plant and where they may thrive, while imparting their knowledge to their more casually interested counterparts.
Retiree Doris Afejuku had a great deal of love for, and knowledge about, gardening in her home country of Nigeria, but was unsure how to proceed when she moved to the Orchard Park area of Niskayuna to be closer to her daughter, who works at Ellis Hospital. Afejuku now spends six months each year in Niskayuna and six in Nigeria. She said joining the volunteer gardeners four years ago introduced her to new friends and taught her how to grow beautiful plants in a very different area.
“The soil here is very muddy. It’s not fertile at all,” Afejuku said. “Back home, we don’t use much fertilizer at all. We just plant, and because it’s sunny all the time, it grows.”
The knowledge she’s gained by joining the library volunteers in their gardening duties has made it possible for Afejuku to garden at her own home here, as well. She now plants marigolds each year, just as she does in Nigeria.
“They are bright and happy,” she said.
In order to keep them that way, Cosgrove said she hoped more volunteers would join the group this year.
“There is sort of a nucleus of community volunteers who come, but we can always use more,” she said.
If you would like to join the Niskayuna library gardeners, simply show up at the library, 2400 Nott St. East, at 9 a.m. on fair Thursday mornings. You can also call the library at 386-2249 for more information.
Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome, and the gardeners would like to emphasize that members can commit at any level and are not required to attend every week.