Living Local: Master gardener Katie Frieden

June 1, 2014 

The weather changed just enough for Katie Frieden to predict that the rain would fall within 15 minutes — even though there wasn’t a cloud over the Centre Furnace Mansion.

She was right.

The Centre County-Penn State master gardener and longtime Centre County Historical Society volunteer said gardening gave her a new sense that makes her more in touch with Mother Nature.

“It’s just something you can feel,” Frieden said. “It makes you more aware.”

Frieden, 58, of Patton Township, has been part of the Centre Furnace Mansion Garden Committee for more than 10 years; she helps coordinate efforts by the group.

The committee was started 14 years ago from an idea that originated in the 1980s to help keep up the gardens at the mansion.

And mansion staff said she is one of the biggest helpers they have had.

“We’re not sure what we would do without them (volunteers),” said Mary Sorensen, executive director. “We’re thrilled with how the gardens are maintained.”

This mansion is a community gem and people pull through together to get things done.”

From 2 to 7 p.m. every Thursday, a group of 20 regular volunteers meet to weed, plant and clean up the seven gardens that encompass the historical center. They even help care for a sycamore tree that dates back to 1787.

Frieden is one of the few who spends the entire day doing just that. Sometimes, she even volunteers on her off time with her 7-year-old Corgi, NooNoo, by her side.

“It’s heavy labor and long hours, but it’s a stress relief, and what people don’t realize is that gardening is good for your health,” Frieden said. “It keeps you active, allows you to be creative and gets you outdoors.”

Frieden didn’t grow up gardening in her hometown of Cleveland, but was introduced to the hobby in 1978 by her former mother-in-law.

When she moved to the Centre Region in 1991, she continued to make gardening a big part of her life by first starting with a small vegetable garden at her home and expanding it into a flower garden.

She then made the hobby into an outreach mission when she became a master gardener at Penn State in 2000 and a part of the garden committee with the Centre Furnace Mansion a few years later. Frieden said it was her part of giving back to a community she loves.

The gardening season usually lasts from March to November, but started at the mansion the first week of April due to a lingering winter, Frieden said.

The snows left the gardens soggy and overgrown, but Frieden said it’s worth the work to keep it up.

She spent last Tuesday and Thursday on her hands and knees weeding two gardens in the back of the facility. She set down a sheet, and one-by-one, picked the unwanted greenery that sprouted through the dirt and mulch. She placed them on the sheet for later disposal.

When she wasn’t wearing gloves, the tips of her fingers were stained green with patches of dirt stuck in the crevices of her skin.

She took the meaning “green thumb” to a whole new level and proved she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

“I love the period gardens,” Frieden said. “I can spend all day here. They mimic what the gardens would have looked like in the Victorian era.”

Sorensen said the historical society doesn’t have a lot of photographic evidence of what the grounds looked like, but from research, it had parklike landscaping.

Frieden’s mission is to keep the gardens as true to its history as possible.

“It’s taking a little tender love and care, but its history is important,” she said.

Frieden encourages anyone to get involved in gardening, but suggests to first start off small, do a soil test and some research, before delving into something that may not be maintainable.

“It gives you a chance to be creative and learn something new, but it’s one of those things where you have to be careful not to bite more than you can chew,” Frieden said. “Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs in a way when we take on these kinds of projects, but there’s a certain love for it.”

— Britney Milazzo

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