Retired garden guru plants seeds of influence

By Kay Harrod Published:

Sharon Bale is the epitome of a woman for all seasons, and while she’ll tell you she retired this spring, that’s hardly the case.

For 36 years she has apologized for the dirt under her fingernails, but that’s the nature of the beast as a horticultural extension specialist in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

She has driven back and forth from her home in Country Lane Estates in Frankfort to Lexington sometimes six days a week to dig.

Bale has also witnessed six university presidents come and go, and has also seen the creation of the county’s extension program.

So how does a city girl who grew up in Louisville and attended Seneca High School with students like Diane Sawyer and Jerry Abramson learn to play in the dirt?

It definitely was not in her thoughts at that time.

“The only garden I had ever worked in was my grandmother’s in Morgantown (Butler County),” she said, explaining that as an only child her father expected her to do something with medicine or law.

“Physics got me. I had no problem with botany or any other of the sciences, made A’s, but it seemed everything in that class revolved around motors and I wasn’t the least bit interested in torque.”

She was going through a college catalog – “that was when they actually had a book called a catalog” – and saw a class in floral design in the college of agriculture.

“I didn’t even know where Ag classes were held, but it interested me. I was bitten by that one class and by its professor – Dr. Jack Buxton.”

Five years later Buxton would call Bale where she was teaching at the technical school in Fayette County and offer her his position.

“Needless to say a professor offering a job to someone would certainly not happen today, but then it was different,” Bale mused. “Oh heck, then everything was different.”

But the rest is history including a master’s in Agricultural Science with an emphasis in horticulture and Bale’s vocation became her passionate avocation. It’s that history with the university that makes her feel blessed.

“Because of my work I have gone places, met people and done things I could never have imagined. I tell my students I soaked oasis and arranged flowers in the battleship silver punch bowl at the Governor’s Mansion. That’s certainly not happening today.”

In addition to designing flowers for three Kentucky governors at the mansion, locations also include university presidents’ residences, a multitude of states to judge floral shows and attend conferences and to Washington, D.C., for three inaugurations – two for George W. Bush and one for Barack Obama.

Her knowledge of floral design took her and her student, now Lexington’s Decoratif’s owner John Morris, to the head of the class at a seminar. Their reward, while everyone else studied, was a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House floral design studios where florists are on call 24 hours a day.

“Now no one but me will find this exciting, but my breath was taken away when a cabinet was opened and there were the bamboo vermeil containers used by Jackie Kennedy that I had only seen in magazines.”

Because of her notoriety and the respect her national colleagues have for her, she has been the head designer for the Kentucky Ball, one of the largest attended pre-inaugural balls, second only to Texas’ Black Tie and Boots, and the only one that includes a sit-down dinner with Kentucky products prepared by a Kentucky chef.

While she receives no pay for the events, her expenses are reimbursed by the Kentucky Society of Washington.

“It is an honor for me, and the university likes that I do it,” she says.

For the last 12 years, several days before each inauguration, she loads a van with everything from flowers to vases and heads to D.C., where she works with a staff of volunteers to ready for the gala.

“Sometimes there has been room for me to take another staff member or designer, but most of the time it’s me loaded down, looking like a peddler with flowers or leaves sticking up over my head.”

But that is pretty much the way Bale has traveled for the last 36 years with buckets of flowers, plants, shovels and pruning shears, calling her office the passenger seat in her van.  Bale has no iPad and no laptop but she relies on a calendar filled with notes and various project notebooks and lists written on scraps of paper. While she does carry a cell phone, she says in her line of work, most technology is a nuisance, something extra she has to carry around.

In addition to designing flowers and even weeds and incorporating bugs into arrangements for all types of events at the college, she has planted more flowers, shrubs, trees and vegetables than most people know exist.

“Looking back I would not have traded any of my experiences. Every day was different. Except for the classes I taught, I never knew exactly what I was going to be doing from digging in the dirt, doing a television interview, writing for a publication or grilling 1,300 pork chops for a football dinner.”

Mac Whitaker was the dean of programming for the extension programming and a swine specialist, Bale recalls. He invited Bale to help cook pork chops for a football team family day early one season.

“Mac was a character. At one point someone asked him how he knew when the chops were done. Mac got in his truck and pulled out a bottle of Maker’s Mark and said when this is done, they’re done.”

Bale says her job allowed her to meet many very special people, including the late Bill Keightley, with whom she became friends and considers at the top of her list of special people she has known.

In 1978 Bale became the first female judge for the All American Seed Selection, a program of 32 testers in the U.S. and Canada who are sent packages of new seed to evaluate based on a myriad of factors such as resistance to disease. One, which was successful and familiar to most gardeners, is the purple wave petunia, which Bale still considers the best in its category.

She has also judged floral shows in the professional floral design category such as the Cincinnati Floral Design Show – one of the biggest in the region.

It was her floral design class that preeminent landscape designer Jon Carloftis credits for his career and life path.

“Sharon Bale is responsible for the career I chose and as far as I am concerned the success I have had in that career,” Carloftis told the editor of Country Living in May at the Governor’s Derby party.

His chosen career path mirrors Bale’s except he had a degree in communications from UK and decided to use his post graduate time to explore what he might like to do with his life.

“I took Sharon’s class and I was hooked,” he said as the two worked together recently.

“She inspired me then and she inspires me now. I love that I get to work with her on projects at the university.”

Bale chuckles and says Carloftis is “out of her league now.”

But she admits with a great amount of humility that Carloftis’ praise means a great deal to her.

“I guess a teacher never knows the impact he or she is having on a student. But Jon was definitely an eager student and that is exciting for a teacher,” Bale said, adding “Jon’s success is due to Jon’s hard work.”

The arboretum was begun during Bale’s tenure 30 years ago.

“They brought in this design contractor from California to begin the project which then was nowhere near the size the arboretum is now,” she explains. “It was hardly my place to tell this highly paid consultant there was no way her plan would work as it was designed.

“Remember I was a young teacher then, but when I looked at those plans she had fenced it off with no way – no gates or entry points large enough to get trucks in – to haul dirt, equipment or trees.”

But Bale said in her youthful zeal she finally threw what might be called “a fit” in order to get a change in the plans.

The arboretum grew over the years with Lexington/Fayette County government becoming involved and mulched pathways turned to sidewalks and bike paths as well as it grew in size to over 200 acres and a director was hired.

In a matter of months, it will also be the site of the memorial honoring the victims of Flight 5191 that crashed on takeoff from Bluegrass Airport five years ago. The co-pilot was the lone survivor, and one victim was the Associate Dean for Extension, Larry Turner. Bale calls his loss one of the worst days of her life.

Carloftis, Bale and Marcia Farris, its current director, reminisced about the construction of the two acre Children’s Garden 20 years ago as they worked in it readying it for a visit last week by Southern Living.

“I was just a student then, yours probably,” Carloftis said, grinning as he looked at Bale and remembering all the work that went into the project.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what we are going to do without Sharon. I know I will miss being able to pick up the phone and have her solve a problem for me,” Farris said.

But Bale reminded her that she still has a contract to teach three classes for three more years.

“I’ll be around – not that I will have any authority – but when did that stop us.” She and Farris both laughed.

But Bale will not be far from the flowers, plants and the design she loves to do. Her personal enjoyment includes doing floral designs for weddings and other events, even travelling out of state, for her friends who call her a true talent.

There is also a grandbaby – Harper Hardesty, 18 months – who belongs to her daughter, Cassidy, and husband, David. “The most precious child in the whole world,” will keep Bale on the road for visits as long as she lives with her folks in Missouri.

“I hate to fly, but I may just get over that because I plan to see her often. I want her to know her crazy grandmother.”

However, immediately there is also another wedding on Bale’s calendar. Her daughter, Katie, will wed in October and yes, Momma will do all her flowers.

“I’m not sure I know how to slow down. I’ve worked since I was a candy striper at 14, but I’ll probably still have dirty fingernails and haul everything in my van, maybe just not every day.”

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