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Mansfield Magazine

Debbie Key Has Been a Dental Hygienist, Mom, Bookkeeper, Beekeeper & Master Gardener

Nov 30, 2017 05:11PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
Debbie Key grew up in east Texas, went to school to become a dental hygienist, got married and raised a family. When her kids went off to school she began to take an interest in gardening. “Although my mother was an avid gardener I really didn’t know a petunia from a day lily,” she recalls.

Today she is a Master Gardener and beekeeper who also continues to keep a part-time job at her husband’s State Farm insurance agency in Mansfield. She loves to learn new things and has taken classes in everything from photography, painting and calligraphy to sewing and woodworking. She has even recently taken a welding class at Ben Barber Career Tech Academy in Mansfield.

Debbie says she and her husband John have been working with bees for three years and she’s been a Master Gardener for six years. We had a chance to find out more about her unique beekeeping and gardening interests.

When did you first become interested in gardening? I really became interested in gardening the year I lived in San Antonio after graduating dental hygiene school. I found a wonderful plant nursery close to my apartment and spent hours walking the grounds learning about all sorts of plants.  I began purchasing small indoor plants and researching their needs and growing habits.  After John and I married and bought our first home it seemed natural to learn more about landscaping. 
What do you grow? Some vegetables and herbs.  In the shady areas of our yard we grow lots of fern, aspidistra, hydrangeas, Turk’s cap, mock orange.  My sunny areas are full of butterfly weed, alstroemeria, cone flowers, blue mist, gerbera daisies, cleome, coneflowers, bee balm, summer phlox, American beauty berry, plus a few more.
What are your favorite things to grow? Anything from seed.  Three years ago I purchased a growing rack with four large shelves.  There are grow lights that can be lowered close to the seed flats.  It’s so much fun to gather seeds from my yard, friends’ yards, hiking trips and so on, plant the seeds and watch them grow. When I was growing up my mother especially loved candlestick plants.  I finally found some seeds and what fun it has been to grow these beauties.  From a very small seed you grow a great tropical that can reach 10 to 15 feet in one growing season.  They have beautiful yellow flowers that look like candles.
Where is your garden and what does your garden look like? Our garden has developed very slowly through the years.  Over time we have planted trees, removed lots of turf grass and added several raised beds.  In 2014, we dug up everything in our backyard that wasn’t a tree, potted everything up and had a large stone patio installed.  We tore up concrete walkways and installed crushed granite paths. 

We also replaced sprinkler heads with drip irrigation.  We have a pie shaped lot that just naturally called for a waterfall in one corner and a long stream that traversed a lot of the back yard.  One thing leads to another so we added a koi and goldfish pond and installed a bridge.  Beside the pond we had a bench made to sit and watch the fish.  Every garden needs seating, whether a chair, bench or even a big rock.

The year after we put in this water feature I noticed plants starting to grow in the cracks and crevices in the rocks that line the stream.  To my surprise, it was two types of ferns.  It’s so much fun to see how God reproduces His plants without human help. We have lots of potted plants/trees throughout the yard.  Several pieces of “yard art” are sprinkled in. 
What are the most challenging parts of growing and maintaining a garden? My husband would say, “getting my husband to come out and help.”  But seriously, make educated choices.  Always start with a soil test.  The Tarrant County Master Gardener hotline desk, 817-884-1944, will be happy to mail you everything you need to complete a soil test.  Most of our soil needs amending.  Master Gardeners who answer this phone all week long are very willing and able to help you with all gardening needs.  “Plant the right plant in the right place” are great words of wisdom.  Again, do your homework and make sure to choose plants and trees wisely.  And be patient.  It takes a lot of time to have an established landscape.  Take lots of notes and pictures.  It is easy to get confused about what you planted and when.  Label plants as well so you don’t get confused especially as, for example, when you have perennials wake up in the spring. Decide how much time you have to devote to your yard and plants.  Less turf means less mowing and watering. Large flowing flowerbeds can be relatively easy to maintain if you chose plants that have little trimming requirements.  Using lots of compost and mulch is the key.
Do any of your family members share your gardening interests? John really enjoys a pretty yard.  He mows well, weed eats well and can dig holes for me.  My daughter, Tracy, appreciates any plants that I give her and does well with them.  My son had a small vegetable garden this year from plants I started from seed.  He enjoyed that.  Our granddaughters Abby and Kylie enjoy the garden, too.  Kylie likes to eat the strawberries and Abby loves to spend time on the swing her Paw Paw put up in one of our large oak trees. 

What kind of training is necessary to become a Master Gardener? I became a Master Gardener in 2011. The Master Gardener program is a continual training program that is associated with Texas AgriLife Extension. We have over 400 certified members. I am constantly around folks that love gardening and love sharing their knowledge.  I’ve always believed your game improves when you match up with better players.  That’s true in every aspect of life.  There are a lot of gardeners that have great wisdom to share and I want to learn from them.

Tarrant County Master Gardener’s program and certification gets everyone off to a great start.  Then everyone has the opportunity to volunteer in many different projects. In addition, the Master Gardeners are offered classes to become certified specialists in different areas.  In the last six years I have been certified in irrigation, vegetable and propagation.  I’m on our speaker’s bureau so I have lots of opportunities to teach on many subjects.
How can someone find out more about becoming a Master Gardener? At the website you’ll be able to find out more about the program.  By calling the Master Gardener hotline, 817-884-1944, you can visit with someone that can give you all the details about the program.  After certification, Master Gardeners must volunteer a certain number of hours each year to remain certified. It’s all about learning and sharing what you learn.
What’s the most rewarding part of gardening for you? I’m an enthusiast and encourager.  It’s a blessing to be able to share successful gardening tips and information with people.  I want gardeners to make wise, educated choices.
Your other big interest right now is beekeeping, how did you discover this hobby? Part of the Master Gardener’s training includes lots of info on pollinators.  Our class was introduced to honey bees by a commercial beekeeper from Wylie.  To me, becoming a beekeeper was a perfect match with gardening.  John and I both have a science background.  When I shared my new found knowledge with John he thought it might be a great hobby for us to share.  Life gets in the way so we waited a few years. 

One Saturday morning we noticed in the newspaper an intro class on beekeeping.  We went and heard again what a great hobby beekeeping is.  We were told if we wanted more information to attend a meeting with the Metro Beekeepers Association in Ft. Worth.  The first meeting was fascinating.  We not only signed up for a 12-month class but also ordered two boxes of bees.  Nothing like jumping in! 

How did you learn to handle the bees? Our classes at Metro Beekeepers Association were very helpful.  Like gardeners, beekeepers are happy, willing and enthusiastic about sharing information.  Some of the members offer to mentor new hobbyists and we took advantage of that. The first time we opened a box of bees it was frightening.  These animals are not your pets. As time goes by, the frightening aspect of working with bees diminishes.  Now it’s interesting and exciting.  There’s always a lot to learn.
Is there any training/certification necessary? No, but like any other endeavor the more you know the more successful you will be. John and I have attended several seminars.  Last year we spent a day at Texas A&M at a “queen rearing” class.  We have attended a state conference and we go to all our association meetings.  We now have an extensive library on beekeeping and we talk to a lot of beekeepers.
What kind of equipment is required? Boxes or hives where the bees live can be purchased pre-made and painted or you can assemble them yourselves.  We choose to assemble and paint ours, saving money. A bee suit and gloves are necessary.  A smoker is handy. Smoking the bees calms them down.  A hive tool for prying frames out of the box and a soft brush for gently moving bees are necessary.  The bee supply catalogues have a lot to entice your want list, but you can add as your hobby grows.
What kind of work and financial resources are required to keep bees? Hive inspections are necessary to avoid diseases and unwanted pests.  During the winter months, beekeepers feed sugar water to their hives and sometimes extra pollen.  This helps the bees get through the winter.  Bees forage very little during the cold months and we want them to get off to a good start come spring. Startup costs can be pricey, but you can add to your hobby slowly.  John and I started with two hives and equipment for both of us.  It seems like it was less than $1,000.  We have had as many as eleven hives, but currently have only nine.
What kind of bees do you have and how many are there? We have Italian bees.  A hive of bees can be several boxes stacked on each other.  An average hive can easily have 60,000 or more bees. 
Where do you get the bees? We purchase our bees from a member of our bee club.  He sells what is called a NUK, a nucleus.  This type of colony has 4-5 frames of comb, a laying queen and usually some honey.  I am licensed with the state to remove bees.  Mansfield’s Water Department calls us when they have a water meter that has a bee infestation.  That’s another way to add to your bee population.  We’ve also removed bees that have swarmed into trees. 
Where do you keep the bees? We have three locations.  One location is Harvesting International.  This is a great area and the management has allowed us to plant 5 fruit trees - great for them and the bees.
What’s it like to get fresh honey from the boxes? It’s a lot of work, but fun and exciting.  Your end product is fantastic!  There’s nothing better than fresh honey!
What danger is involved? With the right clothing, gloves and headgear, there is little danger involved.  We were taught how and when to open hives.  There are certain rules to follow or you can easily be covered in angry bees.  Everything is done in slow motion since bees aren’t fond of invaders.  When your bees are used to you working inside the hive, usually they are very calm.
What do you like best about beekeeping? Every third bite of food we take is a result of pollinators like honeybees.  There is a definite decline of these insects and folks need to step up to raise them and educate the public of their importance.  John, my son Jeff, and I have had the opportunity to teach elementary school kids about bees and their role in our environment.  I’ve taken our observation hive to plant sales, festivals and Master Gardener events - all great chances to teach the benefit of honeybees. There is so much to learn about bee behavior and what it takes to succeed in this business. 
Do you think you will continue gardening and beekeeping in the years to come? I certainly hope so.  Gardening is very therapeutic.  There’s nothing like watching tiny sprouts pop out of the ground in spring.  When a person comes up to you after you have completed a presentation on gardening and they smile and thank you for the knowledge you have just shared with them, well, it just doesn’t get better than that.  When a child watches a bee being born right in front of their eyes in the observation hive and screams with delight, it just doesn’t get better than that.  

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