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Beyond the Office: Barbara James earned the title ‘Master Gardener’

Barbara James stands near the colorful Burning Bush, which accents a row of apple trees.

When many of us are putting away holiday decorations or rewriting New Year’s resolutions, Barbara R. H. James is studying her seed catalogs, preparing an order for flower and vegetable seeds.

James isn’t just interested in gardening, she has the distinction of being a Master Gardener Volunteer for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County. To earn that title, she was selected in 2007 for the training program taught by Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and horticulture specialists.

The subject matter of the program covers a wide range of gardening topics, including basic botany, soils, entomology, plant pathology, herbaceous ornamentals, pesticide safety, Integrated Pest management, pest and disease control, turf management, trees, vegetable gardening, small fruit and tree fruit culture, and house plants.

The program is offered every three years and involves 70 hours of classroom work over an eight-week period, and 50 hours of volunteer time the first year, and 30 hours a year thereafter. (You can learn more about it at

“My favorite parts of the program were learning about soils and the biology of plants,” James said. “The science behind how plants work is really interesting. I truly enjoy helping out one morning a month on the Garden Helpline operated by Master Gardeners in Monroe County. We always get interesting questions about the problems local gardeners are having, and it’s really rewarding to be able to research the question to help local gardeners.”

Sowing the seeds

The seeds she orders each January are for that year’s garden, which actually gets started indoors in February under fluorescent lights in an unused bedroom of her home. The assorted trays of seedlings include everything from impatiens and marigolds and perennial flowers to tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, peppers and celery.

“Starting from seed, you can grow all sorts of different varieties of tomatoes, and all of the home grown vegetables taste so much more flavorful than what you can get at the store,” James said. “I usually grow five or six different varieties.”

Violets and cyclamen are among the blooming indoor varieties grown by Barbara James in her garden window.

“By mid-April, I start the cooler crops outdoors,” James noted, referring in particular to lettuce, beets, carrots and peas. “The lettuce is ready to pick within a few weeks. Once the soil warms up more — about mid-May — the beans can go in the ground. Later in May when the soil warms more, I plant the squash and cucumbers.”

In addition to the vegetables, James has two apple trees, kiwi vines, strawberries, currants, blueberries, raspberries and an asparagus bed.

Soil is a key factor in any garden. Although the soil in her yard is sandy, James knows a lot about composting and enriching the soil with lawn clippings, composted leaves and food scraps.

“Keeping the deer (and woodchucks, rabbits and chipmunks) out of the garden is part of the challenge of living in Irondequoit,” she said. “Everything green has to be fenced or it disappears as soon as the shoots come up.”

Indoors, James also grows a variety of blooming house plants including violets, cyclamen, clivia, and Christmas cactus. She often adds rosemary and other cooking herbs to the mix.

Past and present

James grew up in Buffalo where both her grandparents and parents had vegetable gardens. When she graduated from Heidelberg College, magna cum laude, with a bachelor’s in German, she returned to Buffalo to look for work.

“It wasn’t a good time to find a teaching job, and especially teaching languages,” James said. “I had an interest in law, so I took a year to get some practical experience in the legal field. I went to work for a local general practitioner as a secretary.”

It was a favorable experience, and the following year James started classes at Cornell Law School. Earning her J.D. (cum laude) in 1979, she took a job with the Buffalo firm Cohen Swados, Wright, Hanifin, Bradford & Brett LLC, gaining experience in pension work, trusts, estates, litigation, and corporate matters.

Her husband, Michael, was working in Rochester as a commercial real estate banker, so they lived in Batavia for a few years, splitting the commute between them.

“Once I had my first child, we decided to move to Rochester,” she said. “In 1987, I started my career at Harris Beach, working part-time for several years while my boys were young.”

Today, the “boys” are Scott, 27, a lawyer in the capital markets group of a London-based Linklaters firm. David, 25, lives in Boston where he teaches earth science to middle-schoolers. 

At Harris Beach, James is co-leader of the Life and Asset Planning Practice Group, focusing her practice on life and asset planning, estate administration, and elder law. She has extensive experience in drafting wills and trusts and in preparing tax and probate documents for both New York and Florida residents.

As a member of the Monroe County Bar Association, James served as chair of the Trusts & Estates section in the past, and is a fellow of the American College of Trusts and Estates Council. She also belongs to the New York State Bar and Florida Bar associations.

Other interests

James made several quilts over the years and enjoys hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. Living within minutes of Durand Eastman Park provides easy access for physical activities, but she and her husband and sons have also hiked and backpacked in the Adirondacks, Yellowstone National Park and the Canadian Rockies.

Next summer, James and her husband are scheduled to hike the West coast of Wales, using a sherpa service to allow them the freedom of just carrying daypacks during the 50 mile adventure that will take them from St. David’s to Milford Haven. They will also spend a few days at the London Olympics, and visiting their son.


— Photos provided by Nora A. Jones