A Rocky Workout: Caroline Yourcheck

“Now, rather than force myself to the gym, I find I have to force myself out of the garden.”

Master Gardener Caroline Yourcheck sits among hundreds of shade-tolerant hydrangeas.
Master Gardener Caroline Yourcheck sits among hundreds of shade-tolerant hydrangeas.
Photo by Laura Moss

Caroline Yourcheck gardens with muscle. A personal trainer, she discovered the ultimate workout by excavating, composting and planting more than 40 trees. “I dug out every hole myself,” she says. In the process, she transformed her overgrown, woody backyard into a wildlife habitat and personal sanctuary.

When Yourcheck and her husband, Jeffrey Gerson, purchased their ranch-style brick home in 2005, the half-acre backyard was seriously neglected and rocky. They had been living in a townhouse and “gardening was not my thing,” she says. That changed quickly. The first step was to remove the mountains of rock, her initial test of strength. Yourcheck, now 57, and her then 12-year-old nephew filled a dumpster with a whopping nine tons of rock. “The dumpster was so heavy it left dents in the driveway,” she says.

Yourcheck’s next move required more brains than brawn. She enrolled in the Rutgers Master Gardener program in 2006 in Middlesex County. Soon she was scouring textbooks and finding inspiration. “The Master Gardeners class catapulted me into it,” she says. “I became so curious. I did everything exactly the way the books recommended and I bought just about every book on landscaping I could find.”

She was hooked. “Most people who garden eventually become a little obsessed,” she says. “I didn’t know I was OCD until I started gardening.”

Since most of Yourcheck’s backyard is shaded, she established a specific plan, creating a Japanese-inspired woodland shade garden. She learned what grows well without direct sunlight and ultimately planted 10 weeping hemlocks, 26 Japanese maples and a peach tree, among other specimens. Her current favorite is the pawpaw, an indigenous fruit-bearing tree that produces “the most delicious fruit I’ve ever tasted,” she says. “It looks like a mango and tastes like banana custard.”

Yourcheck became an avid composter, producing her own nutrient-rich soil from 100 percent chopped oak leaves, a process that takes about four years, she says. “I don’t even turn the pile.” Last fall Yourcheck gathered 102 bags of chopped leaves from her yard, creating a compost mountain 7-feet high. (While she has an industrial-strength contraption that vacuums and chops, Yourcheck says it’s just as effective to chop up leaves with a lawn mower.)

Yourcheck is never alone in her garden. Along with dozens of chipmunks and birds, she has Tuggy, a 50-year-old turtle she found in an alley garbage can in Kearny when she was six. Tuggy lives in a vivarium on the garden’s edge, except for the winter months when she hibernates in a cat carrier Yourcheck keeps in the garage.

Yourcheck’s yard continues to be a work in progress. “I wanted to create a stress-free sanctuary,” she says. “It’s about mind, body and soul.” And though she still trains fitness clients, she has discovered her own unique workout. “Now, rather than force myself to the gym, I find I have to force myself out of the garden.”

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