Master gardener illustration

Master gardener illustration (Moira Millman, Baltimore Sun / May 2, 2014)

When Joe Marsala was a kid in Texas, an excitable neighbor would call him over regularly to see a special new plant she had found. After a career as a computer scientist and a mathematician, primarily for the Department of Defense, the Lothian retiree can correct his neighbor. "All plants are pretty special," the master gardener said.

Carol Youmans was working in an Annapolis framing store when someone from a local theater group came in to get a poster framed. What were the requirements to work at the Colonial Players, the former teacher asked idly. "There aren't any," she was told. That was 35 years ago, remembered Youman, now the artistic director.

Joe Perona retired at 53 — he was also government mathematician and a computer scientist — to explore what interested him: ice skating, tae kwan do, billiards, powerboating, personal watercraft and, since he'd always wanted to be a college professor, teaching. He stumbled into a yoga class. That was 18 months ago, and the Riva resident has been back nearly every day since.

These three found more than something to occupy their time in retirement. They found new passions. Stumbled on them, actually. There was no plan to become a master gardener, a theater director or a yogi. But each found something to devote more than their time to and add life to their retirement.

These new passions do more for retirees than fill their days with pleasure. A body of research that shows they are also healthier, said Samantha Warfield, spokesman for the nonprofit Corporation for National and Community Service, which, among other things, sponsors the Senior Corps programs.

"There is lower mortality, increased strength and energy, decreased rates of depression and fewer physical limitations," she said.

As Perona put it: "Yoga wasn't even remotely anything I was looking for. Now I can't imagine life without it."

Joe Marsala

Marsala, 73, learned a little something about plants, trees and shrubs by tending the landscaping around the various homes where he lived.

After retiring, he heard about the Anne Arundel County Master Gardener program, under the University of Maryland Extension, and signed up for it. He drank in the new information during the intensive training program.

But the volunteer opportunities required to maintain his certification were not very satisfying. He wanted to work with the public, and he wanted to share what he had learned.

"I loved the idea of educating people," said the Texas A&M graduate, who never took a single horticultural course while he was there.

So Marsala borrowed an idea from his master gardening counterparts in New England and set up the Ask a Master Gardener program in Anne Arundel County. He trains and schedules 60 master gardeners who set up shop at farmers' markets and libraries every Saturday from April to October to answer questions and inspire gardeners with demonstrations.

"I had no idea this thing was going to get so big," said Marsala, who finds he is neglecting his own acre and a half in Lothian. "Our clients not only expect us to be there, they depend on us. They take it for granted that we will be there to answer their questions."

The plant clinics on Saturdays at the Annapolis Farmers' Market on Riva Road, the Severna Park Farmers' Market on Route 2, and at the West County and Crofton libraries fielded about 4,500 queries last year. The questions become more sophisticated every year, he said.

"Horticulture is becoming a national pasttime," he said.

Marsala loved his job running super-computer labs for the government, but he said he loves this just as much, if not more.

"I like hanging out with these people," he said. "Garden people are just good people."

Carol Youmans

Youmans, 74, has a strong literary background — she studied at Bryn Mawr College — and she taught high school English and composition at St. Anselm Abbey School in Washington for a decade. When she and her husband moved to Annapolis 35 years ago, she left teaching and took the job at the framing shop where she made the theater connection she never knew she wanted.