When 4-H plants a seed in the mind of a youngster like David Daughton, self-confidence, self-esteem and a future leader blossom.

The North Harford Middle School sixth-grader hoes and plants and weeds hislush garden of squash, beans, onions and peppers. Then he weeds somemore.

The champion horticulturist can see the value of his hard work. Like a farmer who earns a living cultivating the land, learning to keep records on his vegetables as they grow has paid off for the 11-year-old. His vegetables have won first place at the Harford County Fair for three straight years.

"That'll help when you get older," he said. "The more work you put into it, the better the results."

David's parents help him weed the enormous two-acre garden. They also donate their time to teach about horticulture. Eileen Daughton sees 4-H as a chance for her son and other youth to rub shoulders with the experts, who pass on their knowledge.

As with most youngsters, 4-H'ersoften are serious about a new career with each new field they study.Eileen Daughton said 4-H brings them back to reality by explaining how much time they will have to commit to education and work to be successful.

"4-H is one of the best ways that kids can try different vocations. In the horticulture program, there are vocations they can try on a short-term basis," she said. "They stimulate their interest.I guess I can't say enough good about the program."

Horticulturalprograms are offered in flower gardening, house plants and terrariums, vegetable gardening, lawn care and soil quality, according to Catherine Clarke, the 4-H agent for Harford County. Youngsters will learnskills like making terrariums and corsages and identifying diseases by examining the leaf of a plant. Youngsters who stick with the program can take their produce to the state fair and compete for blue ribbons and cash.

When he is free from school and weeding the garden, learning to identify bulbs and seeds has paid off for the young Daughton, earning him 12th place in the horticulture competition at the state fair last year. But times, they have changed.

The 4-H club conjures up visions of a teen-ager corralling a steer or a farmer showing youngsters how to choose and pluck a ripe tomato. Fewer and fewer of the youngsters, who are between 8 and 18, are drawn to horticultureas the county grows increasingly urban. Only 20 of the 600 youngsters in Harford County 4-H are involved in horticulture.

The club nowis divided into communitywide and countywide activities. Children in4-H can pick and choose among any workshop or program offered. The emphasis has shifted to general programs, such as bicycling, computersand consumer education.

Clarke plans to bring youngsters back to the land. She said that fewer parents are farmers than in previous generations and they have less time to teach their children about horticulture. She hopes to publicize the programs to stimulate interest.

"You don't want it to become a lost science," she said.

There are important lessons to be learned from horticulture, she said. Youngsters like Daughton learn more than crop growing. They learn to keep records, set goals, evaluate their accomplishments and set goals for next year. They learn responsibility.

"All of the 4-H projects are geared toward developing life skills," she said. "The main thing withany 4-H program will be that children are pursuing their interest. They're using their time in a productive way -- in a learning way."

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