Polish-born writer Jerzi Kosinski once said that it was easier to write in English than his native Polish. He found that English didn't come encumbered with prejudices learned from a lifetime of habit. He could use new words more freely, more creatively, without having preconceptions of how they should be used.

Starting a new avocation, such as gardening, from scratch produces a similar freedom. Without a parent's garden to labor and learn in, without friends to encourage and advise, without learning the language of gardening at an early age,a person with the ache to garden has to go to special lengths to succeed. And when he or she does, it is something special.

Marsha Lapin, an Ellicott City resident and new homeowner, began three years ago with only the vaguest idea on how plants grow.

"Ifyou had asked me about gardening then," she says, "I would have asked how to spell it."

Today, her home is surrounded with annuals, perennials, herbs, vegetables, trees and shrubs. There is even a wildflower garden out back.

Now in her second full season of digging andraising plants in her yard, it is obvious that she is doing something right. She started on a whim, she says, by accompanying her neighbor in the then new development, to a nursery. She loved the beautiful plants she saw and succumbed to buying a few for her front yard. Her neighbor showed her how to plant them. No one could have been more astonished, she says, than she was when the plants lived and flourished.

City-born and bred, Lapin was surprised at how quickly she got caught up in the world of plants, and their attendant problems -- insect pests and diseases. Digging in the hard soil that the developer had left around the house wasn't easy. But the prices she and her husband encountered for having the place professionally landscaped persuaded her to keep shoveling.

She discovered the garden section at thecounty library, and often found herself checking out 10 to 15 books at a time -- all on gardening.

She learned how to build the soil with peat, top soil, manure and mulch. Changing from using the word "dirt" to "soil" is a transition that all gardeners go through. But to a late-blooming gardener like Lapin, the concept is especially meaningful.

"Soil is not dirt," she states emphatically.

Slowly, moreof the yard has been dug up for flowers and vegetable beds. Lapin isespecially proud of her herbs. There are 32 kinds, she points out, from low-growing thyme to tall dill. Honeybees climb about the blooming mints, finding the licorice-flavored hyssop especially appealing.

Bugs were a real problem at first, Lapin says. She admits to a fearbordering on phobia when it came to creeping, crawling and buzzing things. But experience has moderated her distaste and taught her tolerance.

The spray can of insecticide that rarely left her side in her first ventures on the yard, has been discarded completely. She saysthat one of the biggest benefits of learning to garden had been a better understanding of the environment and her role in it. She now espouses an organic approach, and so far, has been happy with her plants' ability to survive without heavy pesticide use.

With her unorthodox combination of lack of experience, beginner's luck and enthusiasm, Lapin has tried some techniques that might raise the eyebrow of themore traditional gardener. She optimistically tosses mixed seeds over new beds and is rewarded with a rainbow of color. Plants that textbooks claim are "unsuitable" for Maryland -- hollyhocks and lupines for instance -- seem to do just fine.

She has designated an out-of-the-way bed just for experimenting. New plants with unknown qualities are relegated to this bed for a year. In two years Lapin has developed some cynicism as to nurseries' and catalogs' overblown claims.

"They say it will grow to be 4-feet tall, but it never gets to two, orvice versa," she notes. Watching how the plants behave for a year gives her the information as to where to plant it.

Another unexpected pleasure of gardening, according to Lapin, is the fun of sharing seeds and plants with friends. When a flower bed she created next to the street started to attract the attention of neighborhood children, she carefully stocked it with colorful, sweet-scented flowers that thekids were allowed to pick.

Howard County has many resources for the novice gardener. Lectures at area nurseries are a great place to get information, says Lapin. On visits to area public gardens, a notebook and camera bring lessons home to study. The horticulture consultants at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center and our county urban agriculture agents are wonderful sources, too. So are the plant clinics run by county Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Not only do the volunteer Master Gardeners provide information, they have become, in Lapin's case, the encouraging friends that her city upbringing denied her. Because she found herself so reliant on their advice, last fall she signed up for Master Gardener training herself. Now she is on the giving side of gardening, spending several volunteer hours a month manning the phone lines at the information center's 800 phone number, researching the problems she is unfamiliar with.

The old saw that says the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, is especially true of gardening, says Lapin.

Unhampered by the "tried and true," she has transformed herself from neophyte to successful gardener during the past two years.

Knowing that there is much more to learn is, to her, an exciting plus. As she puts it, "It feels like I've already been atit a lifetime, with a long way still to go."

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