Information center sprouts answers to gardeners' dilemmas Volunteers, hot line are standing by


At long last, summer weather is here.

The tomato plants are in, the day lilies budding; it's a green and thriving world. Get a little closer, though, and you may find less than perfection. Aphids are dining on the rosebushes, and the pepper plants seem to be shrinking. And what are those brown spots on the lawn? Help! Is there anywhere a poor gardener can turn for help?

For years, the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service has answered "yes" to that question. Although founded originally to serve the agricultural community, Maryland and Howard County in particular have also tried to accommodate the ever-increasing need of urban and suburban people for reliable up-to-date information on home gardening, landscape

horticulture and insect pests and pesticides.

Lean budgets and a growing clientele are transforming the way the extension works. The changes, as they affect the baffled gardener above, are showing up in at least two ways: a centralization of homeowner informational services away from the counties to the state level; and an increased reliance on trained "Master Gardener" volunteers to handle information distribution.

In the past, an urban agriculture agent was assigned to each county to handle horticultural education, including residents' requests for information. He or she also worked with commercial interests like nurseries, greenhouses and lawn-care companies.

A little over two years ago, the extension followed up on its decision to start moving county agents away from direct homeowner contact and toward more commercial work. It opened the Maryland Home and Garden Information Center, a resource accessible by a toll-free 800 number. Now, two years later, statistics indicate that increasing numbers of gardeners, including those in Howard, are learning to turn to the center for help.

"So far, we are running at about 50 percent more calls this year than last," says David Clement, coordinator of the center, located on the University of Maryland farm property in Clarksville. (Last year 43,271 calls came in, with more than 6,000 in May alone.)

Phone service is offered 24 hours a day, every day. An automated phone system allows the caller access to a set of more than 200 pre-taped mini-lectures on a wide range of topics, says Clement. Another 100 are in the works.

Some of the most popular subjects are gypsy moths and fruit and vegetables. Lawn care was selected by 3,600 callers in 1991, and the "Tip of the Week," an up-to-the-minute explanation of a current problem, was heard by more than 5,700 people last year. Soon, a printed directory of all the tapes -- including a four-digit dial-in number for each -- will be available. A touch-tone phone is required to select the tapes, except for "Tip of the Week," which comes on automatically, Clement says.

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday, the phones are answered by real people -- from six to eight of them. They range from Clement, on occasion, and the three other regional specialists who run the center, to part-time horticultural consultants and volunteer Master Gardeners (volunteers trained to help with homeowner services). The calls seem to come non-stop during the morning.

Fungal plant diseases common to cool, wet weather are, predictably, the hot topics lately. Gypsy moths are lying low so far. More than half the phone calls last year were answered personally. Clement warns that those who call during April, May and June may find themselves put on hold for a while. But, he adds, the wait usually isn't long.

Hundreds of fact sheets are available through the center and are sent to individuals on request. "Lyme Disease in Maryland," "The Gypsy Moth and the Homeowner," "Effective Lawn Care with Reduced Pesticide and Fertilizer Use," and "1992 Maryland Direct Farm Market and Pick Your Own Directory" are just a few.

Volunteerism is another aspect of extension activities that has increased with difficult budget times. Master Gardeners have been active for a decade in Howard. In the past, this enthusiastic group has taken on projects large and small, and set precedents for Master Gardener programs in other parts of the state and country.

Master Gardeners are the only ones left "at home" in the agriculture agent's office in Howard. Scott Aker, the last agent, resigned this spring to take a job at the National Arboretum in Washington. A recent newsletter from the Howard extension office says he would not be replaced. Coordination of the county's Master Gardener program, which also rested with Aker, will be taken over by a part-time staff member in the near future.

To their credit, the Master Gardeners have carried on alone. A newsletter continues to be produced. Most importantly for county gardeners, the Master Gardeners have scheduled a full summer of "plant clinics" at the Miller Library on Frederick Road. Consultation with these seasoned experts is a real asset to those with horticultural puzzles.

They also distributed extension fact sheets of current interest and soil test kits. If they can't figure out a horticultural problem, they will take it to the specialists at the center. This includes samples of diseased and damaged plants.

Other local Master Gardener activities will re-emerge when a coordinator is in place. Last year, their members performed home visits for county residents who wanted a firsthand evaluation of their properties' landscape problems. Some gave gardening lectures for community organizations. A composting demonstration project was initiated.

Where to get answers to your garden problems

* CES Home and Garden Information Center, 1-800-342-2507.

Tapes, including "Tip of the Week" (touch-tone phone required).

24 hours a day, every day.

Personal service, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

* Howard County Master Gardener Plant Clinics (information: 313-2707).

Miller Library, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City.

Saturdays, through September, 10 a.m. to noon.

Mondays, through September, 7 to 8:30 p.m.

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