When Howard County extension agent Ray Bosmans left in June 1989 to take a regional specialist's job at the new Home and Garden Center near Clarksville, prospects for a replacement were slim.
The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service urban agriculture agent position remained unfilled, largely for financial reasons, for 13 months.
But Scott Aker recently arrived to fill the post. Since August, he's been trying to familiarize himself with the county.
Aker, 25, arrives fresh from a University of Maryland master's program in horticulture. While he knows he has much to learn, he's got practical experience. His years in school were studded with varied jobs, including working with a garden chrysanthemum breeding program and summer internships with Monsanto Corp. in St. Louis, where he studied corn plant growth regulators.
He also spent a spring and summer in the prestigious intern program at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, Pa. A native of South Dakota and graduate of the University of Minnesota, Aker found that he likes milder pastures. It was after the Longwood stay that he entered the University of Maryland's graduate program.
He now lives in Greenbelt, where his neighbors have labeled him the "plant addict," he says. His entire front yard has been turned into a perennial garden. Wild perennials in particular fascinate him. His horticultural endeavors also include an herb knot garden -- beds incorporating the interweaving of different herb plants into a braided design -- and maintaining rare orchids.
For a good definition of just what "urban agriculture" is, look to Aker's gardening interests and activities as an example.
While there is still the traditional agriculture community here in Howard County that the Cooperative Extension Service was originally set up to serve, the needs and interests of most county residents are in the areas of home gardens and landscape, tree care, house plants, home use of pesticides, lawn care and controlling household pests, such as termites and fleas. Environmental concerns have only heightened our need for reliable information in all these areas.
Aker said he sees his role as two-fold: "To serve the commercial and homeowner interests in the county through educational programs and dealing with people one on one."
In the first, he must make university research and informational programs available to local commercial nurserymen, garden centers and lawn care companies. In the second, he deals directly and individually with county residents. His schedule is filling quickly with newsletter writing and lecture dates. Analyzing and returning soil test results will continue to be done at his office, too.
His top priority is his work with individuals.
"Right now for the first year, I'm trying to get the homeowner program under control," Aker said. "I am going to aim my first program toward the homeowner."
He is trying to respond to telephone calls and make personal visits in order to "get a feel for local problems." Following Extension Service policy, routine garden and horticulture questions are now referred to the 800 number at the Home and Garden Information Center. But many problems find their way to Aker's desk in the form of a desperate phone call or a diseased or damaged plant sample.
Most problems take some detective work. A visitor with a sick plant shouldn't ask "What's wrong with this?" without being prepared for some interrogation. For instance, through a discussion with a patron, Aker identified a tiny worm that lives off of the cricket's dead body. This "horse hair worm," as it is often called, is only a small sample of the wildlife that arrives at an urban agriculture agent's office.
If unable to quickly diagnose a problem brought to him, Aker notes that the question and/or plant sample may require some time to study. Or Aker may go to the university for help. He can't promise a quick turnaround on all questions, he says, but will get the information out as soon as he can.
The Howard County Extension office has enjoyed a large Master Gardener program -- now Aker is its coordinator. Trained and kept up-to-date by the university, these volunteer garden experts help the Extension Service by answering phone inquiries, teaching, running "plant clinics" and participating in many community projects. Aker said he sees the group as "a vital part of the extension service's outreach to the citizens of the county."
A new class series for potential Master Gardeners has just started in the county. This year's program, because of the long absence of a coordinator, is being handled by the Home and Garden Information Center and by the County Recreation and Parks Department. Classes meet two days a week for three hours, Oct. 16 through Nov. 19. Speakers from both the center and the university will lecture on everything from soils to wood borers. Aker is teaching the class about bedding plants. For more information, contact him or the Home and Garden Information Center.
More Master Gardeners helping in the office means more time will be available to him for picking up the commercial end of his job, Aker said.
He hopes that by next spring, all will be ready to cope with the normal seasonal crush for information needed by both homeowners and commercial growers.
The best times to reach Aker are from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
Plant samples may be left anytime. The Howard County office number is 313-2707; the Home and Garden Center number is (800) 342-2507.
Green Piece features local gardening tips and profiles of county gardeners every Sunday. It is written by Miriam Mahowald and Mary Gold, two county residents blessed with green thumbs.