Consumer Education Needs To Take Seed In Gardeners

Green Piece

Being Informed Prevents Waste

January 27, 1991|By Mary Gold | Mary Gold,Contributing writer

"Did you know that Burpee seeds were 50 percent off at Hechinger last week?" asked Lee Richardson.

I had to admit that I had unknowingly missed the sale. Regrettably, most area gardeners didn't know, speculates Richardson, and there should be a way for them to be informedof such events.

There are, he maintains, many more questions, most of them more universal in scope, that should concern the gardener as consumer.

Richardson, a longtime Howard County resident, has been involved with consumer advocacy agencies and non-profit organizations for many years.

He is a past head of the Consumer Federation of America and once worked with Esther Peterson at the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. He has published his own general consumer newsletter for 11 years.

In 1989, he decided to combine this background in consumer protection activism with his avocation, home gardening, and started a second newsletter, Gardener's Advocate. It is aimed at garden-relatedindustries and garden-oriented educators and media rather than the home gardener, he says.

But the issues he pursues are of interest even to those people who are marginally interested in horticulture.

For instance, the featured subject in the latest issue of Gardener'sAdvocate concerns the recent national marketing of house plants as indoor pollution fighters. Does "Presenting the Clean Air Machines . .. Indoor Plants," sound too good to be true?

Richardson thought so, in spite of the advertiser's claim that NASA studies proved it. Hesettled into some serious study of the touted research.

His doubts were verified. He found that the original NASA experiments cited inthe marketing material had been done in cooperating with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, a fact not mentioned in the advertising.

And the experiments, while above reproach in method, were very limited in scope. Only a few species of house plants and just three pollutants had been scrutinized in small, sealed boxes, not home-like conditions.

There just weren't enough data to support the generalizations tossed out by the industry.

Richardson's investigation has included a meeting with Bill Wolverton, former NASA scientistwho headed the plant research project. So far, his questions have gone unanswered and further research has not been done.

Richardson worries that people will actually believe that house plants will rid their home of tobacco smoke and radon, among other things.

Ironically, some indoor pollutants will be introduced to the home via the plants themselves -- pollen, certain molds and fungi and perhaps pesticides and fertilizers. He counsels for more research and a halt to misleading sales promotion.

Fortunately, he was joined in his concern by other voices in the gardening world. In fact, he recently found himself quoted in a Flower and Garden magazine editorial condemning thepromotion of plants as air purifiers.

If the image that comes to mind upon being introduced to a "consumer advocate" is that of a hard-edged, cynical Ralph Nader, Richardson's manner will surprise you. His views are presented in a calm, open, yet firm way.

Perhaps thisis because he does not view his role in consumer activism as contrary to business interests. He is a reformer, not an adversary, he says.Indeed, his current occupation is professor of business marketing atthe University of Baltimore.

The best indicators of his optimism are the gardening projects evident throughout his half-acre yard and occupying the windowsills of his home. There is a large vegetable garden, still producing greens, just beyond a forest of fruit trees.

Another corner holds a thriving, if small, Christmas tree farm. Blueberry bushes border the front porch. Aside from the race to get the early vegetables in this spring, his consuming garden interest now is perennial plants.

He is also optimistic about the future of home gardening in general.

"If people could experience some success with their first gardening effort," he says, "they would be gardeners for life."

Although he has learned that every yard presents its own unique gardening problems, a great deal can be learned from fellow local gardeners.

"Keep trying" he urges, and you will be rewarded.

In the process of becoming more and more involved in his own backyardgardening efforts in the past few years, Richardson discovered that there are mountains of information for the garden hobbyist.

Gardencenter and mail order catalogs offer a great deal. (So much, notes Richardson, that some of the simplest projects may sound overly complicated) ". . But what about prices, warranties and maintenance costs?"he says.

He has arrived at the conclusion that while marketing ethics in the multibillion dollar horticulture business are generally high, there is plenty to watch out for. Gardeners often pay too much money in learning about "market place realities".

He recently has become involved in the Master Gardener program sponsored by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extensive Service.

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