Walking up the brick path to master gardener Mary Strem's house nearEllicott City, guests just might be tempted to nibble on the landscape.
Strawberry plants that line the walkway will soon burst with scrumptious red berries, and garlic and peppers will peep up between the flowers. What a Howard County Cooperative Extension Service mastergardener learns, she passes on.
Strem earned her green thumb by pulling a lot of weeds over the years and by studying under the masters at the Extension Service Master Gardener Program, a project designed to lighten the work load at the extension office.
Howard County has trained master gardeners foralmost 10 years now, said extension agent Scott Aker, who depends heavily on the volunteers to answer phone calls and conduct plant clinics.
"It's really more than paid off," he said. "I look at it as aninvestment. They really do a lot of my work for me."
Aker said that the 70 masters in Howard County are willing to put the time into training and volunteering for many reasons. Some do it for professional development, some to learn and some just for pleasure.
"I wantedto learn more about what I was doing. I wanted to share some of my knowledge with other people," said 33-year-old Strem, a molecular biologist for the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore.
"It's therapeutic-- just me and the woods and the plants," Strem explained. "If I've had a bad day I can hoe at the ground really hard. I can stomp on bugs."
Strem began gardening as a child. She finally got her own patch to till when she moved into her new home near Ellicott City seven years ago. Like most of the master gardeners, she learned through trial and error and lots of study.
No job is too tough for the masters, whether it is identifying diseases, killing gypsy moths or choosinga fertilizer to grow the juiciest tomatoes on the block.
Aker said that he keeps the masters busy answering questions for county and state garden information lines, conducting plant clinics, speaking to garden clubs and working the fairs. They also get to play in the dirt and splash in the water while testing land and aquatic plants in their demonstration garden.
"There are lots of different things theyhave their hands into," Aker said.
They conduct plant clinics at the Miller Library every Saturday morning between 10 a.m. and noon and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays. The public is encouraged to bring in samples the master gardeners can examine. If a question needs further research, they will hunt down the answer.
When a sample of a disease or pest cannot be brought into a clinic, the master gardeners makehome visits. But since time is limited, Aker said that home visits are conducted only as a last resort.
"I've learned a lot about myself at the plant clinics. People can bring in a branch and I can usually tell them what's wrong," said Strem.
Getting advice from a master gardener is as easy as picking up the phone. Master gardeners helpanswer many of the 1,000 calls into the Home and Garden Information Center and the 50 into the Howard County Extension Office each week. The Home and Garden Center number is 1-800-342-2507. The Extension Office can be reached at 313-2707.
To become a master gardener in Howard County, Aker said that an apprentice must complete 40 hours of training, offered at various times of the year. They also must pass a test on the material with a minimum of 70 percent correct and pay $85to cover the cost of the training and materials. Once a person is accepted into the program and completes 20 hours of volunteer service, $30 is refunded.
The purpose of the $30 "deposit" is to ensure that the state and county are getting a return for the time invested into the program. Since the state and county use their employees for thetraining, they consider it an investment.
Aker said that the program attracts folks from young adults to retirees, old time gardeners to those who do not know what a hoe is. Once trained, they give him time to develop more creative solutions to administrative and gardening problems.
"We get everything from experienced gardeners who can teach me a few things to people who just started last month," he said. "It's also a social event. We really have a mix."
The master gardener program originated in Seattle, Wash., in the early '70s