Digging up garden advice Green thumbs: The busy season has begun for the staff of a hot line that provides gardening advice to Marylanders year round.

April 14, 1996|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

People call David Clement, looking for good dirt.

And fertilizer. And bug spray.

It's the busy season for Mr. Clement and his staff of 11, who sit in an Ellicott City office dispensing advice to thousands of Marylanders in search of greener pastures and more beautiful flower beds.

Every year, 55,000 calls are made to the Home and Garden Information Center, -- a toll-free hot line run by the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service, -- by people who want to know everything from how to prepare the soil in their yard for planting to the best stuff for keeping garden pests from destroying the fruits of their labor.

When it comes to lawns, few areas in the country are harder on a green thumb than Maryland. The state is in the northeastern edge of a so-called transition zone that runs south to Raleigh, N.C. Summers scorch cool-season grasses and winters freeze warm-season grasses. Unfortunately for Marylanders, all grasses fall into one category or the other.

But that doesn't stop people from trying for their field of dreams. Marylanders spend $50 million a year on grass seed, according to the National Gardening Associa-tion in Burlington, Vt.

Calls to the hot line peak from April through June, when it handles about 400 calls a day.

Recently, Gloria Kendall of Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County called with questions about what and when to feed her daffodils.

"I have garden books, but the hot line is easier for me," she said. "I don't have to come back into the house to look something up. I take my portable phone with me outside and call from there."

Mr. Clement said the calls drop slightly between August and October, and the questions change. Homeowners typically reassess their property after the summer heat has baked it and ask how they can repair the damage.

"I'm still amazed by the amount of interest out there," Mr. Clement said. "There is still a tremendous amount of people who want to know what to do with their landscapes and how to be environmentally safe about it."

Callers can speak with an expert from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, who has at his or her fingertips thousands of books, pamphlets and charts.

"Between our specialists and our discipline orientation, we can cover all of the topics appropriate for the homeowners," said Raymond V. Bosmans, the landscaping and turf specialist. It gives the public better access to the information."

About 70 percent of the calls come from Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

"It works its way up into a crescendo," said Leslie May, a consultant who has been answering phones for three years. "And time becomes of the essence because we know people are waiting to have their questions answered."

But Dana Arnold, who has fielded calls for three years, refuses to be rushed even if she has a backlog.

"I'd rather take a little bit longer and give the right information than sit here and spout off the top of my head and wonder later if I gave the right information," Ms. Arnold said.

The hot-line staff has received its fair share of unusual calls, said Mary Kay Malinoski, the hot line's bug expert. Four years ago, a member of the Save the Hemp Foundation called her.

"He spent 40 minutes extolling the virtues of hemp," Ms. Malinoski recalled, shaking her head.

Ms. Arnold said the staff generally tries to encourage callers to reduce the number of chemicals they use for their gardens.

"You have to realize that you're going to sacrifice something," she said. "You're not going to get the perfect tomato without some chemicals, but a lot of people are willing to go that way."

The chemical-free philosophy is the reason many staff members admit they do not have lush, thick, green lawns.

When the clock strikes 1 p.m. on weekdays, the experts turn the advice-giving over to a voice-activated answering system that allows callers to select from about 150 recordings on 21 of the hottest gardening topics.

The staff devotes the rest of the workday to research, teaching and writing publications that are sent to county libraries and nurseries.

Its diligence and dedication has attracted a small group of repeat callers and admirers.

Karen Long of Woodbine in Carroll County was so impressed that she mailed them gift certificates to a local pizza shop in December.

"The people are so nice and so helpful," said Mrs. Long, who has tilled and nurtured nine gardens of lilies, roses and tulips since she made her first call to the hot line last spring. "They're really a good group of people. They're like a friend."

If you have gardening or landscap questions, call the center at (800) 342-2507.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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