WHEN Nancy Landers was handed her ceremonial garden...


February 03, 2000|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN Nancy Landers was handed her ceremonial garden trowel at the end of 80 hours of training and volunteer work, she was finally a certified Maryland Master Gardener.

Then it was time to go home and rearrange her priorities.

First, she rearranged the boxes of air tanks, wet suits, masks and fins that she and her husband, Robert, a certified scuba instructor, use in their quest to dive "every place in the world."

Then she made space among the shelves of reading resource material she uses in her job as a reading teacher at Baltimore County's Bear Creek Elementary School.

Only the two family cats retained their regular spots as Landers began to unpack the collection of gardening books and tools she will use in her new role as a horticultural volunteer for the Maryland Cooperative Extension, the University of Maryland agency that annually sponsors the master gardener program throughout the state.

"People get a lot out of the master gardener program," says Karen Davis, its coordinator. "And they give a lot back to their community."

Since the program began in 1998, 60 master gardeners have been certified in Anne Arundel County.

"Like everyone else, I dibbled and dabbled in gardening," says Landers, who has been a teacher for more than 30 years and has lived in Severna Park since 1981. "But when you finally get your own house, that's when you get serious."

And the master gardener program is serious business. To earn its coveted certification, one must attend three-hour classes twice a week for two months, each on a different subject. The list includes botany, composting, diagnosing plant problems, entomology, organic gardening, soils and fertilizers, and vegetables, flowers, trees and lawns.

Landers grew up in Illinois, and waxes poetic on the rich, black soil of her native Midwest. "The further you drive east," she says, "the lighter the soil gets."

She started her teaching career in Baltimore County, and after 30 years went back to school to earn her master's degree in reading. "So I guess I just keep going to school," she says.

The curriculum and final exam of the gardener program are challenging, but Landers notes, "As long as we know where to find the information, we're all right."

In addition to the 40 hours of class work, participants volunteer 40 hours more for the extension agency. People usually sign up for the classes because they like gardening, but most really enjoy dealing with the public.

"The interchange between yourself and other gardeners and what you've learned is what I enjoy most," says Landers. "We only needed 40 [volunteer] hours, but I put in over a hundred. Our job is to be out in the public, working at fairs, plant clinics and demonstrations."

Certified master gardeners must complete the 40 volunteer hours within one year of their training.

Last summer, Landers helped maintain a demonstration garden at Kinder Farm Park. Visitors to the garden saw a variety of vegetables and herbs, selected because they adapt well to Maryland's high humidity and summer drought conditions.

"We used companion plantings so that we didn't have to use any pesticides," Landers said. "Companion plantings provide a symbiotic relationship among the plants: One may have a peculiar odor that will drive bugs away, or another will attract bees to help pollinate."

Ann Leipold of Arnold became a master gardener in 1999. Leipold brings a lifetime of experience to the job, having grown up on a farm in Kansas. She decided to take the classes last fall because they were perfect for her interest in gardening.

"In our family, my husband, Adam, is the boater and I'm the gardener," says Leipold, who has lived in Maryland for 30 years. With a master's degree in entomology from the University of Kansas, she especially enjoyed the extensive study of insects during master gardener training.

Leipold, who retired in 1998 as a science teacher at Magothy River Middle School in Arnold, says she and her fellow gardening students loved being in a classroom setting. "It was like we were back in high school," Leipold said. "We even had study groups."

To remain certified, master gardeners must volunteer 20 hours each year after the initial 40 hours, but they may choose their favorite area. Leipold selected the agency's new elementary school program, and now heads it.

Designed to demonstrate the impact of nature on human beings, the program was first presented to kids in the county's summer day-camp program. It was so successful that it has become part of the county's elementary school after-school care program.

"Our group finished in November, and we started going to the after-school programs every Tuesday," she said.

The program has four topics for grades one through five: "Helpful Insects That Live in My Garden," "Food Plants," "All About Seeds and Fruits," and "Who Polluted the Potomac?" All offer hands-on experiences that are enthusiastically received by the children.

Another group of master gardeners is busy writing a booklet called "Native Plants of Maryland." It will be available in the spring. For a copy, call the Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center at 800-342-2507.

The center is not open to the public, but will answer gardening questions from the public by phone.

The next master gardener class begins the second Monday in September, and continues on Mondays and Wednesdays through October at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis. The class is limited to 25 students. Information: 410-222-6757.

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