Breath of England in Dundalk garden

Horticulture: An expert visiting from London teaches a mixed group of students at the community college.

August 22, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Big, weighty things come to mind when you think of Dundalk: steel mills, giant cranes, container ships. Issues such as whether tariffs on foreign steel are good for the country.

You don't think of the toothed leaves of the giant ragwort, the sweet aroma of the Hosta plantaginea flower or of such issues as whether a blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis) is an aesthetic companion of a balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). You also wouldn't expect to find Tom Cole, head of the London School of Horticulture and Landscaping at Capel College in England.

But these are all part - and parcel - of Dundalk, too. The plants play centerpiece Wednesday evenings in Cole's course, "Perennials and Grasses," which meets in the gardens of the Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk campus.

Cole, 36, seems oddly out of place as he strolls in shorts and sneakers with 20 note-taking students through the campus' 11 teaching gardens, pointing out the plants and flowers and describing their personalities, care, feeding and watering.

Cole played host to a delegation from the Dundalk college two years ago. Now he's returning the visit, teaching the two-credit course in July and August while visiting nearby public and private gardens.

The class of 20 doesn't spend much time in Dundalk's indoor floral laboratory, where students begin each session with a test: identify the previous week's plants, listing both their popular and scientific names.

Then it's out to the gardens, each a living classroom designed, constructed and maintained by students in the college's horticulture programs.

A few of the students are there to get a job or to advance in Maryland's $1.2 billion horticulture industry. Others need help in designing their home gardens. Richard Uslander says he wants a position working with flowers "to make the world a better place." Insurance agent Maria Alekseev says she has a "passion for digging, and I wanted to know what I was putting in those holes."

Rae Ann McInnis confesses to being a "plant addict." She's repeating the course, and not because she flunked it the first time. Matthew Yarish, the youngest at 19, is looking for a promotion in his maintenance job at Towson Country Club.

Sharon and Carl Eisenhower are planning a butterfly and hummingbird garden at their home in the Middleborough section of Baltimore County. "We got the bug," says Carl Eisenhower as he bends over the milk-white flowers of the Artemisia lactiflora, known popularly as the white mugwort. (It's named for the Greek goddess of hunting and the moon.)

"We took the course as a lark, but we're in it all the way now."

As the dry summer advances, Cole is fielding more questions about how to protect gardens against drought. Plant more perennials that are heat-resistant, he advises.

"It's been a tough summer for all plants," he says, his "plant" rhyming with "jaunt." The class is examining the Powis Castle Artemisia, a perennial he says "tolerates heat well, and if it flowers, that's a bonus."

Other advice: Don't "reduce" plants to ground level this time of year. Use mulch to retain moisture. Water in the morning and evening.

John R. Sanders, who heads the horticulture program at Dundalk, says the school's first garden, the "Hort Court," was planted 11 years ago. "Students ought to experience a plant in its situs, not in a bottle," he says.

And the gardens, some with patios and natural streams, "make the campus a more pleasant place for all students and staff," says Gena Proulx, the CCBC/Dundalk president.

Just under 200 people are typically enrolled yearly in Dundalk's horticulture programs, which range from landscaping to floral design, says Sanders, adding that the horticulture industry in Maryland employs about 15,000 people in nurseries, landscaping firms, tree care companies and flower shops.

"Think about it," he says. "Whenever you see landscaping around a public building or private business, somebody's got to take care of it."

Americans think of England as a nation of gardens, but Americans aren't gardening slouches, says Cole, who has visited the United States many times.

"You don't realize it," he says, "but Americans are mad about gardens, even more so, in some instances, than we are at home. And because you generally have more sunshine year around, there are some plants that grow better here. For example, I can't do a whole lot at home with crape myrtle."

Cole says he has a small garden at his home near London:

"By the time I get back, it'll probably be in a natural state. I'll have to work on it. I have a party every year, and about half the guests are horticulturists. I can't show them a bad garden."

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