Mimi Arsenault has tomato troubles.
A lush crop of tomatoes sprouted in her home garden in Ellicott City this summer. But when she picked them, she noticed that some had a blackish callous on one side and that others were yellowish and hard on the inside. She had no idea why.
So on Monday night, Arsenault packed a plastic bowl full of the tomatoes and took them to a plant clinic at Miller branch library in Ellicott City, where master gardeners of Howard County answer questions about sick plants every Monday night and Saturday morning.
Howard master gardeners are part of the state master gardening program, run by the Cooperative Extension Service, to educate the public about safe and sustainable gardening practices.
A master gardener must complete 60 hours of formal training, pass a three-hour exam and dedicate 40 hours of plant-volunteer service over the course of a year before the title becomes official.
After that, master gardeners must get 10 hours of training and dedicate 20 volunteer hours each year.
Master gardeners are mainly retirees, but they also include stay-at-home parents, college students and others, said Georgia Eacker, the director of Howard's 26-year-old program.
Thirteen counties, Baltimore City and two prisons participate in the program.
Patuxent Institution in Jessup offers master gardener training for inmates, partly as a form of therapy.
Senior masters, including many from the Howard County program, volunteer to train the prisoners.
Howard masters also meet with homeowner associations and covenant advisers; keep up Whipps Cemetery in Ellicott City; provide garden programs for disabled children at the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center in Glenwood; and lead the county "schools and streams" program, in which fifth-graders take class trips to plant trees and other buffers around streams.
Plant clinics are among the most popular volunteer services that master gardeners provide, Eacker said.
Other libraries around the state and county hold clinics every month, but the Miller branch clinics are the most frequent, she said.
Arsenault, who has also attended the clinics for house-plant problems, walked up to Barb White and Mike McGaha and placed her bowl of tomatoes on the table at which they sat at in the library's front lobby.
"It's heartbreaking," she said, showing them the black scar on her fruit.
"That's blossom end rot," White said.
She flipped through a reference book to show Arsenault that the marks on her tomatoes matched the pictures of blossom end rot.
"The plant seems to be healthy; it's just the fruit coming off of it," Arsenault said.
White nodded. She said it is a common problem. A fungus or a virus is probably living in the soil around the tomato plant, she told Arsenault.
White said she should spread mulch on the soil to block the problem from spreading.
And the yellow insides?
Probably a calcium deficiency, White said - too many flowers on one plant vying for the same pool of nutrients.
White, a master gardener for eight years, said that being a master gardener does not mean you know everything about plants.
"You get questions all the time that you can't answer," said McGaha, who is an apprentice in the program.
He has to complete his 40 service hours and will become official in January.
McGaha said many people overuse pesticides and fertilizers.
Too much fertilizer does nothing for the plant, he said, and washes into and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.
There are organic ways to kill pests, White said, such as using bacteria that kill certain pests and do not harm other insects or animals.
Insects also like to eat certain types of flowers that are poisonous to them.
White gave that advice to Rashid Chotani, who came after Arsenault with questions about his dying roses, whittled to skeletons by some sort of bug.
"Japanese beetles," White said. "They're tough."
McGaha suggested that Chotani use a nontoxic soap spray to get rid of them, and White suggested planting a type of flower called four-o'clocks, which beetles love to eat but are toxic to them.
Chotani thanked the master gardeners and walked out, promising to try one of their suggestions.
Chotani was the last customer of the 90-minute plant clinic.
Late July is slow, White said, because most garden work takes place in the spring and early summer.
"All the work that you've done ... it's either blooming or it's not blooming now," she said.
But in the busy seasons, clinics attract dozens of people, especially this year because of the cicadas, McGaha said.
The 155 master gardeners in Howard provided 3,438 service hours last year, Eacker said.
About 900 master gardeners throughout the state volunteered 52,000 hours in 2002, she said.
McGaha, a recently retired finance manager for General Electric, said he devotes most of his volunteer hours to outdoor work.
"It's nice to do something outside that doesn't involve little numbers," he said.
White, a second-grade teacher, likes the plant clinics best. She said she likes to teach the public.
"I think the biggest advantage or asset is that these are trained volunteers who distribute research-based information to the public," Eacker said.
"If a homeowner goes to Loews or Wal-Mart or Home Depot and talks about an insect problem, in all due respect, it is very likely that the employee at that store is going to direct the consumer to a product on the shelves," Eacker said.
"It may be a perfectly OK product, but the master gardener giving advice about a problem will ... teach them how to deal with that problem in the least offensive manner."