At the lush community garden tucked behind Temple Oheb Shalom in Upper Park Heights, Larry Kloze gently checks rows of vegetables for signs of their health and progress and for the idiosyncrasies of his fellow gardeners.
"You can tell a lot about a person after they pick a row of beans," he says. "Picking beans is a measure of someone's inner strength. It takes restraint and concentration and patience and understanding. The bean plant's fragile: If you just bend it a little, you can break the stem and the whole leaf structure dies. You have to be kind to it."
As one of Baltimore's most venerable master gardeners, Kloze teaches folks the art of growing enough vegetables to feed themselves -- or to supply a soup kitchen. Respecting plants is part of the lesson.
"Beans are the most productive things you can possibly grow. I love them," he says. "When Thoreau lived on Walden Pond, he subsisted mainly on beans."
Kloze can riff on beans, on tilling the soil, on composting, on the Boy Scouts manual and on the great days of the "late '60s, early '70s." His mantra is "Living on Less," Whole Earth Catalog-style. His clothes come from Village Thrift. His thick white mane is trimmed by Vicki, his wife of 40 years. He maintains and does most of the repairs on his vintage motorcycle: a 1970 BMW R60/5. And the couple still paint their own house -- inside and out -- as they have since Don McLean began singing American Pie.
For the past 15 years, he's also taught novice volunteers in the city's master gardener program how to be simple, sustainably oriented and tuned-in.
"People feel so good about themselves when they go to Whole Foods or the farmers' markets. They think they're doing their bit by buying fresh produce when really they should be growing their own food," he says. "I have a goal of helping people to be self-sufficient. That's a tough goal right now because things are too good. But during the wars in Yugoslavia, the people who were in Sarajevo survived by wood heat and by food growing and preservation. It's good to be able to control your destiny."
"Larry's one of the gurus of the community vegetable gardens," says Josue Lopez, the urban agriculture educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. "He leads construction of the garden fences and the raised beds. He's planted trees on empty lots in the city. And he leads efforts to clean up blighted lots."
A longtime activist
You might call it a variation on a theme: Thirty years ago, Kloze was organizing neighborhood tax-appeal clinics, suggesting traffic control plans for the Pimlico Race Course area and helping secure school breakfast programs for Northwest Baltimore schools. An antiques dealer by profession, he eventually ran for City Council in the 5th District in 1979 and was narrowly defeated.
"The idea is to enlighten people on how to live better," he says. "I really enjoy teaching -- and I really want to be helpful."
Kloze is one of roughly 130 master gardeners volunteering in the Baltimore area. Created in 1978 by the cooperative extension, the master gardener program trains volunteers to spread horticultural know-how throughout their communities.
After receiving 40 to 50 hours of instruction, students agree to work in their neighborhoods, training others how to cultivate garden spaces with methods that reduce fertilizer and pesticide use. As master gardeners, they also host public plant clinics and give demonstrations at spots such as Cylburn Arboretum and at the state fair.
"It's not your mother's garden club," says Kloze, who co-chairs the program's community garden committee. "It's an organization dedicated to public service."
There are 28 community gardens officially affiliated with the master gardener program -- about a third of the community gardens sprinkled throughout the city. Some flourish for a season or two on an empty lot, then disappear along with the creators' interests. Others become focal points of neighborhood pride, such as the West Baltimore garden on Ferndale Street with its rows of corn and the Oheb Shalom site that donates two-thirds of its produce to St. Ambrose Outreach Center.
Kloze also monitors an ambitious student enrichment project at Garrison Middle School. A garden shared by the West Baltimore students and girls from the Roland Park Country School, this site is designed to teach youngsters about urban gardening. Its 10 beds produce 16 to 20 crops a season, says garden coordinator Martha Barss, a teacher at Roland Park.
"If we hadn't run into Larry, I don't think we could have managed. We would have given up," she says. "He was so clear on how to do this and on how much guidance we needed that first year -- namely, a lot! He also knew when to let us go."
As Kloze makes his rounds checking on gardens -- in a Ford Ranger truck without air conditioning -- he points out landmarks from his Baltimore childhood.