Center a fertile source of answers

March 18, 2007|By Nancy Jones Bonbrest | Nancy Jones Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

Not sure what the strange vine that's taking over your garden is or how to get your grass looking green without drowning it in chemicals? Can't figure out what the odd splotches are on the holly tree or where they came from?

If you have garden and landscape questions such as these, you're in luck. The Home and Garden Information Center in Ellicott City, part of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, offers personalized solutions to quandaries about pests, plants and landscaping.

But information-seekers can't walk up to the center, on the more than 900 acres of the Central Maryland Research and Education Center on Homewood Road. Instead, they can call a hot line or send in questions via the center's Web site.

And best of all: It's free.

Since 1989, the center has delivered answers to Maryland residents' questions. Last year, the horticultural specialists answered almost 14,000 calls, sent 3,100 e-mails and distributed more than 29,000 fact sheets.

"It's a one-stop shop," said Jon Traunfeld, director of the center. "We feel like we are a valuable resource. The people who use us love us."

Traunfeld is one of three regional specialists on staff who help train the horticulture consultants who staff the phones and answer e-mails. The hot line is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"One of the great things about our center is it's a unique model nationwide," said Traunfeld. "In other states, people can go to different cooperative extension sites, but in Maryland we've concentrated a lot of our resources into this one center."

While the hot line remains a popular resource for many gardeners looking for information, the Web site is becoming an increasingly useful tool. It offers self-help diagnostic solutions, including an expansive sampling of color images of damage symptoms that help people identify specific problems, what might be causing the problems and how to fix them.

A large library of fact sheets that offer up-to-date and regional help on overcoming horticultural hurdles or pest management are also available to download. And residents can send in e-mails with questions and photographs of their problems. Responses are sent within 48 hours.

The Web site logged more than 140,000 visits last year, with 121,000 fact sheets downloaded.

Georgia Eacker, master gardener program coordinator for Howard County, said she regularly refers people to the center's hot line or Web site.

"There are a lot of questions out there," said Eacker. "It's a great source of information not only verbally through the horticultural specialists, but also through the Web site and thirdly through publications. You're getting the benefit of the experts."

She said many people who call her with gardening questions do not know the information center is available. After she helps them, she gives out the hot line and Web site for future reference.

"I always refer them to the hot line because they may well have other questions," said Eacker. "That's why they were created - to provide research-based information."

The center serves as the coordinating unit for the state master gardener program, a volunteer education program with more than 1,000 members. Howard County's program has about 140 members.

The center does not give out specific recommendations, like what brand of pesticide to use, said Eacker. Her advice is to read labels carefully, follow directions and make sure the proper problem was identified.

The center cooperates with the Maryland Department of Agriculture when dealing with invasive species such as the emerald ash borer and diseases such as sudden oak death. As invasive species become more problematic, the center has started outreach programs that include pest alerts, electronic forms and contact information for residents who suspect a problem. Links to local, state and federal agencies are also offered.

David Clement, past director of the center, said he is pleased with how the resource grew over the 17 years he served as director.

"We've been able to do a heck of a lot," said Clement. When the center first opened up, tapes were recorded for people to listen to that offered tips and information, but the Internet has really accelerated what they can do.

Home and Garden hot line: 800-342-2507. The Home and Garden Information Center can be found on the Web at www.hgic.umd.edu.

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