The extension service's programs help local gardeners grow

Master gardener training program by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners, which is a University of Maryland extension.
Master gardener training program by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners, which is a University of Maryland extension. (Montgomery County Master Gardeners)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Here's something to consider: The cause of death or decline in seven out of 10 landscape specimens brought to Master Gardener clinics in Fairfax County is listed as "abiotic."

That is horticultural-speak for: The homeowner did it. Yellowing turf, browning leaves and dying branches are, mostly, caused by residents who messed up in some way with the watering, mulching, pruning, spraying, fertilizing, planting method and so on.

There's a lot to learn about gardening, which is what makes Master Gardener programs throughout the region (and country) so valuable. In times of budget crises, however, the services behind these programs become tempting targets for public officials, especially when their structure is arcane and not well understood.

Essentially, land-grant universities receive federal and state funds to establish in each state a cooperative extension service. Often with local money, extension agents are assigned to county offices, where agents guide residents in their agricultural and horticultural pursuits.

This system was established in the 19th and early 20th centuries to help family farms but has expanded into cities and spreading suburbs to aid homeowners struggling to grow plants from tomatoes to turfgrass.

The reach of the local extension agent has been greatly enhanced by the creation of Master Gardener groups. Frequently established as their own nonprofit organizations, they rely on the extension service for training, curriculum and science-based help in such new areas as organic pest control.

In Fairfax County, for example, two separate Master Gardener programs with 400 trained volunteers work closely with Adria Bordas, the horticultural extension agent, to reach tens of thousands of homeowners through plant clinics, talks and displays. They also teach fourth-graders how to grow plants.

If the maladies afflicting homeowners' plant specimens are not readily known, they go to a lab run by Bordas. "Most of the problems we see are self-inflicted," said David Yost, who coordinates the Master Gardener program based at Merrifield Garden Center in Fair Oaks.

But with 70 percent of our sick plants the victims of benign ignorance, the work of local extension agents, clearly, is far from done. You might think.

If you are a politician looking to cut budgets in hard times, funding for extension offices becomes low-hanging fruit. It is easier to wield the budget ax if you believe that extension agents exist to serve, say, apple growers in the Shenandoah Valley, not the average Joe in Springfield who sees weeds where his turf should be.

In its recently concluded session, the Virginia General Assembly considered legislation to close extension offices in the state's most populated areas (including Arlington and Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William County, Richmond and Norfolk), eliminate lawn and garden programs statewide and consolidate the offices that remained.

The state government backed away from such explicit program cuts but decided the extension service would suffer reductions of $1.1 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and $5.5 million the following year. The legislature also instructed the folks at the Virginia Cooperative Extension, in the midst of a strategic reorganization, to place "priority on the historic mission of extension."

That sounds like a directive to imagine and serve a wholly agrarian society, though Virginia Tech's Alan Grant, head of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, tried to put the cutbacks in the best light in a letter to the extension community. He wrote that the reductions notwithstanding, "extension will continue to provide community-based programs focused on current and emerging needs."

Among the current needs, I would argue, is a need to maintain services in the most populated cities and suburbs. The need there is inherently great, and so too is the risk of well-intentioned homeowners armed with fertilizers and pesticides fouling public waters and killing beneficial insects, including pollinators. An underlying motive of extension agents in the region has been to reduce the effects of horticultural pollutants in our public waters while showing homeowners how to stop killing their plants.

The emerging needs? You need only look to the vegetable garden at the White House and first lady Michelle Obama's crusade against childhood obesity to see that there is a deep desire to take back control over our diets and try to grow our own food. In recent decades, people turned to vegetable gardening as a hobby and a source of pride; now the gardeners I talk to want to put fresh, nutritious food on their families' tables. They believe growing your own can make your body healthier while also, in a small but cumulatively meaningful way, make the Earth healthier, too. Novice gardeners need help. Experienced gardeners need help.

Showing new generations how to protect the environment and feed themselves in the crowded city and suburb may be as vital in the 21st century as helping farmers to cultivate the fruited plains in the 19th.

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