"Most kids in the city think corn comes from the factory," one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's horticulture agents was saying as he toured some inner-city gardens here last week.

"When I asked one little kid what he wanted to plant in his garden, he said 'pork and beans.'"

The horticulture agent, Bob Buczek, is working hard to set the kids straight. He and Bob Raybits, who is coordinator of the USDA's Urban Gardens project for downtown Baltimore, have been talking up vegetable gardening since March 1, the day $150,000 became available to the program. "Our biggest problem," Raybits said, "was getting started March 1. We should have started a year ago. We didn't have enough time to go door to door, which is the only way to do it."

"We sent out 1,200 flyers in one neighborhood and got only nine responses and only two of them were adults. But one of those adults set it off and told all the neighbors. Now we're flooded and had to open up another plot."

Another problem has been "trying to tell people we're here for free. They don't believe it's free."

The program, conducted through USDA's Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Maryland, has established 400 gardens as the result of this year's program with at least 1,000 participants. Gardens range in size from 20-by-20-foot plots and individual backyard efforts to container gardens on porches and balconies.

The Baltimore Urban Gardens project, known affectionately by its initials - BUGs, is part of an expanded $3 million federal grant to 16 major cities, which began last year. The cities were chosen on the basis of their total population and number of people living below the poverty level. Rep. Fred Richmond (D-N.Y.) is the father of the legislation.

Other cities, including Washington, have similar programs on a smaller scale. Washington also has three Youth Garden Centers and a number of playgrounds where 2,000 children participate in a program, run by the D.C. Department of Recreation. They grow and harvest their own vegetables. The goal is 50 pounds of produce per child by the end of the summer.

The point of the BUGs program, in the language of a press release which accompanied its announcement, is for "low-income residents (to) have an opportunity to make blighted area of inner-city Baltimore come alive with properly managed vegetable gardens which could help hold down the cost of living and improve human diets."

To some extent that seems to be what the program is accomplishing. Corn and cabbage, tomatoes and collard greens, onions and squash have sprung up behind abandoned houses, and off alleys. One backyard is filled with the lush foliage of snap beans, pole beans, even grape vines and peanuts. In the next one there are rusted bedsprings, broken refrigerators and weeds. Not everyone wants to garden. Not everyone even wants a garden project near where he or she lives.

"Some people said nothing would grow because vandals would wipe it out and then jump the fences and kill their dogs," Buczek said, "but so far it seems to have had the opposite effect. It (vandalism) happened only once so far."

He explained what has happened instead: When one of the demonstration gardens is put in - a plot that the project personnel run to each others how to garden - "people become more supportive. They give you water for the plants, let you use their hoses. They do take care of these gardens."

So far, Raybits said, "not one adult garden has gone to pot. Some of the kids don't have the patience, but it's easy to understand because you can't just plant a seed and jump back and there it is. Their attitude sometimes is 'Oh man, it's hot pulling those weeds.'" The elderly, on the other hand, "think of it as an outing."

Once the project got going it wasn't that difficult to find people who were willing to invest between $2 and $5 for seed and fertilizer. (They can use food stamps to buy the seed.) The telephone campany lends the tools. Government money is only for staffing the program and distributing eductional material.

Both horticulturists think that most of the people are "basically interested in gardening. They just need the extra push. They came from the South and from farms and this is just rekindling an interest."

Ruby Scott, who has a plot in one of the community gardens near her home, is an upaid commerical for BUGs. "I always gardened around my house but there's not much space. It's a pleasure here. I was raised up on farm so it doesn't go too hard with me to do this. Besides, what you raise you don't have to buy and it tastes so much fresher."

The program offers unlimited assistance in gardening techniques and advice on control of insects and disease. There is special emphasis on the nutritional value of raising your won vegetables. Flyers are sent out to participants each month with tips; workshops and canning demonstrations are held.

The information is essentially the same as that a cooperative extension service offers to local gardeners. The clue that this program is different is contained in the bulletin for growing* tomatoes on the porch in containers. Under the heading of "protection" it says: Some people have trouble with rats. Your best bet is to bring the plant inside at night and keep it by the window for good air circulation."

Now that initial leg work has been done, Raybits and Buczek are out knocking on doors, recruiting more gardeners for the third crop, which can go in the ground now for fall harvesting. They think the program has tremendous potential, are optimistic that it will be funded again next year - much earlier - so they don't have to wait until it's almost too late to get started.