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Digging up fresh dirt, but not in the way you'd expect

March 26, 2008

When The Herald-Mail editors made plans to launch the Sunday paper that debuted in April 1982, they first surveyed readers about what features they wanted. Gardening was a popular topic, but when I asked an editor how they would cover that, he said they would probably buy a syndicated column.

I thought a local column would be better and with the help of Cooperative Extension Agent Larry Dell - and later Rick Heflebower - we produced one for the next five years.

I interviewed an agent once a week, which was easy because the extension office was right across the street then. I then wrote up the interview, checked the facts with them and then turned it in.

It was a good partnership, because I didn't have to have all the technical knowledge they did and they didn't have to bother writing it up.

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When I became Opinion Page editor in 1985, there wasn't enough time to do that and everything else. I passed the torch to a local gardener named Ray Ketrow and concentrated on reader letters, editorials and columns.

Then, in November 2007, I saw a small story about the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service offering a class for Mater Gardeners.

I e-mailed Annette Ipsan, an agent and the program's coordinator and expressed an interest in signing up. After filling out an application, submitting references and a list of my previous volunteer service, I was accepted into the program.

It's not for dabblers. There are two three-hour sessions per week for a total of 40 hours of instruction. There is also a commitment of 40 hours of volunteer service in the 12 months following graduation and 20 hours a year after that, if you want to stay in the program.

What I'll do in terms of service, I'm not sure. I've learned just enough to know that, at this point, I don't know much.

As I learn, however, I will share some of what I learn in a blog on The Herald-Mail Web site. As time goes by, I hope to add some more elaborate features, but for me blogging is something new and I'd rather do it right than foul it up by trying to do too much, too soon.

But, based on five years of writing a column and a mixed bag of experiences in our own garden, there are a few things I can pass along with some confidence at this point, including:

· A small, well-tended garden will yield as much as a larger plot gone to weeds.

· If you grow vegetables as a hobby and give much of your harvest away, by all means, try lots of new varieties. But if you depend on what you grow for next winter's meals, grow the bulk of your vegetables from tried and true varieties. Try new kinds, too, but don't depend on them for a big yield until they've proven themselves.

· My wife's grandmother used to tell us that the only way to work up the garden soil was with a spade. For a big plot, that's a lot of work. My suggestion is to hire someone to till it up for you. Renting a tiller would be cheaper, but depending on type - those with front-end tines are the worst - you could strain a muscle. "Easy does it" makes sense, especially if you have back trouble.

· Depending on where you live, animal pests can be a problem. Rabbits can do a lot of damage, but those darned groundhogs can ruin a garden in a single evening. If you're not up for shooting them (check local regulations to find out what is allowed and where) or trapping them and releasing them somewhere far away, fence the garden.

(Agent Ipsan reminded me recently that groundhogs can climb, so be alert for that possibility.)

· Even if you use mulch to keep down weeds, there will usually be something in the garden that needs to be pulled, staked or inspected for bugs or disease. A lot of that will have to be done on your knees. Invest in a set of comfortable knee pads so that your garden is a joy as opposed to a painful chore.

· Time spent in a garden can be very relaxing, as you listen to the wind, the songs of the birds and watch the tiny creatures that we usually don't notice.

No one should mistake what's in this blog for any official statement or advice from the Extension Service. It's just me, trying to pass along what I've learned.

To read the blog or leave a comment, click here. If you can get past that curmudgeonly face, you might be amused or enlightened.

Bob Maginnis is
editorial page editor of
The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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