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Master gardeners are a different breed. They prefer growing their own veggies and flowers and would rather toil in the dirt than just about anything else. And they are cropping up all over Southern Maryland, ready to spread their advice to others with would-be green thumbs.

There are more than 1,000 certified master gardeners in Maryland, including nearly 300 in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. The volunteers are trained by professionals from University of Maryland Extension to provide horticultural education services to individuals, groups and communities.

To learn more

To find free gardening advice or ask a question at the Home and Garden Information Center, call 800-342-2507 from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Friday or go to extension.umd.edu/hgic.

For information about how to become a master gardener or the programs and events sponsored by master gardeners, go to extension.umd.edu/mg, which includes information about county extension offices.

The master gardeners can make home visits, and they offer classes throughout the growing season.

The Home and Garden Information Center hotline is staffed weekday mornings and connects certified master gardeners with callers to offer immediate help on garden-related issues. A website also offers information on plant problem diagnosis, lawn care, vegetable and flower advice, soil types and more.

Here’s one main tip from master gardeners — use native plants.

“We recommend choosing plants that are native to the area because they can tolerate local conditions better,” including soil conditions and weather patterns, master gardener Judy Kay of Lusby said.

The group this year plans to solicit help from summer campers at Annmarie Garden to grow and harvest vegetables from new raised beds; the local produce will go to a food bank in Calvert County.

Master gardeners in St. Mary’s County offer monthly gardening classes, and volunteers in Charles are pitching in to revitalize a community farm. “We really are all about giving back to the community,” Kay said.

‘Looking for wisdom’

Charles County’s 100 master gardeners work on more than two dozen public projects at various times.

About six years ago, the master gardeners established a vegetable garden at the county’s detention center with the help of some inmates. Each year, the volunteers will work with and train inmates about proper landscaping techniques.

Gale Kladitis, the Charles master gardener coordinator, said the best part of working in the detention center garden is that there are no worries of deer or other animals eating the vegetables. “There’s a 20-foot fence surrounding the property,” she said.

Master gardeners also pitch in with beautification efforts at the three Southern Maryland fairgrounds. They work with Girl Scout groups and in schools, around public buildings and with other community groups.

“We are in demand a lot,” Kladitis said, adding that they get phone calls almost daily during growing season.

Master gardeners can be requested to do a site visit at a home or business to diagnose problems or offer ideas on how to improve gardens.

“I always call it one of Charles County’s best-kept secrets,” Barbie Walter said of the program. Walter, a master gardener, helps coordinate education programs for the group.

Volunteers gathered at the Body of Christ Community Farm near Waldorf one Saturday earlier this month for a lesson on pruning. After the class, the master gardeners put their knowledge to use and spent the rest of the day sprucing up the farm, which is overseen by the Rev. Robert S. Pittman, who recently graduated from the master gardener course.

“I found it helpful, a lot of information,” he said.

Pittman said he met other like-minded people who he hopes will help grow new gardening programs on his farm, which offers educational opportunities for children.

The Catholic priest said they grow potatoes (regular and sweet) as a staple on the farm, but also harvest tomatoes, corn, peas, carrots, beets and a variety of greens.

For several years, master gardeners have taken on the added duty of being able to certify property as Bay-wise, a designation that means the grounds meet certain criteria deemed healthy to the Chesapeake Bay.

A master gardener will check for proper rain runoff conditions. They also will make sure the right amount of fertilizers are used. When too many nutrients are used, fertilizer can leach into the bay and its tributaries, causing problems.

Kladitis said that people are often surprised at what a Bay-wise yard looks like. Property owners do not have to have perfectly manicured lawns, she said. In fact, “if it looks like it is out of Home and Garden [magazine], chances are you wouldn’t get certified,” because too much fertilizer is likely used, she said.

“We tell them we weren’t looking for beauty, we’re looking for wisdom,” in lawn care, Kladitis said.

‘We pop up all over’

There are 85 active master gardeners in St. Mary’s County who volunteer at historic sites, schools, government buildings and other places in the county.

Several St. Mary’s master gardeners worked this month at the governmental center in Leonardtown to refurbish the freedom garden, which was installed by master gardeners with the help of horticulture students from the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center 10 years ago as a memorial to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The mission of the master gardener program is to pass on your knowledge to others about safe, sustainable horticulture practices,” said Jennifer Horton, the St. Mary’s master gardener coordinator.

They host the Ask a Master Gardener plant clinics at the county’s three library branches from April through October.

The group puts up information tables and displays during Earth Day celebrations, at the county fair, and at schools and other events throughout the year.

The St. Mary’s group plans to continue a program started last year at a farmers market south of Lexington Park where the gardening volunteers will occasionally teach classes at the Saturday morning markets.

“We pop up all over the county,” she said.

The St. Mary’s master gardeners program began in 1998 with a class of about 20 adults. Some of the originals are still active members locally. A few have had the title “emeritus” appended to master gardener based on their many years of service, Horton said.

Others go on hiatus, sometimes just for a couple of years or sometimes for good because the time involved became too much, she said.

Master gardeners are predominately women and in the past have generally been older, retired residents, she said.

“In recent years, that trend is changing, and we’re seeing a younger set of people,” Horton said.

In addition to 20 hours of service, which can be anything from weeding a community garden to teaching a clinic, the master gardeners are required to have 10 hours of advanced training each year.

The advanced training can be gleaned from workshops offered at local extension services, at the Smithsonian Institution in nearby Washington, D.C., or at other state or regional opportunities.

The gardeners can go on to earn advance certification in a variety of areas, including organic gardening, composting, plant disease, invasive species and native species.

‘Mulch volcanoes’ and other lawn no-noes

A couple of years ago, the Calvert County master gardeners developed the Garden Smarter series, which offers classes on gardening techniques for free on occasional Saturdays from late January through early October. Most of the classes are held at the Prince Frederick library.

“It’s a big part of what they’re doing” to help educate the community on gardening, said Herb Reed, Calvert County’s extension director and coordinator of the local master gardener program.

Upcoming topics include Bay-wise gardening and shade gardening with native plants. Classes held later in the summer and fall include information on establishing ponds, putting gardens to bed for the winter and identifying invasive species.

People often overwater their plants, which can hurt the plant because of compacted soil. Amending soil with compost aerates it and helps provide nutrients, Kay said.

Overfertilizing or adding too much mulch is another common problem, she said. Too much fertilizer can burn roots or damage plants in other ways, she said, and can lead to excess nutrient runoff.

A frequent problem, especially seen in well-manicured lawns, is what Kay calls the “mulch volcano,” when too much wood chip mulch is piled around a tree.

Mulch only needs to be about 2 inches thick and should remain 6 inches away from the trunk of a tree, she said. It has little to no nutrient value, can compress the soil around the roots, and can lead to bug and microbe attacks on tree bark.

Kay and many other master gardeners are believers in “less lawn.” She said more shrubs, ground covers, perennials and trees help get away from plain-looking turf yards.

Organics are also important, Kay said. Using pesticides indiscriminately can wipe out beneficial insects, like bees, that actually help beautify yards through pollination.

There are about 82 active master gardeners in Calvert. A class of 18 just graduated as interns, and most likely will become official, certified master gardeners soon, Reed said.

Reed and other county coordinators said the programs have remained popular and, at least to some extent, have begun attracting younger participants in recent years.

Any adult can sign up for the training, which involves 40 to 50 hours. Once completed, the volunteer becomes a master gardener for one year, during which time they have to complete 40 hours of volunteer service. After the first year, the program requires a minimum of 20 hours of service annually.

“Most of them do a lot more than that,” with some logging a couple hundred hours in a year, Reed said.

Their work can be seen in the rain gardens at the county’s community resources building in Prince Frederick and at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. They also chip in with garden work at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, the American Chestnut Land Trust, Cove Point Lighthouse, Annmarie Garden and a host of other locations. The Calvert County master gardeners logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours last year.

jyeatman@somdnews.com