Wannabe gardeners can dig up some practical and no cost/low-cost gardening advice from one or more of the following:
• University and county extension services.
The many land-grant universities are an excellent source of continuing education, whether on an informal, non-credit basis or through for-credit coursework in classrooms or distance learning. Hundreds of garden-related fact sheets, brochures, magazine-sized pamphlets, educational videos, CDs and DVDs are available for the asking. Visit your nearest county extension agent office or go online. Tap this University of Illinois Extension Web site for a lengthy list of extension programs around the nation: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/netlinks/ces.html
• Master gardeners
Master gardeners are local groups of certified volunteers dispensing university-generated research. They answer plant-related queries at farmers markets and county fairs, handle the phones at "green lines" or talk to civic groups about such things as safe pesticide use and composting. Take your questions to the chapter in your area or, better yet, enroll as a student in one of the intensive master gardening training sessions. http://www.ahs.org/master--gardeners/.
• How-to books
People fond of turning pages to get their information will find an abundant crop of how-to-garden books on the shelves. Most are simple and nonspecific -- often too much so to be helpful. For better success, stick with books that focus on plants native to your growing area. Or go for the practical. One of the best how-to books along those lines is "Garden Primer," by Barbara Damrosch. (Workman Publishing, $17.95). Each chapter is a miniature book in itself, ranging from essential garden gear to making your herb garden as attractive as it is useful. You may want to wait for the second edition before ordering, however. It's due out Feb. 28.
• Classes at arboreta, botanical gardens, stores and garden centers.
A family-owned nursery in my rural section of the Shenandoah Valley offers free classes in designing window boxes or hanging baskets. The New York Botanical Garden is at the other educational extreme, listing some 900 classes per year. That includes seven certified programs. Like other horticultural showplaces, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., offers lectures, coursework (including graduate level), workshops and a two-year professional gardener-training program. Similar opportunities exist nationwide. Ask around. Search the Yellow Pages and the Internet.
"This is such a fast developing field," said Leeann Lavin, director of communications for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which has a sizable educational mission. "It's possible to stand in your garden with a smart phone and dial up a Web site with questions about a problem or a plant and quickly get back some illustrated answers." Chat lines represent a new way of exchanging gardening information across a figurative backyard fence. A few blogs are Tracey Crehan Gerlach's (www.lifeinsugarhollow.blogspot.com) along with www.gardenrant.com and www.DigInDirt.com.
• Practical experience.
Rent a plot in a community garden. Buy a few seeds and a digging tool and then show up and watch carefully as your neighbors go about their planting business. Chances are, they'll be free and easy with advice, from how to water and control insects, to what to cook with the harvest.