The Computer Gardener

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Estrin is a Los Angeles free - lance writer

Gardeners have a new tool at their command, one that can make their tasks a little easier, the fruits of their labor a little sweeter, their earthly efforts more rewarding. But it's nothing so mundane as a new kind of compost bin or an ergonomic shovel.

It's an electronic bulletin board system (BBS)--accessed by a home computer and telephone modem.

On gardening bulletin boards, you can tap into the knowledge of thousands of other gardeners, beginning and advanced alike, from around the country and the world, on just about anything that grows, from abelia to zoysia.

You can find out what is disfiguring the leaves of your peach tree or ask how to find a landscaper, or boast about the absolutely perfect iris you've got blooming right this minute. And it's all, literally, at your fingertips.

Electronic bulletin boards--public forums for discussions on hundreds of subjects ranging from movies to parenting, genealogy to computing--are the new gathering places for those with common interests to chat and compare notes.

Bulletin boards are offered by big information-services companies such as CompuServe, Prodigy and GEnie. There are also smaller, more specialized bulletin board services. Although all are easy to master, even by the "computer illiterate," some are more laborious than others. The cost ranges from $5 to $15 a month, and some charge additionally for the time you spend on-line.

To the uninitiated, the notion of gardeners communicating on computers might elicit a wave of cognitive dissonance. After all, how could those who call themselves gardeners come into the house, scrub their grimy nails and plant themselves in front of a machine for hours on end?

"There are rainy days and late-night hours when the garden is less inviting," said Margaret Biener, an assistant systems operator on the GEnie (short for General Electric Network for Information Exchange) gardening bulletin board.

"There are also times when it's just too hot to move around much," said Biener, a master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County, N.Y. "I never thought of myself as a computer type, but it's a great way to share information and a few laughs."

As a systems operator, or "sysop," Biener acts as caretaker of the GEnie gardening board, thinning out old messages and heading back "topic drift" (bulletin-board lingo for the natural course of conversation--off the subject) and extinguishing what are called "flame wars."

Getting the hang of a bulletin board can be somewhat daunting at first. After setting up the communications software, you must navigate from menu to menu or prompt to prompt using simple commands until you reach your destination (customer service reps will help). On some boards, the path to the garden bulletin board is clear; others require perusal of the manual. But as with anything, once you've done it a few times it becomes second nature.

GEnie's garden bulletin board is divided into three categories. The first, "Gardening Discussion," covers the basics. Here you can recommend books, seed catalogues, good tools. "Gardening With Ornamentals" focuses on just that, with separate topics for plant types--shrubs and hedges, vines, orchids, and so forth. "Gardening for Incredible Edibles" includes topics for herbs, fruits and every kind of vegetable.

The extensive library holds the oldies-but-goodies "threads," (conversations on a single subject, such as children's gardens or propagation from cuttings) transferred by Biener from the bulletin board, and lots of reprinted articles. Here you may download software that will help you plan your garden or keep better records of your successes and failures.

The fact that gardening is the nation's No. 1 pastime is old news. What may be surprising is that these days, "people who garden are 31% more likely than the general population to own a home computer and a modem," said Joan Chiaramonte, senior vice president of marketing at Simmons Market Research Bureau in New York. If there are 61 million gardeners in this country, as reported in American Demographics (April, 1993), that could add up to a lot of electronic gardening.

Sysop Howard Maculsay is a knowledgeable garden hobbyist from Claremont who helps out on CompuServe by answering horticultural and technological questions and by up-loading much useful information into the garden library.

Administered by National Gardening magazine, the CompuServe gardening forum "is real good for answers to practical questions," said John Hancock, who signs on daily whether he is at his home in Malibu (where he is a movie director--"Bang the Drum Slowly") or at his fruit farm in Indiana. "It's very useful if you're looking for a certain plant or a big quantity. And you get answers within hours."

Several times a year the forum holds formal, moderated real-time conferences. At the spring conference on "New Vegetable and Flower Seed Varieties," horticulturists from the Cook's Garden in Vermont, Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon and Burpee Seed Co. went on-line to "speak" and then answered questions typed in by the audience.

On every garden BBS, the cast of characters runs the gamut from the person who logs on one time with just a single cry for help to the weekend gardener, the plant collector, the master gardener, and on to the horticulturist, the botanical garden librarian, the retail nursery-person and the head of a huge mail-order seed catalogue.

Although much of what you read on a garden BBS is down-to-earth information; once in a while you chance upon the passionate gardener whose musings are simply a pleasure to read. That is to say, you may meet the likes of Allen Lacy.

In the entire garden bulletin board community, perhaps the best-known participant has been Lacy, editor and publisher of Homeground (a new quarterly newsletter), author of many garden books and former garden columnist for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

During the three years that Lacy was a member of the Prodigy Services Co.'s garden bulletin board, he posted wonderful essay-like missives: Why do bold-textured plants play so well against fine-textured ones? What are the merits of copycat gardening? Do you sit or stand to weed? The plight of left-handed gardeners.

Lacy finds bulletin boards useful, he said, "because it gives me some idea about what people are concerned about."

Provided by WGBH, Boston, and the PBS series "Victory Garden," Prodigy's garden bulletin board offers a weekly "Victory Garden" column, with experts available to answer members' gardening questions.

Prodigy topics are not fixed as they are on other boards; there are no established categories, so you cannot follow your favorite subject reliably. If old roses, say, are your thing, you would have to scan the entire list of headings, where discussions could be listed under the specific Latin name, or under Advice Roses, Help Roses, Old Roses or just plain Roses.

While messages on other boards may be saved for years, those on Prodigy last little more than a week. Frequently asked questions ("Why are my camellia leaves yellow?") are constantly repeated--and re-answered. A complaint by many members and defectors from Prodigy is that the service is too slow. It is keystroke intensive, you cannot scroll through messages and you must wait for the service's flashy ads to compose themselves on every screen.

As any good Southern California gardener knows, we are faced with many growing conditions and issues exclusive only to our Mediterranean climate. But on the larger services, Southland gardeners must slog through numerous postings about cold-climate gardening (cold frames, cabin fever, the injury to plants from using salt to de-ice roads). And although every board has a dedicated California contingent, locals report feeling outnumbered and underrepresented.

If you want to exchange information with gardeners primarily from California, consider the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (more commonly known as the Well), which is based in Northern California, with users dropping in from all over the state, the United States and beyond.

Although the Well's gardening conference may not be highly attended in comparison to the larger services (it gets 100-150 postings a month), this is a clear case of the value of quality over quantity. Because the Well's other 200 or so conferences draw followings made up of people with high levels of expertise in a multitude of fields (the arts, high tech, etc.), when their interests include plants, it makes for some very compelling reading.

For gardeners on the Well, conference host Karen Paulsell, who lives in Oakland, is quick to impart much indispensable information: She keeps users up-to-date on the latest plant sales, and in addition to being an avid hobbyist, she collects gardening and horticulture books, which she uses to research questions. One fascinating fact she contributed recently had to do with the reproductive anatomy and sex life of the good friend of the garden, the lowly earthworm.

Regulars on the garden conference include landscape architects and designers, horticulturists, knowledgeable hobbyists and weekend putterers. You find the usual kind of topic here, of course: "Tell Us About Your Garden," "Landscaping Software," "Novice Gardener Questions." But you also get discussions of the issues that confront the California gardener. Samples: "Drought! a.k.a. California as a Mediterranean Climate," "Fire in the Garden," "All Questions About Growing California Native Plants Answered in Here," "Drip Irrigation: Is It All It's Dribbled Up (or Down) to Be?" and "Southern California Gardens and Gardeners."

A useful tool on the Well is the "find" capability, which allows the search of a given word within the text of a conference. While some of the other services offer keyword searches of topic headings, here you can find every mention of, say, ceanothus.

Another electronic resource for the gardener is Internet. An international, loosely knit collection of an estimated 1.5 million computers, Internet was set up by the Defense Department in the 1960s as a way for those at research institutes, universities and the military to share specialized information.

Linked now is an unfathomable spectrum of agencies, organizations and corporations--the National Cancer Institute to the Library of Congress to MIT to Rand Corp. to Hewlett Packard. But use of Internet is growing exponentially because the masses are increasingly able to access it through commercial services (such as the Well) or through the workplace.

Be forewarned, however, this is in no way your garden-variety bulletin board; Internet is not a corporate entity, there is no systems operator. Navigating Internet can be an extremely formidable venture, and most people must find guidance from the books published about it or from a more experienced pioneer. One such pioneer is Paulsell, who formed on the Well's garden conference the topic "Gardening and Horticultural Resources on Internet," which guides the gardener through some of the Internet maze to subjects of interest.

According to Paulsell, probably the most garden-BBS-like option on Internet is one of the 2,000 "newsgroups" called "rec.gardens," which, she wrote, is "a real mix of stuff, a lot of postings from beginning gardeners looking for general or specific advice, questions about where to get seeds for specific plants or varieties. Some of the regular participants are professional or academic horticulturists."

There's a plant taxonomist from the University of Northern Iowa, a Canadian herb seedsman, a writer of Sierra Club Trail Guides and myriad experienced amateur specialists and plant scientists alike.

Other horticultural possibilities on Internet: Connect with university library computers to explore their card catalogues. Access the USDA National Agricultural Library--from which you can pull down, say, a bibliography called Great American Gardening Books, the Sustainable Agriculture Network or Botanical Electronic News. Or subscribe to a "mailing list" set up for Master Gardeners, 4-Hers or landscape architects or for enthusiasts of bonsai, orchids, herbs or carnivorous plants.

Choosing a bulletin board is akin to deciding what to plant in your garden--it's a matter of personal style. A beginner might make his decision based solely on cost. If you favor a specific plant, ask each service for a trial membership to find out which has the strongest following in your area. Serious gardeners might be sure to choose a service that includes adequate access to Internet (not just electronic mail capability).

But bulletin boards offer something much more than pure information--they provide a sense of community. Said Paulsell: "I sometimes tell people the gardening conference is more like talking to other gardeners over the back fence than like a visit to the agricultural extension agent."

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