I think it was the word "master" that captured my interest.
When I signed up for the York County master gardener program, my ambitions were modest -- to learn about caring for my own yard so as not to have to spend all my retirement savings on professional landscaping and yard maintenance.
I was one of 27 who signed up for the program last summer. Many, if not most, of my classmates had more gardening experience than I did. It reminded me of a story my mother used to tell. She said that in the months leading up to my first day of school, I would remonstrate with her that I couldn't attend first grade because I didn't know how to read or write.
Some of my classmates had grown up with gardening. They were able to cite family influences, often a grandparent, as the reason why they were anxious to expand their knowledge of plants or vegetables.
In my case, my exposure to gardening as a kid was limited to mowing the grass -- that and the Plumbs' semi-annual harvesting of ligustrum.
My father, whose thumb was far from green, would ignore shrubs around our house, in Tampa, Fla., until one of his kids developed rickets because our ligustrum hedge had choked out the sunlight. Then he would lead my brother and me outside for several hours of cutting, whacking and hauling branches to the curb.
Had I known then what I now know after completing the master gardener course, I would have said, "Dad, are you nuts? This is Ligustrum japonicum, an invasive plant; there are a lot of better-behaved woody ornamentals we could plant.
"And, by the way, this is not the proper way to prune a shrub. ..." At which point, he would have slapped me aside the head and told me to keep hauling branches to the street.
The notion that I could call myself a master gardener after completing a 12-week course and 40 hours of community service held a certain appeal, but I was also drawn by the idea of joining what a New York Times writer recently called the master gardener "tribe."
Pretty much without exception, the master gardeners I know are gregarious people. As far as I can determine, no master gardener has ever been convicted of being a serial killer, and few have ever run for political office.
I admit to having held a certain preconception of gardeners as kindly but slightly dotty folk who wear big straw hats and love to talk about their compost pile. I offended one master gardener friend by describing her pastime as "puttering in the garden."
I soon found out that, by and large, my classmates were smart, creative people who have succeeded in all sorts of fields, from education to manufacturing. They tend to be doers and are more likely to be found at the upper end of a hoe or toting bags of mushroom compost than watching the Carolina Panthers lose yet again on TV.
Gardening is a lot like life. A yard, like a job or family, will be there whether it's attended to or not, but everything goes better when weeds (problems) are confronted and plants fertilized (relationships nurtured) in due time.
What my classmates and I learned in those weekly classes taught by Paul Thompson, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service county agent, is that no one could possibly know everything, but with some basic knowledge, logic and training in problem solving, gardening need not be intimidating.
The Clemson Extension Service produces a wealth of materials on gardening, including a Home & Garden Information Center (1-888-656-9988 or http://hgic.clemson.edu.
A major focus of master gardener training is learning how to access information and to disseminate it to others. In part, because they are required to give back a certain number of hours in community service, but mostly because they are wired that way, master gardeners are eager to share what they know.
If you would like information about the York County master gardener program, contact Thompson at 684-9919, Ext. 112.
By the way, have I mentioned my compost pile?