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Phone Line Offers Gardening Help
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Help is just a phone call away for Coast gardeners with questions.
A pilot program is wrapping up at the end of October that offered toll-free telephone answers to gardening questions. Master Gardeners, gardening experts trained by Mississippi State University's Extension Service, manned the phones six hours a day, serving residents of Jackson, Harrison, Hancock, Pearl River and Stone counties.
Chance McDavid, Harrison County Extension agent, patterned the new program after an existing, highly successful program in Alabama.
"There is an overwhelming need for home horticulture information on the Gulf Coast," McDavid said. "There's about half a million people living in these five counties."
McDavid arranged for a toll-free number, a computer with Internet access, stacks of reference books and materials, and a volunteer staff to answer the calls. After hours or when a client is on the line, a voice mail system takes the calls so that no one is missed.
"We've been getting about 50 calls a week during our pilot program," McDavid said. "Our Master Gardeners can answer about 60 percent of the questions off the top of their heads, and we have resources available so they can look up the rest and respond back to the person."
Volunteers follow up on each call received, and send out publications when appropriate to offer further information on a topic.
"The clients so far have been very, very responsive," McDavid said. "Callers just want good, accurate information in a timely fashion. If that means a Master Gardener has to return a call later that day or the next, they don't mind."
Bob Stalnaker, a Master Gardener from Gulfport, has been answering phoned-in gardening questions at the Harrison County Extension office since before the toll-free line was established.
"It's very enjoyable," Stalnaker said. "It's a volunteer activity that you can get a lot of personal satisfaction out of."
Stalnaker said September was rather slow, but he attributed the few number of questions to it being a slow gardening time of year. Most calls last month dealt with lawn problems, but he said there is currently interest in transplanting.
The pilot program began Sept. 1 and will end Oct. 31. Each county assumes responsibility for one day each week, and sends two people to the Gulfport headquarters to answer questions. McDavid said typically one person answers the phone and the other researches the question.
After going over early results and the success of the program, McDavid said he plans to offer the telephone gardening help permanently beginning March 1 to gardeners in the five-county area.