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Attach of the master gardeners

07/29/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

(Host) It's summer movie time, and commentator Philip Baruth brings us another chilling installment of the Urban Troubleshooter. This time Vermont is threatened by a menace that's been secretly gaining strength for decades: master gardeners.

(Baruth) I have to laugh when I see these breathless news reports about experiments on cell phone chips inside a human tooth. I laugh because I've had one of these molar-phones for years. It only rings when the state of Vermont is in mortal danger, when a normal cell phone just won't cut it.

So last night, I'm at the Nickeloden watching Tom Cruise in "Minority Report," tucking into a box of grape Nerds, when my tooth begins to chirp. People around me give me dirty looks but I answer anyway. "Who are we dealing with?" I whisper. My contact sounds scared. "Master gardeners. Heard of 'em?" "Sure. They're certified gardeners, and they certify other gardeners." My contact cuts in. "That's the official line. The reality is a lot worse. It turns out they mean the "master" part. Literally."

(Music from the movie "Psycho.")

The trouble is out at the outskirts of Burlington, and on the way there I get the straight skinny: the whole Master Gardener program, starting out West in the 1970s, is a cover for an eerie horticultural cult. Anyone who signs up has his or her brain hoovered clean; then they're reprogrammed and sent out to train others. It's the same action plan vampires and body snatchers have been using for years, but the master gardeners had a new twist: they ran the whole thing through cooperative extension and distance learning programs. Pretty slick, I had to admit.

And now they were making their move. Just as we crossed the line into Williston, I saw them: thousands of master gardeners moving toward Burlington, waving shovels and trowels, mounted on huge mutant snails. And okay, they weren't moving that fast, but still it made my blood freeze.

"What do they want?!" I hissed at my contact as we leapt from the car. "More gardening," he hissed back. "They want everyone to garden." (More music from "Psycho.")

We hit them with every nasty bug and fungus we could think of: cabbage root maggot, apple scab, oak leaf blister, tomato foliar fungus. But they knew exactly how to fight those. And so, in desperation, we went with the Doomsday Device: F16s from Plattsburgh flew over, sprinkling salt on the mutant snails. And that pretty much did the trick. Without their mutant mounts, the master gardeners felt a little silly, and they promised never to attack again.

We've learned our lesson, too. My people and I now patrol the farmers' markets and the community gardens, the hotbeds of radical horticulturism. And the second we spot trouble, we're all over it - likebluegrass billbugs.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His new book with Joe Citro is "Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries."
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