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."