University of Maryland Extension

HGIC: The Growing Gurus

Jon Traunfeld, Director of the Home and Garden Information Center, tends to vegetables growing on a salad table.
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

When Baltimore County resident Lisa Airey wanted to make jelly from the crabapple trees on her property in Monkton, she knew she had to do some thorough research first. Were the crabapples edible or merely ornamental? Could they be poisonous?

A quick Google search revealed conflicting information but fortunately, Lisa knew just where to turn: the University of Maryland’s Home">">Home and Garden Information Center – better known as the HGIC. 

“In those kinds of instances, when you have to really have a definitive answer and you just can’t make a mistake, HGIC is where I go,” says Airey. “I trust them.”

The HGIC has been an information hub for gardeners throughout the state of Maryland since 1990. The center was created to be a one-stop-shop for anyone – novices to experienced green thumbs – looking for information on gardening, landscaping, pest management and more.

“HGIC really was a unique model. There was nothing like it prior around the country,” says Jon Traunfeld, who joined the ranks at the HGIC in 1994 and has served as its director since 2007. “It was a bold experiment.”

Now, nearly 25 years later, the HGIC is still a centralized place for tens of thousands of Maryland residents to get fast, research-based responses to their plant- and pest-related questions.

Hotline Heyday

In its early years, the HGIC was best known for its 1-800 hotline service. People could phone in between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and speak directly with a trained horticulturist about whatever was going on in their gardens or yards.

“There were eight phone stations when I first started,” recalls Debbie Ricigliano, who started working at the HGIC in 1997 while finishing up her certificate in horticulture at the Institute of Applied Agriculture. “You could hang the phone up and it would immediately ring. It rang constantly.”

Over the years, staff members have endured their fair share of absurd requests coming in to the HGIC, such as the time a women mailed in her brassiere because she was convinced she was being bitten by a tiny insect living inside of it. Or the time a man asked for tips on how to kill a tree in his neighbor’s yard to make it look like it died from natural causes. Click">">Click here to read more of the most bizarre questions that have come in to the HGIC over the years compiled into fun artwork by the staff of Terp Magazine!

The experts at the HGIC take pride in finding solutions to every problem, within the law, that comes into the center. They field questions from all skill levels – people who have never planted a single seed to seasoned veterans of the Maryland Master Gardener program, an Extension program that trains volunteer horticulturalists to educate the public about how to cultivate garden spaces and landscapes sustainably. However, the consultants are careful to explain not only what to do, but why to do it.

“We’re about more than just helping Mrs. So-and-So tend her pansies,” says Ricigliano, who continues to work at the HGIC after 17 years. “We try to steer the public into more environmentally friendly ways of gardening. So it’s an education process really.”

Growing Goes Digital

In the last 25 years, the HGIC hotline has processed nearly half-a-million phone calls from all over Maryland. However, call volume started to dwindle in the late 90s and then dropped off significantly as more and more people clamored for online resources. The HGIC faculty and staff responded with a web-based Q & A service, how-to videos, and new social media channels.

“The trend is toward more social media, more online learning, learning at your own pace when it’s more convenient for you,” says Traunfeld. “Phones are no longer the go-to way to get information.”

For that reason, the HGIC discontinued its phone service in December 2014 in order to concentrate on expanding online content like blogs, videos, fact sheets and e-newsletters. “Our folks answering the phones can contribute more if we move them off the phones and into other activities to support the website and social media,” says Traunfeld.

People are still able to directly contact the experts at the HGIC with questions. They simply submit a form through the ">">“Ask an Expert” feature on the center’s website, attach a photo if desired, and are guaranteed a response from a certified horticulturalist within 48 hours. More than 4,000 questions were processed through the website in 2014 and Traunfeld expects an increase in 2015 as more people learn about the service and become more comfortable using it.

Gardener Lisa Airey says she uses the Ask an Expert feature regularly to help support her extensive home garden where she grows just about anything she can including heirloom tomatoes, garlic, beans, squash, strawberries, onions, peppers, leeks and much more. Airey picked up gardening as a new hobby about five years ago and enjoyed it so much that she decided to enroll in the Baltimore County Master Gardeners program. It was through the Master Gardeners that Airey first learned about the HGIC and she credits the center with helping her cultivate her passion for planting.

“I think a lot of people give up on a hobby or an interest because they hit a wall or can’t get around a wall and when you have resources like the HGIC to help you, it keeps the momentum going,” says Airey. “HGIC provides a safety net.”

And thanks to the HGIC, Airey discovered crabapples are safe to eat and make for some tasty jelly. “It was good – quite tangy,” she says.

To learn more about the HGIC or to submit a gardening question, visit

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