OVERLAND PARK. – The ironies of Dennis Patton’s career in urban horticulture come up every year as a cautionary tale in his wife’s middle-school English class.
This fall, however, Laura Patton’s real-life fable will have a new ending. Dennis was recognized last week as the top columnist in the nation for 2010-11.
The award was at the apex of a tri-level communications contest fielded each year by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (which, ironically, also includes the nation’s horticulture agents). The finalists in each category had already won at the state and regional levels.  The award presentation was part of the NACAA’s week-long annual meeting and professional development conference. The fact that the Kansas chapter was this year’s host was a lucky happenstance – as was the chapter’s selecting a conference site in Patton’s home turf: Overland Park.   Patton’s contest entry was a seasonal, weekly gardening column, introduced several years ago in a major metropolitan daily. In a reversal of what’s usual, The Kansas City Star had invited him to write it, as well as contribute to the paper’s Internet blog on gardening.   That’s not too bad for a rural Caldwell, Kan., farm boy who grew up with an affinity for growing plants and working outdoors.   It’s also pretty good for Patton’s wife, Laura. She’ll have an even better answer when students complain, “Why do we have to do this? I’ll never have to write papers after I get out of school. Writing’s useless!”
Their teenaged children – Caleb, 15, and Noah, 13 – aren’t too impressed. For them, dad got some “thing” for his old columns, written “a long time ago.” Noah did, however, come up with a new comedy routine for the family. Its lead-in line: “The gardening guru of Kansas City. …”
For 26 years, Patton has become increasingly well-known as Johnson County’s K-State Research and Extension horticulture agent. He’s been a big presence – literally – as he coordinates the activities of Johnson’s 400 friendly, well-trained Extension Master Gardeners (EMGs) throughout the county and beyond.  He’s also been co-host of a call-in talk show for country radio fans and a regular guest on Kansas City TV morning shows. As part of Extension’s Kansas Healthy Yards project, he’s become a scriptwriter and video star. (See http://www.kansasgreenyards.org/p.aspx?tabid=37&itemID=226 for “Tips on Mulch.”) He’s a regular contributor to The KC Gardener Magazine.   He organizes a series of one-topic, nighttime classes for the public twice a year at the Extension office.  Plus, Patton has been an early adopter of Internet technology. The wide-ranging horticulture section on Johnson’s Extension website is one of the oldest, most popular lawn and garden destinations in Zone 5. Even K-State Research and Extension’s home page, produced in Manhattan, now features a link to Patton’s month-by-month “what to do in the garden” calendar.   Some time back, the horticulturist actually persuaded Johnson’s EMGs to expand the horticulture hotline they offer every workday from March through Oct. Now, they also offer year-round email service.   “We get a lot of photos with the email questions. That’s been a real advantage,” Patton said.
Given the reach of the Star, however, his “GROW” column and genial mug shot are creating a whole region of new fans for Patton’s solid science, clear explanations, no-nonsense advice and glints of humor.  It Takes All Kinds
“Hey, don’t forget I’ve been a consultant for a Harlequin romance – got an autographed copy of it,” Patton said. “I was quoted on the CBS Morning Show after Starbucks started giving away coffee grounds for compost. I never know who’s going to pick up something from the web – a friend brought me an article printed in the Baltimore paper
I’m even listed in a children’s book as a good source for story ideas.  “I’m into all kinds of funky, bazaar stuff that I could never have predicted would happen in my lifetime.”
He admits that he walked into the job with his eyes open.  Repeated studies have identified horticulture as the No. 1 reason people contact or drop by their local Extension office. But, after moving from the McPherson to the Johnson County Extension office in 1987, Patton decided traditional approaches wouldn’t be enough to reach such a large, diverse and sophisticated public. He also decided he’d better arm himself with a master’s degree.
“It’s always about relationships. Even so, everybody gets information in different places. They may have different uses for it, too.” Patton said. “I had to look at all the angles and attitudes – including the fact that some people might not be aware of the kinds of unbiased help that Extension programs provide.
“I realized it was my job to get our information out in lively fashion, using every avenue I could find. I had to earn trust — build a reputation for accurate, timely and to-the-point information. In some cases, that’s taken quite a bit of time, planting lots of seeds.”
Patton credits Johnson’s volunteer extension master gardeners for making such an ambitious program possible. The county has the oldest EMG program in Kansas. It also has EMGs that just don’t quit once they’ve completed their 60 hours of in-depth training and paid for it with 40 hours of public service.   Building from their experience and savvy with Patton’s backup, their EMG activities now include:
• A sell-out garden tour that attracts thousands of visitors, some from hundreds of miles away.
• Educational exhibits/booths for five area lawn and garden shows.
• Contributions to Johnson’s Extension website and teaching classes at the Extension office.
• Library and field research on everything from butterfly gardens to the best trees for K.C.
• Children’s programs and a speakers’ bureau.
• The support work that allows K-State’s Olathe Horticulture Center to offer public field days.
• The maintenance for and tours of the eight educational gardens that Johnson EMGs have planned and planted across the county since Dennis Patton arrived “a long time ago.”