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Garden blossoms into European tour

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NEW JERSEY residents Michael Devlin and his wife, Valerie Frick, came to Calaway Gardens recently to be feted, applauded, handed two tickets for a 1986 tour of Europe, and finally to receive gardening's coveted Silver Trowel award. Such is the treatment given to winners of the annual Victory Garden contest, now in its seventh year. Viewers of the program, currently completing its 10th year on national public television, voted for the Camden, N.J., couple by a margin of better than 2 to 1 over other finalists.

Since making the finals some weeks back, the couple have been written up in the press, appeared on local television newscasts, and had some 600 people drop by to visit their garden and seek advice.

In short, they have become amateur horticulturists of considerable skill and are widely recognized as such. And yet, when they moved into their Camden home a mere eight years ago, they knew next to nothing about gardening beyond having heard somewhere that a composting program was a pretty good thing for would-be gardeners to undertake. They credit their remarkably rapid transformation from neophytes to skilled gardeners to the very television program that has now honored them: the Victory Garden show t hat originates in the WGBH-TV studios in Boston.

As soon as they moved into their home, the Camden couple realized that skilled in horticulture or not, they had to make some drastic changes. The home had an all black-topped ``parking lot'' for a front yard and more of the same asphalt treatment in the back. What wasn't paved over was a weed-infested, rubble-strewn slope leading down to a tidal marsh which had largely degenerated into a neighborhood dump site.

Michael, in his final year at law school but a licensed plumber before going to college, was not afraid of hard work or unusual challenges. Nor was his wife, a special-needs teacher in the area. So they simply viewed their yard as one more interesting challenge and set to work.

It was August when they moved in, hardly time even in the moderate New Jersey climate to start a garden. So they began by cutting down the weeds wherever the blacktop and the rubble allowed them to grow, began a compost heap with the resulting refuse, and started to view the Victory Garden with regularity. That Christmas they treated themselves to the companion books that go with the program.

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