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.
They learned how to garden the best way of all, they believe -- by watching, by reading, and by doing. Working as a team, they put almost all their spare time into the garden, though the present maintainance work is less demanding than the original construction of beds, paths, and terraces. Now, they say, ``we can stop occasionally and simply enjoy the garden.''
As they tell it, gardening is their principal form of recreation and entertainment -- and in the early years when they couldn't afford a vacation, it substituted for that as well. Now when they go away they visit other gardens, which is what they will be doing in Europe next spring.
In their first full season in the home they began removing the blacktop out front, enriching the soil with the homemade compost, and designing a few beds. Soil enrichment, using compost or any other organic materials they could get hold of -- including commercial peat moss -- is the key to their garden's success.
Steadily the parking-lot appearance disappeared from around their home; finally they could begin tackling the slope to the tidal marsh. This involved constructing a winding pathway and several terraces, using much of the concrete and other rubble that came with their property. They even came across the remains of a masonry archway, pieces of which now form design features in some of the flower beds.
Finally, their garden remodeling reached the edge of the marsh. Not wanting their garden to end abruptly, Michael and Valerie allowed it to spill over into the marsh itself. They did this not by dramatically altering it, but by manicuring and molding it -- creating a bed here, a dry walkway there, but largely leaving the natural vegetation untouched. First they had to clear out the junk -- the old auto tires, the driftwood, hundreds of old bottles, and the engine block of an old V-8, now turned into an innovative planter.
Other finalists in this annual competition also had outstanding gardens. So how do the organizers explain the overwhelming vote in favor of the Camden pair? They believe it is due in large part to the dramatic transformation that took place on this relatively small property, a pie-shaped plot 30 feet wide at the front, 125 feet deep, and 50 feet wide where it abuts the marsh. The neighborhood is blue collar and old, built in that era when housing tended to be crammed together, cheek by jowl, with a mono tonous similarity to it all.
Jim Wilson, the Victory Garden host who interviewed the couple on screen, put it this way: ``They took a bleak, unpromising piece of land and formed an integrated landscape that flows from one end to the other. You might say they turned a piece of desert into an oasis.''