Home gardeners across the commonwealth may be stumped by the common plant diseases and pests they will find in their gardens this spring, but the Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program can help.

Master Gardener volunteers offer plant diagnostic and identification services to the public through help desks, hotlines, and plant clinics located in communities throughout Virginia.

“Specially trained Extension Master Gardeners offer neighborhood plant clinics at farmers’ markets, over the phone, and at local libraries,” said Adria Bordas, senior Extension agent for horticulture in Fairfax County. “People bring us plant samples with all kinds of problems, including environmental, cultural, and disease or pest issues.”

The Chesterfield County chapter provides a similar service, manning a help desk hotline where members of the public can call with plant-related questions.

“Between March and October of 2017, we had 693 calls to the help desk,” said T. Michael Likins, director and county agent for Chesterfield Extension. “We get a lot of seasonal questions and a lot of questions related to maintaining a lawn or growing fruits and vegetables.”

“This is a free service. We’re giving people unbiased information, and we’re helping to make a difference for homeowners,” said Likins, who added that the Master Gardener help desk had a 96 percent customer satisfaction rating last year.

Master Gardeners in both Fairfax and Chesterfield counties are supported by a local laboratory that can process plant samples and confirm plant diagnoses for home gardeners.

“We average between 900 and 1,000 samples tested in our lab each year just for Chesterfield County,” said Likins.

In Chesterfield, a group of trained Extension Master Gardener volunteers works to help process and diagnose the samples sent to the lab before sharing the results with homeowners. The local lab in Fairfax County receives approximately 700 samples per year.

In addition to these diagnostic services, the Virginia Extension Master Gardener Program also offers educational resources that help home gardeners to identify and control common plant diseases or pests.

A new collaborative video series from Virginia Tech’s Plant Disease Clinic, Insect Identification Laboratory, and the Extension Master Gardener State Coordinator’s Office aims to educate Extension agents, volunteers, and the public about plant diseases, both familiar and unfamiliar.

“We wanted to be able to show diseases in the landscape at the time they’re occurring,” said May Ann Hansen, Extension plant pathologist with the Virginia Tech Plant Disease Clinic. “To control disease problems, you need to have a good diagnosis first. We hope these videos will help people recognize problems early so that they can either make diagnoses themselves or send samples to the Plant Disease Clinic through their local Virginia Cooperative Extension office.”

Each video in the new “Common Plant Diseases in the Landscape and Garden” series features Hansen as she describes symptoms of a common plant disease and provides information on control. A new video series focused on common pests and abiotic factors is also in production.

“Through our new educational video partnership with the Plant Disease Clinic and the Insect Identification Laboratory, and through the diagnostic services Master Gardeners has offered for years, we’re providing some really valuable services to home gardeners facing disease or pest problems,” said Dave Close, state Master Gardener coordinator and consumer horticulture specialist. “Master Gardeners throughout the state are making a difference in the health of the Virginia landscape.”

Learn more about the Virginia Master Gardener Program and find your local Master Gardener unit.

— Written by Devon Johnson