“Little worms are falling from the sky.”
The caller who left that message on the Ada County master gardeners’ answering machine recently wasn’t hallucinating.
Her tree was infested with elm leaf miner larvae, which had feasted on leaves before dropping to the ground for the next phase of their lives. The tree owner was informed that insecticides can help control the bugs.
In another recent case, a school nurse contacted the volunteer plant detectives at the University of Idaho Extension Office in Garden City to determine whether unidentified greenery that a couple of preschool kids ingested would make them sick. She provided a photo and sample of the plant.
There was good news: The children ate flixweed. It’s not a plant that people would normally eat, but it’s not poisonous. So it was just some extra roughage in their diets that day.
One of the quickest — and somewhat comical — identifications last week was of white fluff that had appeared on a pine tree. It was textile stuff, possibly from a pillow. The likely culprit: a squirrel building a nest.
The Ada County program is one of more than 30 community gardener training programs run by University of Idaho Extension in counties across the state. Participants in Ada County must complete 50 hours in the classroom and 50 hours of hands-on work to become certified master gardeners. Some complete another 30 hours of training to become advanced master gardeners.
They’re trained in basic horticulture, and as they continue they develop deeper expertise. They act as volunteer instructors for the university, answering questions from the community and solving problems. Public speaking is part of the curriculum of the advanced program.
“A lot of people use the master gardener training to start their own businesses or get employment in the green industry, which is nurseries, greenhouses and landscape maintenance,” said U of I’s Susan Bell. “By having the certification and training, it gives you an extra advantage in finding employment in the green industry.”
Under Bell’s tutelage, more than 3,000 people have become master gardeners over the past three decades. And from the looks of it, her small staff and fleet volunteer gardeners are having a lot of fun solving yard and garden mysteries for the public.
Those seeking help from the master gardeners are often looking for a quick fix — and many are looking for a spray of some sort, said Bell, the educator who has been in charge of the Ada County master gardeners for the past 30 years. She also works with professionals in commercial horticulture industries and teaches classes for schools, senior homes and civic groups.
Even after decades of fielding questions, Bell is sometimes surprised.
“Someone once called and asked, ‘What do I spray to stop pine cones? What can I do for it?’ ” Bell recalled. “I said, ‘Get a chain saw.’ There is no spray that’s going to stop pine cones from forming.”
WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT?
These green thumbs, who receive up to 100 diagnostic clinic submissions and 50 phone calls each week during the growing season, have an office at 5880 N. Glenwood St. in Garden City (near Boise Riverside RV park). They offer free assistance to about 5,000 people each summer.
Several other U of I Extension programs are housed in that county-owned building — including 4-H, family finances, food safety and preservation, health and nutrition and food systems (growing food for market) — but the master gardener office is unmistakable. Colorful photos of bugs and plants cover the office door and walls. Bags of various sizes filled with pieces and parts are scattered around the floor.
And, yes, that’s bighead knapweed hanging on the wall.
Program assistant Kimberly Tate said about eight gardeners cycle through the office on a typical day. One afternoon last week, Tate was trying to determine what went wrong with a desiccated-looking raspberry plant while two others were working on plant identifications.
Jim Bratnober was studying the leaves on a plant and looking intently at pictures in a printed book while Carol Millar did the same with a different plant and some sort of online checklist.
Bratnober, who finished the classroom training, was helping out in the diagnostic clinic to meet the work requirement to receive certification. He’s hoping to have that done by fall.
Millar is in the advanced master class now.
“She needs to bring us more of the plant,” Tate said of the plant that Millar was trying to identify. “Flower or seed.”
Boisean John Beecham stopped in to get help from the master gardeners. He was carrying a small limb from one of two sick swamp oak trees in his backyard.
A couple of weeks ago, the leaves on two of his trees turned brown and began falling off. He has no idea what’s wrong with it — three other trees in the same grove are fine.
“I want an unbiased opinion,” Beecham said as he filled out the diagnosis form at a table in the lobby of the office.
The gardeners ask that anyone submitting something for identification or diagnosis fill out a short questionnaire, which helps expedite the process.
LESSONS FROM THE MASTERS
At least three-quarters of the plants analyzed by the master gardeners suffer from a water issue of some sort — either too much or not enough, Bell said.
“The biggest mistake that most master gardeners make is they look at it and go, ‘It’s gotta be a disease.’ Wipe that out of your mind because we don’t have a whole lot of disease we get here,” Bell told a rapt group of about two dozen volunteers at an optional training session last Friday. “It’s a very arid region. We don’t live in high humidity like back in the Midwest, where there’s tons of funguses and stuff like that.
“We always look for water, their soil, how they’re taking care of it,” she said, encouraging rigorous questioning: “Have you fertilized this? Do you have a lawn service? Do you use Weed & Feed, you know, that kind of thing. Have you done any kind of (recent) construction around it to damage roots?”
Many people treat trees as if they are furniture — plant them and then forget about them. But they need water and care like any other plant in your yard.
It’s also not uncommon for people to think native plants don’t need water.
“Xeriscaping doesn’t mean no water,” Tate said.
Want to see what grows well without water? Check out what grows in the Boise Foothills and along Interstate 84 between Boise and Mountain Home, the experts say.
Need help diagnosing a problem?
The University of Idaho Extension Office, Ada County, offers plant and insect diagnostic services at 5880 N. Glenwood St. in Garden City.
Diagnostic clinic hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Wednesday from May to August. All forms are available online and at the office.
How to submit samples
Trees: Bring a branch 12 to 18 inches long to show the progression of the problem. If it’s a trunk problem, bring photos. Fill out the plant problem diagnostic form. No fee.
Turf: Bring in a 12-inch square section of the problem area (showing both healthy and unhealthy areas), including 2 to 3 inches of soil. Fill out the plant problem diagnostic form. No fee.
Weeds and other plants: Bring whole plants with root system in tact. Plants with flowers or seed heads are easier to identify. Fill out the weed and plant identification form. No fee.
Insects: Bring in a closed container. Don’t bring crushed insects. Fill out the insect identification form. No fee.
Soil test: Stop by the office to pick up a testing kit. Follow soil collection and mailing instructions. Fee: $45. When you receive the results, call the office (287-5900) for help in interpreting.
Get more information about the University of Idaho Extension, Ada County, and all of the diagnosing forms at uidaho.edu/extension/county/ada/horticulture/services. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
History of Extension System
The Cooperative Extension System was created in 1914 under the Smith-Lever Act, which had a goal of improving the lives of rural Americans by providing practical educational programs that make university agricultural research useful to families. It is supported by county, state and federal governments.
The Cooperative Extension Service of Washington state started the first master gardener program in 1972. Idaho launched its own program in 1976. The program’s motto is “we help people grow.”