In Chesterfield, plant disease diagnosis goes virtual amid coronavirus

In Chesterfield, plant disease diagnosis goes virtual amid coronavirus

Last summer, a local first-time vegetable gardener called the Chesterfield County Master Gardener Help Desk with a big problem: all his tomato plants seemed to be dying. Peg Tipple, Chesterfield County Master Gardener volunteer, jumped into action. After dissecting plant samples brought to the lab, she identified the problem. The gardener had planted his tomatoes in containers that were too small.

The Chesterfield County Master Gardener Help Desk typically receives 40 plant samples and 60 inquiries in a single month.  Whether a first-time gardener has concerns with their raised-bed vegetable garden or a commercial nursery is dealing with an outbreak of boxwood blight, the help desk and laboratory are there to identify problems and diagnose diseases.

bushes with boxwood blight
Bushes with boxwood blight must be identified and removed

During the coronavirus pandemic, however, it seemed that the Help Desk was not going to be able to provide that same level of help and support that gardeners across the state were accustomed to. That is until Peg Tipple, Chesterfield County Master Gardener volunteer, stepped up.

“This seemed to be a natural fit for me,” said Tipple, a retired physician with a background in epidemiology. Now, instead of diagnosing patients, Tipple diagnoses plants.

That isn’t to say the pandemic hasn’t caused issues for veteran and rookie gardeners alike. This summer saw an increase in questions about vegetable gardens – struggling tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and watermelons specifically. While these issues aren’t uncommon in July and August, the stay-at-home order encouraged people to dust off their green thumbs like never before and try their hands at home-grown produce. Understandably, new endeavors bring a multitude of mistakes and questions.

During periods when the pandemic has prevented the public from bringing plant samples to the office in person, the Chesterfield County Master Gardeners adopted a virtual help desk.

“I think we’ve been able to provide not only adequate service in a very tough summer for everybody but that maybe we have taken a step or two ahead on what we can do for our clients,” Tipple said.

The virtual help desk gives clients the opportunity to organize and provide as much information as possible regarding an ailing plant. A gardener can send an inquiry through email at any time, day or night, and Tipple along with other volunteers in the lab can quickly and efficiently diagnose common issues without the need for mailing in a sample.

Even though the addition of the virtual help desk streamlines many of the inquiries every month, the lab has still kept busy. Tipple recalled walking into the lab recently and seeing 20 boxwood samples ready for a diagnosis, signaling a full day of work.

As fall turns to winter, Tipple expects to see an increase of evergreen samples and inquiries arrive. She hopes to make the help desk a more sustainable process in the coming months so people across the state can get the help they need before the busy spring and summer months.

As an Extension Master Gardener, Tipple has been volunteering in Chesterfield’s Plant Pathology, Entomology & Plant Science Laboratory for the last three years, dedicating at least two days a week to diagnosing plants. Every day she walks into the lab is a surprise, but that just makes the work even more interesting.

Common themes that the lab sees are improper plant nutrition, insect damage, and disease. Luckily, 2020 hasn’t brought any new plant disease outbreaks sweeping across Virginia, but Tipple said that they are kept well-informed of new problems, such as boxwood blight.

As for Tipple’s personal garden, she said that she had success this summer with her tomatoes in her container garden thanks to the resources provided by Virginia Cooperative Extension.

radio microphone

Tips for establishing a radio spot from the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners

Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners (HOVMGA) have worked with WFLO, a local AM radio station to produce a quarterly radio spot on gardening. Jackie Fairbarns, “the voice” of HOVMGA shared how they manage the spot and tips for other units interested in establishing radio projects.

To hear some of Jackie’s spots, check the Heart of Virginia Master Gardener website: http://www.hovmg.org/index.php/jackie-fairbarns-podcast-radio-spots/

Can you describe your radio spot?

Once a quarter, we produce a 5-10 minute radio spot on a gardening subject of topical interest. Spots appear on WFLO, an AM station. They run similar spots each week, but we share the space with other horticulture/agriculture focused organizations, organized by the Soil and Water Conservation District, so we alternate (for example, each of the ANR Extension agents in our area also has a spot). Our spot comes up once a quarter (which is the right frequency for us).

Jackie on the occasion of her first broadcast for HOVMG

How did you establish this relationship with the radio station?

The project was established 15 or 20 years ago. All public media stations are required to provide a certain amount of airtime for public services, and this is one way to take advantage of that requirement.

How do you manage the project within your unit?

Management of the project is up to the person doing it, the previous person was the spokesperson for 14 years, I have been doing it for 2 years. I develop the script and work with the GM at the radio station to record it. He will tell me if it is too long or if I need to add something, but usually the person reading the script has already timed it because you don’t want to waste their time when you get there.

In the past there was a committee for writing the spot and developing the content, so all the spokesperson needed to do was show up and read the text. Right now, the only person on the committee is me. During COVID, I have been able to record electronically at home.

What types of things do you talk about on the radio and how do you choose them?

Topics have ranged from pruning shrubs to growing a vegetable garden. In 5 or 10 minutes you can’t develop a topic very much. Topics are chosen for seasonality as well. For example, last November I talked about maintaining Christmas indoor plants like poinsettia. One year for the D-Day anniversary I talked about victory gardens.

I always end with reminders about things that are coming up: gardening suggestions for the season and a plug for events we have scheduled. I also remind listeners that they can go to the Extension website for more information, or they can call the Master Gardeners and leave a message. Each year I talk about the plant sale and try to tie the plants available at the plant sale to what I’ve been talking about for 5 or 10 minutes, so the idea is that if they are interested, they can pick up a treasure for their own garden.

HOVMGA Plant Sale

What outcomes have you had from the radio spot? What do you hope to achieve?

According to the radio station, they have about 12,000 listeners, all clustered around Farmville, but they do not share how many people were listening during our spot. My philosophy is if only 100 people listen, that’s 100 people that we would not have reached otherwise.

I have had people come up to me and say “Oh you’re that lady on the radio!” and that is a splendid moment. We also have people come to the plant sale and mention that that they heard about it through radio. We list our events on the station’s community calendar, so we don’t know if they’ve heard our spot air or if they saw it advertised on the calendar.

We also post the radio spots on our website as a podcast, so we get double use out of them, and I frequently use the spot’s transcribed text to develop a newspaper article. If you’re going to do a radio spot, you might as well get as much use out of it as you can!

What recommendations do you have for other units who might be interested in radio spots?

The first thing is to contact the general manager who could guide you to whoever would make the decision about the spot. The spot will have to air during one of those times when the station does not have a paid advertiser (they’re not going to put Master Gardeners on for free if they have a paid sponsor to fill that time). The AM station here is willing to do this because they have a lot of air time to fill up, and you can’t have empty air.

We are in a rural area where everybody is gardening, so that’s a good point to use when talking to the manager at the station. It helps if you can show that there are people interested in this topic. If you have figures or evidence to support that—they will listen to those. If the group could bring a sponsor along with them, that would be great as well. That’s another way to get the station interested in your proposal.

I’d also emphasize that our radio spot is a cooperative effort with other horticulture/agriculture focused organizations.  It is probably a good idea to form such partnerships whenever possible since it makes the work a lot less onerous for everyone involved – and it is a good selling point when you approach media outlets.

Perhaps the station will offer you a spot at 6 am on Saturday or midnight on Thursday and even though it’s an odd time, you’re getting it for free. If you reach only 12 people, that’s 12 people who would not have heard about this otherwise.

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