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Plant Clinics Offer First Aid for Gardens

The Master Gardener Plant Clinics diagnose and direct treatment for garden ailments

As the growing season begins, garden problems sprout alongside the expected annuals and new plants. To help gardens get off to a healthy start, the Master Gardener Plant Clinics are gear up at this time every year to diagnose these problems and advise gardeners on how to make the grass greener on their own side of the fence.

A program of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Master Gardener Plant Clinics open at farmer's markets and libraries around the county from May to September, answering questions about how to create a better garden and how to remedy gardens gone awry.

"The most common question is, 'My neighbor has green grass, I'd like green grass, too'" said Adria Bordus, environmental horticulturist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension's Fairfax office. It's concerns like this one that spur a visit to the Master Gardener Plant Clinic table for advice on the matter. The table is usually staffed by multiple gardeners.

"Everyone brings a little something to the table," said Candy Burt of Great Falls, the plant clinic coordinator who is now co-chairing the table at the Reston Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings at the Lake Anne Shopping Center, starting in May.

Becoming a master gardener takes three years. Participants attend 30 hours of training each spring and then volunteer for at least 25 hours per year for plant clinics or on other projects. Many gardeners "wind up doing more, because it's fun," said Burt.

"We have great speakers from everywhere. It's the best thing going, if you're into that," said Burt.

AT THE CLINICS, community members can approach the table with samples of plants or insects that need to be diagnosed or identified.

"I'm the first to say I don't know, but give me your name, give me your number, and I will find out for you," said Burt.

If the samples can't be identified on the spot, they are then taken back to the diagnostic laboratory at the Merrifield Garden Center to be studied further.

"It's really exciting," said Glen Seely of McLean, a master gardener lab volunteer for the past 28 years. "After 28 years, there's always something new to learn."

Samples to be examined at the plant laboratory can also be dropped off at county libraries. A courier picks them up and brings them to the extension service. After the diagnosis, the lab volunteers send a letter and any pertinent fact sheet hand-outs to the sample's owner.

"During the wintertime we get a lot of household insects. Some of them are really smashed and some of them you have to put together under a microscope, if you have a head, a thorax," Seely said.

"I think this year we're going to get a lot of questions about cicadas," Seely said.

"We always get questions about veggie gardens and flower gardens when it comes to planting and harvesting," said Bordus.

The lab supplies supplemental sheets on popular plants that often have problems in this area such as boxwoods, roses, rhododendron and azaleas. Many of the fact sheets are available online. Master gardeners also supply information about finding a certified arborist, said Bordus.

"We have roughly 450 plant clinics that we conduct," said Frank Solis, president of the Fairfax County Master Gardeners. "Plus we help to staff the extension office as well."

The lab has expanded since its inception from a few desks and a borrowed microscope to having 200 to 300 reference books, said Seely. "It's been a gradual thing that's grown."

"I CAN'T TELL YOU how it's broadened my knowledge base," said Burt of the Master Gardeners program. "I'm excited for this particular season because of the cicadas. They'll be flying around as we sit there" conducting clinics, she said.

"We record every single question," said Burt. The gardeners then use the questions to direct their information gathering and answer questions common to the region.

"We try to encompass everyone who might be interested" in the program, said Seely. "We're kind of expanding."

"Everyone is always so appreciative of what we do," said Burt. "We put in thousands of hours — it's amazing when you're totaling it up."