Summer is here and by now your Victory garden is planted. Dreams of fresh red tomatoes and lush green cucumbers are dancing in your head. But wait, what are those green caterpillars? What are those brown spots? Answers to these gardening questions and more are available from your local Master Gardeners and county extension agents. Even during this pandemic, they are standing by to help you with your gardening issues. Best of all, this is a free service for the public.
Help in Northern Virginia
In Northern Virginia, there are two Master Gardener groups. People who live in Arlington and Alexandria are probably familiar with the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia. They have an excellent website with plenty of resources. If you have a gardening question, you can e-mail the Extension Master Gardeners Help Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a service for the public. You do not have to be a master gardener, live in those specific areas, or pay anything. The people answering the questions are volunteer Master Gardeners and County Extension Agents. To have an accurate diagnosis, send a photo of the plant as well as a description of the problem. Take a photo of the entire plant in its growing situation and then closeups of both the healthy plant parts and diseased parts. Include environmental information such as amount of sun and water. Because the extension office is closed, the volunteers are working from their home so the e-mails get distributed to them for them to answer.
The second option is to contact the Fairfax County Master Gardeners Help Desk by e-mailing at email@example.com. This is a service of the Fairfax County Master Gardeners but again, you do not have to be a master gardener, you do not have to live in Fairfax County, and you do not have to pay anything. The reason why there are two Master Gardener groups in Northern Virginia is because the demand for the Master Gardener program is so high. This group also has an informative website and manages a virtual plant clinic a few times a week. Anyone with a lawn or gardening questions can join the virtual plant clinic (see their website for more detailed information).
Prior to the pandemic the Master Gardeners would host plant clinics at libraries and farmers markets but these are not available now. There are also extension offices that you can visit in person and help desk phone lines but these either are not staffed or with limited staff now.
Help in Maryland
In Maryland, there is the Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC) which is managed by the University of Maryland Extension. You can e-mail a form and questions are answered by horticulturists. In the form, describe the problem and attach photos, if needed. The website lists a few suggestions: include an object to indicate scale for insects; attach both a close-up as well as the entire plant; send a photo of the entire weed plant with flower or seed head; and, if seeking a plant disease diagnosis, send photos showing the transition from healthy to diseased. This is a free service and the HGIC will assist Maryland and DC residents. There is a Master Gardener program in Washington DC but they do provide this type of service which is why DC residents are encouraged to contact the HGIC. The HGIC is also a resourceful website with recent questions and answers and a list of common plants and issues. Usually there are also plant clinics in Maryland staffed by the Maryland Master Gardeners but these clinics are closed during the pandemic.
One other option is to go to the “Ask Extension” website, which is a portal for the Cooperative Extension System. Your question would be sent to the appropriate extension office within your state. (If you type in Washington DC you will be redirected to the Maryland HGIC.) Questions are answered by cooperative extension/university staff and volunteers within participating land grant institutions across the United States. In Maryland the land grant institution is the University of Maryland and in Virginia it is Virginia Tech. Again, a free service to the public across the country. Complete the form by entering your state, gardening question, e-mail, the county and state where you live, and the images, if needed.
If you are comfortable going to an independent garden center, you may be able to ask their staff about your gardening issues.
Public libraries should be open for you to check out gardening books. Below are suggestions of helpful books. Remember, do not get stressed about your garden. This is all part of the process. Figuring out what is wrong with a plant is part of gardening because gardening is a learning experience.
- Bug Free Organic Gardening: Controlling Pests and Insects Without Chemicals by Anna Hess, Skyhorse Publishing, 2019
- Pests and Diseases by Andrew Halstead and Pippa Greenwood, DK Publishers, May 2018
- Home Gardener’s Garden Pests and Diseases: Identifying and Controlling Pests and Diseases of Ornamentals, Vegetables, and Fruits by David Squire, Creative Homeowner, 2016
- What’s Wrong with My Plant (And How Do I Fix It?) (2009); What’s Wrong with my Vegetable Garden (2011); What’s Wrong with my Fruit Garden (2013), What’s Wrong with my Houseplant (2016) by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, Timber Press
- The Gardener’s Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control: Completely Revised and Updated by William Olkowski, Helga Olkowski, Sheila Daar, Taunton Press, 2013
- The Practical Encyclopedia of Garden Pests and Diseases: An Illustrated Guide to Common Problems and How to Deal With Them Successfully by Andrew Mikolajski, Anness Publishing 2012
- Good Bug, Bad Bug by Jessica Walliser, St. Lynn’s Press, 2011
- The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to a Healthy Garden and Yard The Earth-Friendly Way by Barbara W. Ellis, Fern Marshall Bradley, and Deborah L. Martin, Rodale Press, 2010
- Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver by Fern Marshall Bradley, Rodale Press, 2007
- Better Homes & Gardens Garden Doctor Advice from the Experts, Meredith Corporation, 2005
- Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, Princeton University Press, 2004
- Reader’s Digest, Gardener’s Problem Solver, Miranda Smith, 2004
- Insect, Disease and Weed ID Guide: Find-it-Fast Organic Solutions for Your Garden by Linda Gilkeson, author; Jill Jesiolowski, editor; Deborah L. Martin, editor, Rodale Press, 2001
- Pests and Diseases: The Complete Guide to Preventing, Identifying, and Treating Plant Problems by Pippa Greenwood, Andrew Halstead, A.R. Chase, Daniel Gilrein, American Horticultural Society, 2000.
- Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, Joseph M. DiTomaso, Cornell University Press, 1997