By Maxine Cass
Master Gardener 2015
When the SOREC Plant Clinic closed last March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, four volunteer mentors, supported by Master Gardener Program Coordinator Erika Szonntag, took up the
challenge to provide plant and insect identification.
Chatting face-to-face with over-the-counter clients or with Growers Market shoppers suddenly wasn’t possible. Physical samples of plant material or insects weren’t available for 3D inspection or to put under a microscope.
How have Dolly Travers (MG 2011), Viki Ashford (MG 2005), Katy Mallams (MG 2012), and Jan Carlson (MG 2016) responded to clients’ email-only contacts?
The Jackson County Master Gardener (Virtual) Plant Clinic was born. The team of Master Gardener volunteers work remotely, responding to email questions sent to a central email account. Clients ask a question or fill out a form similar to the one filled out for any Plant Clinic client contact.
The OSU Extension Service website outlines the process.
Questions and forms are submitted; each mentor has an assigned day of the week and spends several hours actively researching identification, diagnosis, and suggested problem or pest management. Sounds like the regular Plant Clinic – almost.
Without in-person contact, photos of the object or critter have become crucial, says Jan. “We are now exclusively tied to emails for the initial contact which also means that we are reliant on photos rather than physical specimens.” Which may mean more back and forth client contact to get additional descriptions and better photos.
Erika set up a resource base with publications and other references that the mentors praise for its extent and ease of use. Once identification or diagnosis is made, the mentor provides online publication links to clients, or may suggest OSU Extension catalog publications.
Mentor expertise plays a part – Katy Mallams, who knows a lot about trees [see her Garden Beet article last month on White Pine Blister Rust] recently fielded a question passed to her by Dolly that dealt with oak tree removal, replacement trees, armillaria root disease, mistletoe in oaks, and choosing trees with leaves, that when dry, don’t create a fire hazard.
Viki, whose Plant Clinic experience had been the at a Growers Market, says that she’s enjoyed being able to take the time to answer the questions. The mentors can see the issues as they arrive and can see any of the other mentors’ resolutions on a spreadsheet that Erika set up. Dolly noted that she likes the flexibility of being able to pick up a question any time it suits her on her volunteer day.
As with the physical Plant Clinic, client questions run in seasonal cycles. In spring, questions trend to insects, says Viki, while in summer, it’s vegetable gardening and fruit trees. In fall, it’s what should I do to put my garden to bed?
The four heroic Virtual Plant Clinic mentors, guided and advised by Erika, answered between 500 to 600 questions in 2020 – compared to approximately 2,000 handled by a full roster of Plant Clinic volunteers in a “normal” year. Kudos!