While shopping for dandelion greens or gourmet cookies, gardeners can also pick up some advice at a plant clinic, offered regularly at local farmers markets — and elsewhere.
At the clinics, Travis County master gardeners help answer gardening questions or offer information. These master gardeners are volunteers trained through a program of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, which is an “education agency with a statewide network of professional educators, trained volunteers, and county offices,” according to its website; it offers programs on various topics such as gardening, landscaping and more.
For gardeners with questions or concerns, plant clinics (basically, information booths) are just one of many free resources available for county residents through the Travis County AgriLife Extension. Information is also offered through a phone help desk, walk-in help desk, email, printed materials and more, says Sheryl Williams, horticulture program assistant with the Travis County AgriLife Extension Service. (Some similar services are offered through AgriLife Extension offices in other counties, such as Williamson and Hays, she said.)
“It’s about distributing the information,” Williams says. “Everything that we tell folks is research-based answers; we don’t provide home remedies. … We don’t provide information unless we can back it up with research.”
In general, “a lot of the questions are about what to grow, how to grow it and pest management. Those are the three broad categories,” Williams says. However, questions vary depending on the plant, the season and the circumstances. “During the drought, it was all about water.”
(Master gardeners and AgriLife Extension staff members, however, cannot make recommendations regarding specific businesses, such as arborists or landscapers. They can direct people to sources, such as professional organizations, to help them select one, Williams says.)
At a recent clinic at the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller, one person who had just moved to the area from Corpus Christi asked what to grow in a house with no backyard. JoAnna Benko, a master gardener intern, recommended growing a firecracker plant, because “it grows well in a pot,” she says
Topics can range from oak wilt to pruning; some folks ask what they should plant in the area where they live, says master gardener Terri Escobar. “A lot of times, they’ll ask about bugs.”
At the recent clinic, Delese Ellison, 63, who is moving to Austin, stops by the table. “I have some flower beds I’m going to be dealing with,” she says, happily receiving a “Native and Adapted Landscape Plants” booklet.
“We encourage the planting of natives,” Benko says.
To keep kids interested, the plant clinics offer activities, such as making leaf crowns.
The plant clinics run at the Mueller farmers market (fourth Wednesdays of the month), at the Texas Farmers’ Market at Lakeline (fourth Saturdays) and Hope Farmers’ Market (second Sundays), as well as occasionally at other community events, Williams says. Some clinics could go on hiatus during the winter months, depending on weather and staffing, Williams says. Check the calendar at tcmastergardeners.org.
Groups can also request to host a plant clinic, she says, by emailing email@example.com.
Phone help desk: Gardeners with questions or quandaries can call the phone help desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 512-854-9600; callers should ask to speak to a master gardener.
“Our goal is to have (a master gardener) in at least once a day, for a minimum of four hours,” Williams says. If a master gardener is not available, a caller can leave a message. “The next master gardener will return your call. It is usually the next day,” she says.
Even if an answer isn’t readily available, Escobar says, “We always research and find the resources they need.”
Email: Those with gardening issues can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This way, gardeners can also send photographs of a plant, pest, plant damage or other visual information so the master gardener can better answer a question. (Gardeners sending images are asked to submit in-focus close-up pictures as well as photos of the entire plant, according to tcmastergardeners.org.)
The turnaround time for emailers to hear back is “usually a day or two. …It just depends on how much research is being done,” Williams says.
“When people email … it’s usually problem solving. Something is happening with (their) plant,” Williams says. Photos of bugs help determine “what it is and what you should do, if anything,” she says.
“Sometimes it is a photobomb” of the bug, she says. If that’s the case, “the damage (they are) showing has nothing to do with that (bug).”
Walk-in help desk: Others can seek garden help in person by visiting the walk-in help desk at the AgriLife Extension office at 1600-B Smith Road; call ahead to make sure a master gardener will be available. Gardeners can bring in samples, such as leaves, weeds or a small area of lawn, to help the master gardener discuss a problem and potential solutions. Any samples should be put in closed plastic bags with the person’s name and phone number on it, according to the website. (Suggestions on ways to get such samples can also be found at that site.)
Printed information: Numerous fact sheets, as well as the booklet “Native and Adapted Landscape Plants,” are available through the Grow Green program, which is a partnership between the city of Austin and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
These materials, which cover topics such as beneficial insects and landscape design, are free to residents of Travis County, Williams says; however, they can also be found at growgreen.org. That site also has a searchable database of native and adapted plants.
Among the other resources, visitors to the Travis County AgriLife Extension office can also look around at the demonstration garden on-site, which highlights Earth-kind landscaping, Williams says. As well, through its speakers bureau, groups can schedule to have a master gardener give a talk on garden-related topics. Requests can be emailed to email@example.com.