February 2, 2019
Are you familiar with the help desk at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Novato? If not, you may be interested to know that UC Marin Master Gardeners are available there to help you tackle a wide variety of gardening problems.
Master gardeners go through a training program sponsored by the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. One of the places where that training is especially useful is at the help desk. To assist local Marin gardeners, we rely on science-based information provided by UC, as well as other respected universities and organizations. We also have onsite backup from Marin County staff, including the agricultural office and a horticulturist.
Over the past decade, we have averaged more than 2,000 inquiries per year, or about eight for every work day. Since we are volunteers, our services are free, and we are able to help home gardeners on a one-to-one basis.
We see countless varieties of spiders, scale and insects, including termites and bedbugs. And plants and trees affected by bacteria, fungi and chemicals, as well as those gnawed by troublesome garden invaders or bored by beetles.
In recent years, the most frequent questions have been about fruit tree pests and diseases, citrus problems, identifying insects, identifying plants and when to consult an arborist. But topics range far and wide. We are asked about pruning, removing lawns, planting trees and shrubs, choosing soil mixes and compost, testing soil, catching rats and gophers, and growing vegetables — especially tomatoes. And there are concerns about oak trees, often involving oak moths or sudden oak death (Phytophthora ramorum).
If you come to us with a sick plant, we will need some background in order to help you. We will ask you questions about its age, location and how it has been cared for. We will need photos or plant samples, and sometimes both. Plant material that is diseased or insect-infested should be brought to us in a plastic bag. If you have an insect to identify, we need a picture or specimen in a container.
Garden problems are often about pests, whether they are insects, pathogens (diseases), weeds, birds, rodents or other animals. UC Marin Master Gardeners follow the principles of integrated pest management (IPM) in finding solutions. IPM focuses on long-term pest prevention by managing the ecosystem and reducing reliance on chemicals. If pesticides are needed, we focus on those low in toxicity and usually in combination with other methods, such as attracting beneficial insects.
Regardless of the questions we are asked, the most common problem we encounter is cultural care — how the plant has been tended, or not. The No. 1 issue is water, either too little or too much. Too little water will stress the plant or tree, making it susceptible to disease or attack by insects. Too much leads to root damage, and often, death of the plant. We can help with suggestions on how much to water and other recommended care.
There are some requests that the help desk isn’t able to meet. First, we don’t do on-site visits, but we can provide a list of professionals, such as arborists or landscapers, who will come to your garden. Or we can offer a garden walk, another service by UC Marin Master Gardeners that focuses on saving water and using un-thirsty plants and does include a home visit. Second, we aren’t experts in design, but there are some wonderful books we can suggest on native and low-water plants. And third, sometimes even we are stumped, and some problems don’t have easy answers.
Maybe next time you have a gardening puzzle or just want to know more about a particular plant or garden topic, you will visit us at the help desk. We are staffed most week days and can be reached by phone, email or in the office.