Master gardener clinic can diagnose problems

This romaine lettuce has sustained damage from two likely culprits - slugs and flea beetles, evidenced by the large melted-out areas and the shothole-like damage to the lower leaves. Much of the damage occurred at night. Note that the perimeters of the leaves appear intact, so it’s unlikely that the damage is caused by an insect that munches the edges of leaves. Tomato plants nearby also have significant damage, with skeletonized lower leaves, likely caused by flea beetles. Iti is helpful to Master Gardeners if you can provide a photo of similar quality or bring samples to CSU Extension for diagnosis if you have mystery garden problems.

The vegetable garden seems so perfect at the beginning of the summer. The perfectly spaced plants flourish, full of promise. Gardeners dream of that first tomato in July and harvesting all the delicious produce outside the back door as they baby the plants.

And then, things start to fall apart. This tomato has spots and looks like it is rotting on the vine. Something is munching on the lettuce, maybe in the middle of the night because you never see anything crawling around. Weeds are taking over because you stopped paying attention and went on a vacation. And these peppers just look, well, sad. What’s to be done?

I’ve seen people wander around big-box stores, filling their carts with heavy-duty pesticides and fertilizers, and I nosily ask, “Whatcha trying to kill?” or “Whatcha growing?”

Often, the respondent says they have “some kind of bug” eating their plants or they figure that giving plants a boost with fertilizer is a “good idea.”

Here’s the problem: You have to know what’s going on to effectively treat the issue for the desired results.

What if you went to the doctor and just asked for a bunch of medicine or to cut out an organ because things didn’t feel quite right, and they never conducted tests to see what treatment was needed?

That is what is happening here. It’s a shot in the dark, and let me tell you, there are no silver bullets that take care of every problem out there. You’re wasting your time (and money) if you treat an undiagnosed problem with whatever strikes your fancy, and you could exacerbate the issue as well.

No amount of fertilizer or pesticide is going to solve tomato blossom end rot, keep your peppers from sunburning or cure the powdery mildew on your cucumbers.

One of the keys to battling garden problems and being successful is good diagnostics. Observation is important, of course, and if you’re armed with the right facts, it makes determining the problem much easier and then you can go from there.

There’s good news: Colorado State University Extension, its experts and trained Master Gardeners are excellent resources. In fact, the Master Gardeners hold a weekly diagnostics session where samples are examined and they provide recommendations.

In Mesa County this clinic happens once a week, on Tuesdays, though they keep samples in a refrigerator to keep them as fresh as possible so you can bring them by the office at the Mesa County Fairgrounds any weekday between 8 a.m. and 
5 p.m. If you’re tired of randomly Googling pictures of pathetic, disease-ridden plants, they can help.

But in order to help you, these trained diagnosticians need good information. And that brings me to one of the most important things you can do to help yourself: Be observant and provide the facts of the situation.

While this might seem like common sense, I can tell you from experience that many folks who consult Master Gardeners with their problems can’t answer these questions, and that makes it hard or impossible to help them.

Here are some tips on information you should have on-hand to make things easier. Trust me, it helps.

Questions that can help with diagnosis:

■ What are the symptoms? How long have you noticed these symptoms?

■ Do the leaves look chewed, torn or skeletonized? Are they withered? Have they changed colors? Is this happening on the older leaves or the newer ones?

■ How often do you water, and how much do you water? Be honest.

■ What else do you have growing around this plant, and how does it seem to be performing? Have you fertilized lately or sprayed weeds around the area? What products did you use, and did you follow the label instructions?

■ Does this plant grow in a sunny or shady location? About how many hours of sun per day would you say it gets?

■ Is there a chance this damage is happening at night? Do you notice it in the morning or during the day?

■ Have you seen any insects causing damage to the plants? What do they look like? Even better, do you have a specimen of the insect?

If you have a specimen of an insect, don’t let it sit around for days, drying up and making it difficult to identify. Put it in a plastic baggie or a mason jar and stick it in your freezer for safekeeping until you can get it to the extension office.

If it’s a plant, it’s always good to bring a sample that shows which part of the plant this damage is occurring (don’t just bring one leaf if you can help it, bring a whole stem with old and new growth). If you’re bringing a plant sample, don’t leave it to wilt in your car for days before dropping it off. The quality of the samples makes it easier or harder to diagnose problems.

If you can’t bring a sample in, take a good-quality photo and send it via email to Susan Honea, Master Gardener coordinator, at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Keep in mind it might be helpful to have a few different photos, showing the tops and undersides of the leaves, as well as the stem, and photos of insects need to be clear and not blurry. She prefers actual samples to photos.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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