Master gardeners: Tales from the front lines

Stan Ring, horticulture program assistant at the Extension Office, looks over a dieffenbachia houseplant in bad shape at the Douglas County Extension Service offices. Residents can drop off items or call the Master Gardener hotline to get answers regarding gardening plants, problems and pests.

Stan Ring, horticulture program assistant at the Extension Office, looks over a dieffenbachia houseplant in bad shape at the Douglas County Extension Service offices. Residents can drop off items or call the Master Gardener hotline to get answers regarding gardening plants, problems and pests.


From left are a yellow-neck caterpillar, stabbed lady beetles, a walnut caterpillar and common bedbugs, all samples of what people have found in their garden or elsewhere that were brought in to be identified by Master Gardeners at the Douglas County Extension Office. The office also has a hot line for people to phone in their questions.

Managing the Douglas County Master Gardeners Hotline is a lot like being a 911 dispatcher — except the “emergency” calls involve air attacks of renegade bagworms and “pear” trees throwing little red fruit.

Sponsored by the Douglas County K-State Extension Service, the Master Gardener program provides research-based information, at no charge, to frustrated (and sometimes frantic) home horticulturalists. Volunteers staffing the office, which includes answering the hot line, e-mailed questions and walk-in inquiries, must be part-botanist/part-psychologist to talk callers down from the proverbial ledge.

On any given day, trained Extension Master Gardeners field questions on crabgrass, mold, plant eating insects or how to stop moles dead in their tracks. Some problems posed by the public are garden-variety, simple for Master Gardeners to solve. Other dilemmas are more challenging and, often, comical.

“Once, I had some people come in who were having trouble with their blue spruce. It was dying,” says Jennifer Smith, Lawrence, horticulture agent and program director.

“We got pictures of the site and looked at branches under the microscope, and there weren’t any insects or disease. We kept asking about the history of the tree, like what kinds of things could have happened that could’ve affected it. The people had lived there only a year, so they didn’t know the long-term (history). Finally, they went to talk to their neighbors and discovered the tree had blown over, uprooted in a windstorm. The people who lived there before had it set upright and staked it,” she laughs. “If the neighbor wouldn’t have known, we would have never figured that one out.”

Stan Ring, program assistant and Master Gardener since 1993, recounts another memorable call about mysteriously dying trees.

“A lady called in September a couple years ago, and she was all excited because she said her trees were dying,” Ring recalls. “She said, ‘The leaves are turning color and falling off. It’s terrible!’

“And I said, ‘Well, what about your neighbors?’ She laid the phone down again and came back. ‘It’s affecting my neighbors, too!’ She was very upset. So, I asked how long she had lived in Lawrence, and she said less than a week. I asked where she moved from, and she said Southern California. So, I said, ‘Have you got time for a little discussion?’

“She just didn’t know,” Ring chuckles. “I thought, hasn’t she ever watched ‘On Golden Pond’ or anything?”

Jill Persinger of Lawrence is a newbie Master Gardener whose first experience on the hot line gave her an entertaining story to tell her gardening friends.

“This woman had sent in a picture and brought in a bag of fruit and a leaf and said, ‘I planted this Bradford pear 10 or 15 years ago, and I’ve been waiting all this time for it to bear fruit, and all of a sudden this year, I have these,’” Persinger says.

“They were cherries. She didn’t need us to tell her they were cherries, but you could tell she was absolutely stunned she had a cherry tree. She had put it in herself, which makes it even better.”

Smith says people who call the Master Gardeners for help fall into two categories:

“First is the group who wants to ‘stump the band.’ They want to have the question that has no answer,” she explains. “Somebody will come in with a leaf that has an insect gall, and they’re so excited. They’ll say, ‘I’ve got something you’ve never seen before.’ And they’ll pull it out and you go, ‘Oh yeah, I got five of those this week already.’ But, you try to be nice about it. You don’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then there’s the group that thinks you have the answer to everything, and sometimes we don’t,” Smith says. “Sometimes, there’s just no real way to know.”

Master Gardener Rebecca Jordan, of Lawrence, says she learns something new on every shift at the Extension office.

“A couple years ago, a woman came in with a neatly folded piece of Kleenex,” Jordan says. “She opened it up, and there was a mess of creepy crawly things that were maybe a quarter of an inch long. She said they were defoliating her elderberry trees. Fortunately Jennifer was here, because there was no way I could identify them. So I showed them to Jennifer, and she said ‘bagworms.’ The woman said, ‘That’s what I said, but everybody said, “they can’t be bagworms, they’re not in evergreens.’

“Turns out, bagworms eat evergreens, but if evergreens aren’t around, they’ll eat other things. This woman couldn’t walk out of her door without bagworms getting in her hair, because they were coming down on their little webs.”

Which brings up another requisite of the job, besides horticultural acumen: a certain comfort level with grossness.

“Last week, somebody brought in some kind of fungus or a mold called stinkhorn, and it looks vaguely obscene,” Jordan explains. “It was about three or four inches, it had a hole in the middle, the tip was red. When we found out what it was, they said it smelled like a dog’s patootie. I didn’t smell it, but it was getting slimy and disgusting.”

Call the Extension Master Gardeners, Monday thru Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 843-7058 or e-mail questions to Walk-ins are also welcome at the Extension office at 2110 Harper on the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Get more information through their website:


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