2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Community Service — 1st Place Winner

Garden Sense

Home landscape water use comprises the majority of home water use.  The University of California Cooperative Extension Sonoma Master Gardeners (SCMG) have been focusing on the sustainable gardening practice of water conservation via the Garden Sense program, a partnership developed between SCMG and the Sonoma County Water Agency. California is famous for its’ arid Mediterranean climate featuring an extended dry season from approximately April through November. However, most home landscapes in this region have been created without any regard to our summer-dry climate, and the public is not at all aware of the water needs of commonly used landscape plants.

Landscape before
Landscape before

The Garden Sense program, launched in September 2013, is available to any Sonoma County resident. SCMG has developed a comprehensive 9 course advanced training for Garden Sense consultants in the areas of irrigation efficiency, sheet mulching and low water use plants.  There are currently 50 trained volunteer consultants who meet with residents in their gardens to evaluate existing irrigation practices and advise how to increase irrigation efficiency, reduce or remove lawns, and create climate-appropriate gardens based on the client’s functional needs.

Landscape after
Landscape after

In August 2014, clients who had received a Garden Sense visit were surveyed; 75% of respondents indicated that the visit was either very helpful in helping them change their home landscape water conservation practices or that they could not have completed their lawn removal project without SCMG’s assistance. Conservative estimates of water savings as a result of Garden Sense consultations in our first year of operation are equivalent to 6 acre feet of water saved annually (nearly 2,000,000 gallons)!

One of our clients who was new to the Sonoma County area stated: “We couldn’t have done it without them . . . their advice and expertise was essential to our successfully creating a low water-use landscape. Thank you so much!”


Garden Sense Consultants on a Visit
Garden Sense Consultants on a Visit

2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Community Service — 2nd Place Winner

Fairfax Master Gardener Diagnostic Lab: Serving the Public for 34 Years

Fairfax Master Gardener Diagnostic Lab: Serving the Public for 34 Years

The Fairfax County Master Gardeners Association (FCMGA) Diagnostic Laboratory placed second in the Community Service Category of the 2015 International Master Gardener Search for Excellence.

The Lab has been in operation since 1981. Its purpose is to solve difficult plant identification, insect, and disease problems for the general public in Fairfax County, Virginia.  To our knowledge it is the only diagnostic laboratory operated by a Master Gardener group in the state of Virginia.

There is one Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) horticultural agent for Fairfax County, Virginia.  She serves a population of over 1.1 million residents.  Master Gardeners, numbering over 350 in Fairfax County, are a great force multiplier for the extension agent.  The Lab supports this effort by diagnosing problems that require deep knowledge and experience. The Lab is an important adjunct to the weekly plant clinics operated by FCMGA from May to September at 13 farmers markets and 5 public libraries throughout the county.  That’s well over 300 plant clinics per year!  In addition the Lab handles diagnostic requests that come directly from the (VCE) office in Fairfax from residents and landscape companies.  Services of the Lab and FCMGA are available free of charge.

Lab veterans Ted Stroup and Priscilla Baetke examine a new sample



The essential ingredient for a successful diagnostic laboratory is expert Master Gardeners with a passion for horticulture and public service.  Our Lab volunteers have an average of 17 years’ experience with FCMGA; the longest tenure is 37 years.  They are among the most knowledgeable Master Gardeners in the FCMGA.  In 2013 14 of FCMGA’s most experienced Master Gardeners volunteered 818 hours of service to this activity.


Samples that our Master Gardeners are unable to diagnose or identify at a plant clinic are referred to the Lab.  The Lab usually provides identifications, diagnoses, and advice within a week, most often in a report that is emailed directly to the client.  Responses typically contain an explanation of the problem, diagnostic keys to recognizing it, and a tutorial to help the client address the current problem and avoid similar problems in the future.  This advice includes recommended cultural practices and controls.



Our lab is equipped with two microscopes.  The microscope is a necessity for identifying mites, small insects, various insect eggs, and many fungal pathogens whose fruiting bodies cannot be seen by the unaided eye.  Diagnosticians have access to four computers for report preparation and research. There is a bookshelf containing useful references and a refrigerator for storage of samples. The Lab is housed in approximately 225 sq. ft. of space provided by the Merrifield Garden Center. Finally, the Lab has a variety of forms and instructions developed over the years to facilitate the delivery of its services.


In a typical year the Lab diagnoses over 300 samples (i.e., what is the problem with my plant?).  The diagnoses consist of over 100 different pathogens or causes, primarily fungal diseases (very common here in the humid Middle Atlantic region), insects, mites, and cultural problems.  Prominent among the fungal problems are several types of leaf spot, conifer tip blights, powdery mildew, sooty mold, and downy mildews.

Spider mites of several kinds tend to be the leading invertebrate problem in a dry year. Rose slugs, lacebugs, and various types of scale, led by cottony camellia scale, are the most common insect problems. In a year with unusually high rainfall most cultural problems are related to wet soil.

In a typical year the Lab handles 150 to 200 identification requests (i.e., what plant, insect, mushroom or other object is this?), the vast majority of which are plant samples.


Each diagnostic report provides a mini-lesson in IPM to the client who submitted the sample.  Fairfax County is located in the watershed of the environmentally threatened Chesapeake Bay. Reduction in the use of pesticides and fertilizers is an important public objective in our area.  Implementation of the Lab’s IPM-based advice means clients are not using pesticides and fertilizers unless absolutely necessary and only using them at a time when they would be effective.  When a pesticide is used, it is one whose effectiveness against the diagnosed problem has been proven through university extension service research.

Priscilla Baetke performs microscopic analysis.

Some clients reply directly to the Lab’s email report vowing to follow the advice.  Others return to FCMGA’s weekly plant clinics to discuss what they have done, ask further questions, and express their gratitude for the service.  Some return on multiple occasions during the year with more problems for the Lab to diagnose.


The Lab publishes a variety of reports based on lab findings.  For the 2013 Plant Clinic season, the Lab prepared a series of “Monthly Preview” documents, each highlighting problems we would expect to see at clinics in the coming month.  The previews are now published on our public website.

In addition, the Lab produces a “Lab Notebook”, usually with the assistance of a summer intern whose salary is partially funded by the FCMGA.  The reports, published every 1 -3 weeks from May to August, describe the lab’s latest findings.  The Lab Notebooks are replete with descriptions, photos and statistics to arm FCMGA master gardeners and professional landscape maintenance personnel who subscribe to this free service with the information they need to deal with the myriad of plant problems we encounter in the Middle Atlantic region.


The Merrifield Garden Center, one of the leading independent garden centers in Virginia, provides physical space for the Lab and connectivity to the Internet.  Merrifield’s support in the interest of sound horticultural practices contributes significantly to the success of the Lab and to FCMGA in general.



2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Community Service — 3rd Place Winner

Florence Community Garden

pic 1When this project was first conceived (first quarter of 2013) we knew that this was not going to be a project Extension could tackle alone. With the Shoals Master Gardeners taking a leadership role, partnerships were developed with the Northwest Resource Conservation & Development Council, the city of Florence, the Florence Men’s Club and the Lauderdale County Commission. Planning meetings and conceptual design began January/ February time frame by pulling people together. The biggest obstacle was finding an area with a suitable water source.

Several areas throughout the city were consider potential garden sites but a ready available water source was the limiting factor in each case. After review of several areas we realized the area was right at our door step. The Community Garden’s location is along Veterans Dr. between S. Oak and S. Chestnut Street on property occupied by the Florence Lauderdale Coliseum and the Alabama Cooperative System. The property is owned by the City of Florence. The Gardens are located between the parking lot and Veterans Dr. This project was planned and designed to provide a highly viable facility where veterans, low income and or physically impaired citizens and those with no room or opportunity could have their own garden. We wanted a facility with open public access, adequate sunlight and availability of water. The Extension Office provided ready access water and we ran a drip irrigation system to each bed, on timers, so the gardeners didn’t have to carry water unless they wanted more than we allocated through the system. pic 2The Project Team immediately  choose the raised bed concept for ease of access for challenged individuals, children and predictability for success by having a consistent growing medium within each bed.

Our original plan and budget was to build fifty individual raised beds. We actually built fifty two beds and every one of them ended up with an “owner” who planted, tended, and harvested their crops with great personal satisfaction. Two of the beds were used by the Extension System for ‘Trapped crops” and “Pollinators” (butterfly and humming birds). Two other beds were by the 4-H Club, (Junior Master Gardeners). The Extension system conducted public forums for new gardeners to instruct them in the best practices and methods for them to succeed in growing. The meetings were held during the day and again in the evening to accommodate those working. Every gardener got a condensed lesson in pest management, horticulture practices, seed/plant selection and garden care.

Master Gardeners were available daily (through the Help-Line) and on weekends to provide advice and information to the new gardeners.  The raised bed garden is not a unique concept,however, we did provide a growing medium not previously employed. The Florence city government provided equipment  and transportation for us to move tons of “Cotton Gin Trash” from two separate gins in the county, to our garden location. The Shoals Master Gardeners team wheel-barrowed those same tons, into the fifty-two beds which were  4’ wide x 8’ long x 20” deep. This filling process continued over several work days. Cotton gin trash is the biomass by-product of the business of ginning cotton. This sustainable product, in it’s composted forms yields an inexpensive, micro nutrient rich planting medium.

pic 3The total summer production was over 2100 lbs. Also, there were several gardeners who produced fall gardens.

The project fostered six other Shoals Master Gardener Projects that were able to utilize the same raised-bed and gin trash concept at a nursing home, four schools and a community health clinc. In the near by city of Sheffield, there are plans to establish an entire city block of raised bed gardens in 2016. So, for 2015 we had a 85% retention rate from 2014 and quickly filled up from the waiting list with potential gardeners and the fruits of their labor are seen here. The waiting list continues to grow.

pic 5