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Pandemic can’t slow area master gardeners

CANFIELD — Mahoning County’s master gardeners continue to help residents with their questions and concerns on plants, pests and plant diseases.

What used to be an in-person program has moved to a virtual platform, but the mission remains the same.

Until 2020, the plant and pest clinic was open every Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, from the beginning of April through the end of October.

There are 91 master gardeners in Mahoning County. During a normal year usually two dozen master gardeners volunteer in the clinic.

“Before 2020, master gardeners were busy in the clinic answering questions from people who came in or called in that day, or who had sent questions in earlier,” said master gardener and clinic leader David Sprague. “In a typical year the clinic answers 1,000 questions for residents of Mahoning and nearby counties.

“We answer questions on growing fruits, vegetables and flowers. We get questions on how to care for lawns, trees and shrubs,” he said. “The clinic identifies garden/household pests, unknown plants, plant diseases and recommends controls for them. Sometimes we get questions on wildlife and ponds.”

Sprague said clinic master garders also process soil tests for customers.

The Master Gardener Program started in 1972 with the Washington State University Extension in Kings County, Washington. Now there are more than 86,000 Master Gardeners in the United States, and the program exists in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, several Canadian provinces, and South Korea.

According to OSU, as of 2019 there were 3,301 master gardeners in Ohio, who contributed more than 165,000 volunteer hours, totaling more than $4 million in services to their communities.

COVID-19 HITS

On the local level, the plant and pest clinic usually starts preparing for the year in March. In 2020, Sprague and the local masters were handling that preparation just as the plug was pulled by the COVID-19 virus.

“We were getting ready to kick off the clinic when OSU Columbus made the decision to close the extension offices,” he said. “The MGs stayed home and waited.”

The clinic was closed from April until June. In June the Extension Office began the virtual clinics once a week through the end of October.

“The virtual clinics used Zoom,” Sprague said. “At first, we did everything from digital photos. Later I was able to go into the clinic and join the Zoom clinic from there. This helped a lot.”

He was also able to go into the office and look at the samples directly and use the diagnostic scope when needed.

The virtual clinics filled the 2020 schedule with three to six masters taking part each week.

For 2021, the plan is to continue the virtual clinics for the time being.

If OSU opens later in the year, and the Canfield Extension office opens, Sprague said the clinic will return to normal operations with master gardeners staffing it.

For those interested in taking the master gardener course, Sprague said he hopes classes can be scheduled later this year. The classes that began early in 2020 had to be finished virtually after the extension office closed last March.

“I don’t know if a new master gardener (course) is planned for 2021,” Sprague said. “As for the clinics, I believe the future for the master gardeners and the clinics in Ohio is bright. It is a well-led and well-supported program.”

Eric Barrett, OSU Extension Mahoning County leader and educator, said Sprague and the master gardeners are a big plus for the Canfield office.

“The master gardener volunteers help us do more,” he said. “They gain vast experience through training, the clinic and overall programming. With their assistance with teaching, researching and public outreach, we are able to extend the reach of our programming to a greater number of people in Mahoning County. They are amazing individuals that bring a great deal of talent and expertise to OSU Extension and the entire county.”

Anyone wanting to use the virtual clinic can visit the OSU Extension website at https://mahoning.osu.edu/ and click on program areas and master gardener volunteers. Information is available on the site for accessing the virtual clinic.

jtwhitehouse@tribtoday.com

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