Friday, October 14, 2011

Since You Asked...Tracey Payton Miller

If you have a yard—and there is anything at all growing in that yard—you really do need to know your  county's cooperative extension agent. Seriously. You do. There is an office in each county throughout the country, where you'll be pleasantly surprised by just how much information and assistance is available just for the asking.

Part of the US Department of Agriculture, the network of  cooperative extension offices is one of the most accessible (and mostly free) benefits available to the landscape owner. So I decided to ask my own agent, Tracey Payton Miller, a few questions, just to give you an idea.

Q. Tracey, when selecting trees and shrubs that are tolerant of extreme-weather conditions, why is it important to check with your local cooperative extension agent?

A. Most county agents are up to date on current disease and insect problems, which can influence whether a plant is a good choice. This can change in a 5 to 10 year period (or less), so it never hurts to check.

Plus, most agents might have information regarding proven plants in your area. Several states have adopted programs that identify strong performers, such as Oklahoma Proven, Texas Superstar, and Pride of Kansas.

Q. What kinds of tree/shrub-care how-to information is available through cooperative extension offices?

A. Your county office might have information sheets devoted to a popular tree or shrub, with tips on how to care for, fertilize, and prune it in your specific state.

In the case of our office, we have compiled entire lists of plants that we know do well here. And county extension agents have a direct vein to research heads at their particular land-grant institutions. So we can usually find an answer [to your questions] if we don't have one right away.

Q. After a landscape disaster occurs, what helpful information is available from cooperative extension offices?

A. I started this position only weeks after a major ice storm in my area. Therefore, I've compiled an entire bank of information for future use. This includes material I was emailed from higher up, but is mainly information that I noticed was in dire need [in this disaster zone].

Topics range from assessing the damage to your trees, to good replacement trees, and a list of certified arborists. (Since we cannot recommend just one arborist, we compiled a list in direct response to being asked hundreds of times, "Who do I call to prune my tree?" I can only imagine that other offices have done the same in cases of extreme weather.)

Q. Do cooperative extension offices provide diagnoses and treatment recommendations for pests or diseases in trees and shrubs?

A. Yes. It can be hard to diagnose a problem over the phone, so we usually recommend that you bring in a sample. We have a saying: "dead plants tell no stories," meaning that it can be hard to tell what killed a plant when all the leaves are dead and brittle. So we would need fresh samples (not gathered last week or left in a hot care for two days) in grocery or zipper bags.

For insects, we would need fresh (dead or alive) specimens that have not been waterlogged or squished. I get a lot of insects in jars and other containers that have been recently sprayed. We ask that you do not do this.

There are a lot of common problems and disorders that aren't caused by a pathogen such as fungi, bacteria, or insects. So I try to diagnose these in-house. However, if I am stumped, I will send the plant to the diagnostic lab on campus. In our state, this is free of charge when it comes through the extension office, unless there is an expense for a particular assay.

Q. What about soil testing? How do citizens get that done?

A. The charge and method of soil collection may vary state by state, so I would recommend you call your local office.

In our state, there is a $10 charge for a routine test: NPK and pH. (However, there are more extensive tests if they are warranted, such as for salinity, organic matter, soil texture, sub soil, etc.)

We recommend that you take around 20 core samples, which consist of randomized soil plugs 6 to 8 inches deep. You would mix those samples together and bring us a full quart-size zipper bag full. The more cores you take, the more representative the sample will be of that area. One bag for each area you want tested (lawn, garden bed, vegetable bed, pasture, etc.).

We also do irrigation, livestock, and household water tests for $15.

[NOTE: To find the cooperative extension office nearest you, go to Cooperative Extension System Offices.]

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