MSU Extension holds Diagnostic Academy to train Extension Master Gardeners who can serve as diagnostic responders

MSU Extension diagnostic responders annually assist over 10,000 Michigan citizens with their lawn and garden questions.

People learning about weeds.
Erin Hill, an MSU weed science diagnostician (far right), shows different common weeds and herbicide treatment results to participants at the Diagnostic Academy. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

Michigan State University Extension’s gardening resources are quickly becoming the sharpest tool in the shed. From Smart Gardening messages that focus on more earth-friendly, sustainable practices to the MSU Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline (888-678-3464) and the online Ask Extension question resource, over 10,000 people are annually assisted with gardening concerns and questions. Together, MSU Extension consumer horticulture staff and trained Extension Master Gardener diagnostic responders strive to provide the latest, research-based solutions to these questions. A statewide Diagnostic Academy was recently held to provide the training necessary for Extension Master Gardeners to become diagnostic responders. Extension Master Gardeners from the entire state participated.

Why is this important?

According to the National Gardening Survey, at least 77% of households are interested in gardening. In Michigan, this amounts to over seven million people. The recent survey shows many of them are new to gardening and require assistance. MSU continues to see an increase in using Extension’s gardening resources, such as the Lawn and Garden Hotline, Ask Extension, and the Gardening in Michigan website. Questions like, “How do I start a vegetable garden?” “What’s wrong with my tomatoes?” and “Why doesn’t my tree look good?” continue to be commonplace. Gardeners and homeowners are seeking solutions to insect and wildlife control, lawn care and any other question that relates to the garden, landscape or property. MSU Extension’s trained Extension Master Gardener diagnostic responders help provide research-based solutions to address their questions and concerns. This advice has been tried and tested and incorporates integrated pest management (IPM), which is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management.

The Diagnostic Academy was sponsored by a United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant focused around increasing IPM practices for Michigan residents. Diagnostic responders assist gardeners with key initiatives that focus on intentional choices that benefit the environment, pollinators, gardeners, and ultimately, improve water quality. For example, responders ask if gardeners have had their soil tested. That way, they will know how much and which nutrients to apply or how to properly adjust the pH. For insect issues, proper identification is key to control and prevention. Responders guide gardeners about the importance of protecting pollinators by reducing the use of pesticides and never spraying when flowers are open.

What happened at Diagnostic Academy?

Diagnostic Academy was a two-day training held at the MSU Extension Kent County office and in the Grand Ideas Garden that focused on diagnostics, or the process of figuring out what’s wrong with a plant. Extension Master Gardeners learned more about this process, as well as insects, plant diseases and weeds.

Mary Yelland, Diagnostic Academy coordinator, shared her outlook of the program, saying, “Those that took the class were excited about the information they learned, and enthusiastic to share their knowledge with others. The class was a great example of what MSU Extension has to offer to the community.”

On the first day, Rebecca Finneran and Becca Krans, both MSU Extension consumer horticulture educators, presented on the diagnostic process. Followed by David Lowenstein and Nate Walton, both entomologists, as well as consumer horticulture educators who focused on insects and the importance of proper identification. Proper identification is important as there are many beneficial insects in our yards and gardens that play key roles in the ecosystem. Participants worked in groups to properly key out and identify insect specimens that may cause plant issues. Outside in the MSU Extension Grand Ideas Garden, various insects were on hand to also identify and observe.

People learning
Extension Master Gardeners (left to right) Therese Nagi, Oakland, Deb Kinzi, Houghton and Shelley Metz of Kalamazoo, Michigan, look closely to try to properly identify an insect specimen. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

The second day of training included Duke Elsner, retired consumer horticulture educator, and Lori Imboden, former consumer horticulture educator, who provided information about plant pathology and all about diseases. Examples of plant problems were used to lead groups into discussions about how to correctly go about answering and assisting clients. Erin Hill, MSU weed science diagnostician, finished out the day with weeds. Again, proper identification and lifecycles were noted for their importance to weed control and management. Lab sessions consisted of weed observation and identification in the Grand Ideas Garden, as well as a demonstration on different herbicides and their effectiveness.

“This was one of the best classes through Extension that I’ve had. I’ve learned much and truly enjoyed it.” Diagnostic Academy participant
"I feel much more confident about answering questions, not only because I have a deeper understanding of the diagnostic process, but also because I know we have experts (who I have personally met) whom I can refer to or ask questions of." Deb Kinzi, Upper Peninsula diagnostic responder and program participant

Who are the diagnostic responders? 

Extension Master Gardeners who attended the Diagnostic Academy are interested in learning more about the science of what’s going on with plant and insect issues. As one participant commented, "I enjoy the process of research to find a solution to a problem."

After already completing the requirements to become an Extension Master Gardener, becoming a diagnostic responder is one way you can earn volunteer hours. You must first apply and be selected to participate in the Diagnostic Academy. Once you complete the academy, you are then eligible to become a diagnostic responder.

This process isn’t for everyone. Responders must think quickly, be patient in dealing with people, and rely on the diagnostic process. They need to be committed to spending time weekly as diagnostic responders and thus assisting MSU Extension’s consumer horticulture staff with daily gardening questions. They volunteer as ambassadors for MSU Extension either assisting on the Lawn and Garden Hotline or the Ask Extension resource helping promote the use of IPM practices. They are committed to always learning more and remaining current on the latest issues and research, so they can pass on this important messaging to the public.

What’s next?

Although the gardening season is winding down, gardeners still have questions. The MSU Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline continues to field questions and is available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon EST. The Ask Extension online question resource is available 24/7 and 365 days, and questions slow during the winter months but continue to come in.

These diagnostic responders, along with consumer horticulture staff, will continue to remain busy throughout the year. Future Diagnostic Academies will be held as we continue to grow MSU Extension’s diagnostic responder capacity to keep up with the growing and continuing interest in gardening.

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