West Michigan Lawn & Garden Hotline team provides research-based answers to residents

Specially trained Extension Master Gardeners contribute to the statewide initiative of providing Michigan residents research-based answers to lawn and garden questions.

Kent County Extension Master Gardener responders evaluate insect samples
Kent County Extension Master Gardener responders evaluate insect samples. Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

Michigan residents rely on the Michigan State University Extension Lawn & Garden Hotline (1-888-678-3464) to provide them with research-based answers to their lawn and garden questions. With over 7,000 questions coming in every year, the statewide hotline relies upon highly trained Extension Master Gardeners to assist the consumer horticulture team in providing answers. Hotline responder teams from around the state are managed by MSU Extension consumer horticulture educators. The west Michigan hotline team stationed in Kent County is one such team.

Who are the west Michigan Lawn & Garden Hotline responders?

West Michigan diagnostic team leader Angela Van Order notes, “I have the privilege of working with 14 highly trained Extension Master Gardeners who have a passion for both plants and helping people. They are excited to share their knowledge and training in order to help others find solutions for their own gardening concerns.”

Some have been serving this team for nearly 20 years and others are just getting started. What Van Order likes best about working with the volunteers is getting to know them. “They’re all excited about gardening, and they are a unique group. I like the shared learning and experiences that come out from our interactions,” she says.

What does it take to have a team of qualified Extension Master Gardeners ready to answer hotline questions?

Harnessing her own experiences as a volunteer, Van Order oversees the team, making sure there is consistency in protocol with answering and that reputable, research-based Extension resources are provided. Hotline responders also need to like helping the public. They answer various questions such what a soil test is, soil test result interpretation, plant identification, what’s wrong with plants, plant selection and right plant, right site.

Van Order noted the importance of the diagnostic process, reinforcing team training to ask the right questions leading to solutions for clients. The order of this questioning is also very important for the efficiency and speed at which responders assist callers. For instance, correctly identifying the plant is the first step. Michigan State University also has several specialists who, along with MSU Extension consumer horticulture educator Rebecca Finneran, provide support and guidance to the hotline responders.

Duke Elsner teaches advanced training
Duke Elsner (left) teaches advanced training. Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

What should callers know or do before calling?

I asked Van Order what advice she might have for people who call in. She says, “Often times, callers assume they already know the problem and sometimes may be surprised by the answer.” It is helpful that the caller correctly identifies the plant and attempts to gather information about the site, such as soil type, age of plant and any treatments that have already been done. Identifying plants over the phone is nearly impossible, so clients should have a digital photo at the ready and be able to email it for identification or upload to MSU’s Ask an Expert.

Van Order says, “A picture always is worth a million words.” When taking a photo of an issue with a plant, try to include examples that tell the story of what is wrong. For example, take a photo of the entire plant then take a photo of the symptoms and try to get as close as possible.

Although the MSU Extension Lawn & Garden Hotline is currently only operating during Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon EST, we are still here to take your calls at 1-888-678-3464. If you have an immediate lawn or garden question, you can also upload photos and questions 24/7 to MSU’s Ask an Expert.

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