If you don’t know it already, your local Extension office is a vast gardening resource. In addition to doing soil tests and offering gardening programs (and so much more), your local Extension agents are experts at answering questions! Got a plant problem? Hit up the experts at your local office – just be sure to bring in a plant or pest sample. If you follow these five guidelines to getting a good sample, you’ll be practically guaranteed a successful diagnosis!

Aphid problem

Don’t know what those critters are on your leaves? With a proper plant sample, your local Extension agent could easily identify these unwelcome guests as aphids.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Pest Problem

Your local Cooperative Extension office can help identify what’s attacking your beloved plants – and offer advice on how to control it.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

  1. Bring a plant sample to the office. Although your local Extension agents answer many plant-related questions over the phone each day, some requests simply can’t be performed without a face-to-plant meeting. Just like a doctor can’t diagnose your ailments over the phone, an Extension agent can’t always identify a plant or its troubles without taking a look at the specimen. So don’t be surprised if when you call for help, someone asks you to bring your plant (or a piece of it) to the office.
  2. Bring a live sample. You’ll have a much better chance of getting a successful identification if you bring in a sample that contains both living and damaged tissue. Unfortunately, we often don’t notice our favorite plant is in danger until it’s almost completely gone. This makes identifying the plant’s killer that much more difficult. So I suggest scouting for pests and plant problems on a semi-regular basis, as most avid gardeners do. When you notice a plant with browning branches or strange symptoms, there’s still time to get the problem corrected before it’s too late.
  3. Bring a fresh sample. Don’t leave your plant sample sitting around in your car all day before bringing it into your local Extension office. Wilting not only makes problems difficult to identify, it can mask or change a plant’s characteristics to make the problem look like something else. It’s best to cut plants in the morning and bring samples directly to the Extension office. (I recommend calling ahead or scheduling an appointment to ensure you’ll catch an expert in the office and that they’ll see the freshest sample possible.)
  4. Bring an ample sample. I used to chuckle a bit when someone would bring me one leaf of a plant and ask me to identify the problem. Unless that leaf was covered with a family reunion of insects, it usually wasn’t enough of a sample to make an accurate diagnosis.

    So how much of the plant should you bring in? If it’s a potted plant, go ahead and bring the entire thing – pot and all. If you’ve got a problem with a plant in your landscape, however, just bring a large enough sample for someone to see the transition from healthy to unhealthy growth. (In most cases, a branch or two will do.) If you’re not sure how much to bring, call your Extension office, describe the symptoms and let your agent be the judge of just how much hacking your plant will have to endure to get a proper diagnosis.
  5. Send your sample by e-mail. E-mailing good digital images of your troubled plant, along with a list of its problems, is nice if you don’t have the time to go by the office at the first sign of plant sickness. The issue may be easily identifiable by the photos, which would save you a trip across town. Most agents welcome e-mails like this, but don’t be surprised if they still request a physical sample.

And when it comes to lawn woes or big tree troubles, it’s often best to e-mail your Extension agent some good photos that capture the problem, along with an explanation of symptoms. This way the agent can get a sense of the bigger picture you’re dealing with.

By following these recommendations, you’ll be that much closer to solving the mystery of your plant problems. And by all means, don’t be embarrassed to show sick plants to your Extension agents. In all likelihood, it’s not the first time they’ve seen that kind of damage. (In fact, there’s a good possibility they’re dealing with the same pest in their own landscapes!)