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UI Extension Virtual Discussions Seek to Help East Idaho Hobby Gardeners

Published online: Jul 02, 2024 Home And Garden
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University of Idaho Extension Educator Ron Patterson, Bonneville County, recognizes the average Idaho gardener isn’t overly concerned about soil chemistry or the Latin names of monoecious species. 

For those who wish to take such a deep dive down the gardening rabbit hole, UI Extension has long offered the Idaho Master Gardener Program, taught from a thick binder chock-full of scientific literature. Recently, however, Patterson and two of his colleagues have also dangled a carrot for the typical eastern Idaho hobby gardener, who just wants a few basic questions answered.  

From 7-8 p.m. MT on the second and fourth Tuesdays of February through October, Patterson and his Extension colleagues offer an online gardening class on a designated timely topic, called Idaho Home Garden Tips, followed by an informal question-and-answer session, called Plant Talk. Patterson taps experts from throughout the Extension network to serve as guest presenters for the half-hour Idaho Home Garden Tips presentations. UI Extension educators Reed Findlay, Bingham and Bannock counties, and Jared Gibbons, Madison County, take turns cohosting the Plant Talk discussions with Patterson during the second half of the Zoom calls. 

Attendance in the online classes varies from about 15 gardeners in the summer months, when most people would rather be outdoors than online, to upwards of 50 participants in the winter and early spring. Advanced Idaho Master Gardeners may earn continuing education credits through their participation, but Patterson’s goal is to get more rank-and-file gardeners to participate in the calls. 

“I wanted to have a little more public educational opportunities and not just the master gardeners because that’s a pretty select group,” Patterson said. “We have a lot of people who just want to garden, and they have little issues. The whole point is to get information to the general public.”

Patterson began hosting Zoom-based bimonthly roundtable discussions for his master gardeners in 2020 and began opening them up to gardeners from outside of the program. In 2021, Patterson and Findlay launched Plant Talk together, patterning the program on the popular NPR radio auto mechanics program Car Talk. They field participants’ questions and end each program by challenging participants to try to stump them with a particularly hard gardening question. 

“We don’t disagree; we just come at it from a different point of view,” Findlay said. “We’re always able to come to a research-based consensus at the end.”

Gibbons filled in when Findlay had other responsibilities that interfered with regular participation and has continued periodically substituting for Findlay as a co-host ever since.  

“I think it’s a great way to reach people with digital methods because they don’t always have time to come to a regular class,” Gibbons said. “There may be a particular topic they’re dealing with in their yard, so they’re going to come on for the call when it comes up.”

A little more than a year ago, the group combined Idaho Home Garden Tips and Plant Talk into a single Zoom call. They promote the combined program through their Pest Alert Nnewsletters and by word of mouth when people contact their offices with gardening questions. They plan to make a push this gardening season to boost awareness of the program, recruiting both participants and UI Extension experts to present on areas of expertise from all corners of the state. 

In addition to fielding questions during the calls, they often address recurring gardening issues that stakeholders bring to their attention. 

“Where we’re answering the same questions multiple times, if we can handle everybody at once we can save some time,” Gibbons said. 

Popular question topics recently have included weeds, plant diseases, greenhouses, drip irrigation and organic pest control methods. Many people have also inquired about some mysterious recent tree deaths in the region. In many cases, Patterson suspects the deathblow was dealt during an extreme cold spell in the winter of 2022-2023, and the trees have been slow to show symptoms of their decline. 

Several other resources are available to gardeners in eastern Idaho through the UI Extension office in Bonneville County. Gardeners may for a weekly Pest Alert Newsletter. Several general gardening videos featuring Patterson are available on YouTube. Furthermore, master gardeners are typically available to answer gardening questions during diagnostics clinics hosted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays from mid-May through mid-September at the UI Extension office in Bonneville County, 1542 E. 73rd S., Idaho Falls. Gardeners may also call the office at 208-529-1390 with questions. 

“In eastern Idaho, gardening is a way of life. It’s a self-sufficiency kind of culture,” Patterson said. “Now there is a big interest in the younger generation in gardening. Where do they go for their information? They go online and they watch videos, and some of that stuff that’s online is just not accurate.”

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