Free Gardening Help Just a Call Away

Bev Vasconcellos (left) and Peggy Katz discuss a plant question in between answering calls at the Master Gardener Hotline. The program provides residents with free gardening advice.
March 27, 2013 | 4:17pm

The leaves on the avocado tree are yellowing and the tips are turning brown.

A Carlsbad resident is describing her plant’s ailing appearance over the phone, after calling in to the Master Gardener hotline. Bev Vasconcellos listens, then starts asking. What kind of soil do you have? How much are you watering? Where is the tree? After getting the responses, she comes up with some suggestions.

It’s a typical exchange at the hotline, where Master Gardeners like Vasconcellos take calls on a gamut of gardening questions and dispense advice free of charge.

“We’re in the business of disseminating research-based information,” she says.

Master Gardener is not a title casually tossed around. It’s a certification for volunteers who have gone through a six-month training program, learning from specialists with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Then their job is to pass that knowledge on to the public.

A Lakeside man’s apricot and nectarine trees are not producing fruit and don’t look healthy.

Peggy Katz starts going through a checklist of possibilities with the caller. He is pruning, watering adequately, applying the proper sprays. She surmises the trees need fertilizing and goes through options with him.

Katz is working the phones this late March afternoon with Vasconcellos. The County’s more than 200 Master Gardeners are all required to put in some time at the hotline. That involves taking calls, answering emails, and occasionally helping someone who drops by the Kearny Mesa office.

Someone gave a Mission Hills resident some Watsonia. Is it too late to plant now?

Master Gardener Hotline number (858) 822-6910Katz says the caller may not see any flowers on it this year, but the blooms should come next year. She does say to go ahead, plant it, and see what happens. She believes you’ll be a better gardener by taking chances.

“I’ve learned most of what I know by killing things,” Katz says.

Better than Google?

You might wonder in this era of Google and YouTube what the hotline has to offer. A lot, Vasconcellos explains. The Master Gardeners here know San Diego - the local soils and climate, what kind of rainfall we had this past winter, pests affecting the region.

Not to mention you’re often not sure about the expertise of whoever is offering the advice online. And an Internet search can inundate you with information.

“3,425 hits! Where do I start?” Vasconcellos says.

The caller wants to put in a 14-foot-long hedge and someone recommended Indian hawthorne or privet. Are those good choices?

They are, Katz says, and gives him a few other options.

The hotline is just one way Master Gardeners work directly with the public. You’ll find the volunteers at farmers’ markets, school gardens, the San Diego County Fair and libraries, to name a few locations. They are preparing for a big event of their own on May 4. The San Diego Master Gardener Spring Seminar will have classes, demonstrations and plants for sale.

The Master Gardener program is overseen by the UC Cooperative Extension, which conducts research and educational activities for commercial growers as well as home gardeners. The local UCCE office works in partnership with the County of San Diego and has staffed the Farm and Home Advisor Department since 1915. 

If the Master Gardeners can’t come up with an answer, they turn to specialists at UCCE, who bring their wealth of expertise in to solve a problem.

“You never know it all.  It’s a constant learning process,” Vasconcellos says. “I keep up with things by doing the hotline. I love it.”

The Master Gardener hotline is (858) 822-6910. It is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. You can leave a message anytime, and the volunteers will return your call during those hours. The office is at 9335 Hazard Way in San Diego.

The Master Gardeners also recommend the following online resources:

Master Gardener website: The site has an extensive resource section with plant-growing guides.

Integrated Pest Management: This University of California site has advice on managing more than 100 types of pests.  

Farm and Home Advisor: The County site has agricultural and consumer information.

Plus, in this website's video section, watch episodes of Down to Earth, CTN.org's locally-produced gardening program.