Wet summer drives URI Plant Protection Clinic to record year

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Homeowners, landscapers, farmers seek help diagnosing plant diseases

KINGSTON, R.I. – August 24, 2009 – The topsy-turvy weather this summer has made Heather Faubert extremely popular among gardeners, landscapers and farmers in Rhode Island.

That’s because she runs the University of Rhode Island’s Plant Protection Clinic, where she diagnoses the innumerable diseases, pests and other problems that southern New England plants battle each year. And the wet and cool summer has increased her workload tremendously.

“I usually spend about one-quarter of my time working in the plant clinic, but this year it’s more than half my time,” said Faubert, sitting behind a microscope with plastic bags containing samples of diseased plants scattered around. “I typically get about 300 samples per year to identify, but this year we’re already about 100 ahead of that pace.”

Earlier in the season, the greatest concern among commercial growers of tomatoes and potatoes was late blight, the disease responsible for the Irish potato famine and which was found throughout the region this year. Faubert visited farmers, diagnosed affected plants, and discussed options for how to save their crops from the devastating disease.

“For one grower it was too late and he had to plow under 40 acres of potatoes,” she said. “Once it gets a foothold, it spreads quickly and there’s not much you can do about it.”

The wet weather has been especially good for fungal diseases that prefer damp and cool conditions. But because each plant species tends to become infected by a different disease, it is increasingly challenging to diagnose every sample correctly. Faubert is particularly thankful that retired URI plant pathologist Noel Jackson visits the lab every week to help with especially difficult cases.

Homeowners have brought samples to the lab from a wide variety of ornamental trees that are struggling to survive this year from such causes as powdery mildew on maple trees and spider mites on spruce trees.

“I’m amazed at how varied the diseases are that we’re finding,” Faubert said. “Almost every week I’m seeing things that I’ve never seen before.”

Surprisingly, the biggest repeat problem Faubert has seen this year is a lichen that has been found on increasing numbers of trees.

“Lichens don’t harm trees, but they are found growing on trees that are sick for other reasons,” she said.

The one good news about this year’s increase in plant diseases is that it has increased the visibility of the URI Plant Protection Clinic, enabling Faubert to assist more landscapers and commercial growers.

“I absolutely love this job,” Faubert said with enthusiasm. “I’m always learning something new every day, and I love working with the growers. I feel like I’m helping them produce their crop.”

Those seeking diagnosis of plant diseases and pests may deliver or mail samples to the URI Plant Protection Clinic at the Mallon Outreach Center, 3 East Alumni Ave., Kingston, RI 02881. Insects should be placed in a small container such as a prescription bottle and wrapped to protect it from breakage in the mail. Fresh plant specimens should be placed in a plastic bag and mailed in a padded mailer. Various stages of a plant’s decline should be included (not just dead samples). A $10 fee per specimen must accompany all samples. For additional information, call 401-874-2900.