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The doctor is in, so bring in the pests


The offices of UCCE (University of California Cooperative Extension) are always a busy place, especially the Master Gardeners' desk. Most days you'll find an engaging fellow there with a warm smile - funny and friendly. His quiet manner can calm even the most frantic patient whose rhododendron may be afflicted with thrips.

Ladd Sievenpiper is a retired physician, a former oncologist as well as hospital administrator. His interest in gardening began in childhood in Alden, N.Y., where his father was a "gentleman farmer." After retirement and a decision to become a Master Gardener, Sievenpiper rediscovered the "joy of diagnosis and found a comfortable niche" at the Novato office in not only diagnosing sick plants, but improving the means necessary to find cures.

By improving office resources such as computer services, new books, automation and a sick plant clinic, he is increasing the opportunities for successful diagnosis. He also added monthly lectures to keep Master Gardeners informed on current problems: Apple moth, SOD (sudden oak death), soil improvement, rose care and mosquito abatement.

Master Gardeners have the responsibility for 12 hours of continuing education along with 25 hours of community service, such as volunteering at farmers markets answering home gardeners' questions, offering gardening literature, making referrals to the Master Gardener Desk, and by providing information about applying for the next year's Master Gardener training program.

The organization is particularly proud of its work with school and elder gardens. Gardening assistance is offered at fairs and clinics with information and demonstrations. Not to be ignored are the many projects Master Gardeners have at Marin Art & Garden Center.

Providing help at the desk is equally important. A typical day at the desk may be about aphids, spiders, bugs in the pantry, termites and insects that come in from the cold, but occasionally Sievenpiper finds an interesting affliction. Blessed with a curious but practical mind, he once questioned the grower of a troubled willow tree and eventually determined the problem was caused by not one, not two, but five insects all in residence. His advice? "Nothing! Let them fight it out!"

Another time, a tearful gardener brought in a baggie with "worms," which had invaded the garden. Upon examination Sievenpiper discovered they were the larva of Nymphalis antiopa, the lovely Mourning Cloak butterfly. This deep chestnut brown beauty with a yellow border with vivid blue spots is often seen in late winter and early spring. Sievenpiper assured the gardener that only good would come from the creature's pollinating ways.

The best advice he has for people seeking answers to their gardening problems is to bring in the "patient" and a large enough specimen with all the pertinent information - name of plant, age, location, treatment earlier, watering, fertilizing and the health of other like plants. Calling in makes it more difficult to assess; e-mailing along with pictures to further define the problem is better.

Sievenpiper emphasized that his contact (or any other Master Gardener at the desk) is only the first contact in diagnosing serious problems; he calls it "homeland security." The Marin County Agricultural Commission has the final say. Plus, only approved recommendations of the UCCE may be given. Be assured that all measures will be taken by the staff, as well as Sievenpiper, to find a cure. By the way, he doesn't make house calls - whatever those are.

The UC Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. The group's two books, "Bay Area Gardening" and "Gardening Among Friends," are available at local book stores. For more information about integrated pest management, contact the office at 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato 94947 or call at 499-4204.