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Texas sleuths solve garden-variety mysteries
The Plant Detectives

On the grounds of Kaufman County's detention center, a team of sleuths is trying to solve a mystery.

Their goal? To stop powdery mildew, a fungus that attacks the leaves of crape myrtle trees and causes the leaves to shrink and curl.

"It is unsightly, and people who are into gardening don't want powdery mildew on their crape myrtles," said gardener and sleuth Sandy Stahlman.

Stahlman and 17 other "detectives" are working with Dr. Kevin Ong, a Texas Cooperative Extension plant pathologist, and Kaufman County Extension Agent Ralph Davis as part of the Urban Plant Detectives Program.

Ong created the program in 2004 to help gardeners identify what makes plants sick, develop treatments and prevent plants from getting diseases. The program also trains gardeners to execute simple research demonstrations using scientific methods, Ong said.

"The goal is to teach them a variety of simple procedures and techniques used to identify and remedy plant problems so they can perform their own research," said Ong. "The bulk of the program so far has been on looking at different fungicides, both natural and synthetic, and how they control certain plant diseases."

Investing time
The program began as a pilot project for the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex but could go statewide, Ong said. In 2004, Texas Cooperative Extension offered the program in Collin, Cooke, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties and expanded it to Kaufman County in 2005.

Gardeners invest their time in the program. Participants receive 10 to 15 hours of free training that covers a particular plant disease and a workshop on collecting data. Participants spend another 10 to 15 hours on research projects. At the end, they receive certificates recognizing them as "urban plant detectives," said Ong.

Participants must be "Texas Master Gardeners," a designation created by Texas Cooperative Extension. Master gardeners take at least 50 hours of instruction through county extension offices on ornamental plants, insects, disease and other topics. They also perform at least 50 hours of volunteer service.

Growing together
Texas businesses have donated more than $2,500 worth of plants, fungicides and gardening materials to the program. In 2004, Chamblee's Rose Nursery in Tyler donated 30 rose bushes for Denton County's project and Denton's Parks and Recreation Department provided land and irrigation.

The Kaufman County Sheriff's Office donated land and an irrigation system, said Ralph Davis, a county extension agent.

"It's at the Kaufman County Detention Center, outside of the fenced-in area and accessible to the public," Davis said. "We're building a demonstration garden so that the public can see certain native plants they can plant in their own yard--things that will work in our area."

Sherlocks share skills
In August 2005, the Kaufman County gardeners planted 30 crape myrtles and spent the next few months spraying trees with different fungicides to measure their effectiveness, Davis said. Stahlman said she is learning skills she will share with others.

"I hope that we can take it to the community because the crape myrtle is a very much-loved plant in Texas," Stahlman said.

Karen Hudgins