Bryson Elementary’s Garden Detectives & The Case of the Powdery Mildew

Gardens are places of high drama. In one year, students observe plants germinating from seeds, growing, flowering, and dying. Aside from being awe inspiring places that yield fruit and vegetables, gardens are also places where plants get sick and are preyed upon by pests. While diseases and pests plague the average gardener, they present opportunities for students to think critically, diagnose problems, and propose solutions. As I tell my students at Bryson Elementary, they are plant scientists and detectives.

After a basic introduction to plant biology, I asked my students at Bryson Elementary to walk around the garden and look for things that might be going wrong. To illustrate my point, I plucked a leaf from a squash that had a bad case of powdery mildew. The students determined that the plant was sick. One student hypothesized that it was fungus, which is exactly right.

As with the effect of weeds, I like to dramatize plant diseases and pests.

“Imagine you’re in a tiny, crowded room. How would you feel?” I say with very wide eyes.

“The fungus attacks the plant, weakening it so that it doesn’t produce as much fruit. It might even kill the plant.”

“What do you think we can do?”

The students were able to conclude that the plant needed better air circulation and that the plant needed to be rid of the fungus. To do this, I told them, I would cut back the plant and apply neem oil, an organic fungicide. One week later, the plant dramatically improved and looked like this:

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The case was solved, but the work of garden detectives never ends. Until next time, happy gardening.

Christine Lai

Christine Lai is a UCCE Master Gardener who joined Enrich LA in 2016. She began gardening in California in 2013 when she removed her parents' lawn and replaced it with water wise landscaping. Today, her interests have widened to include edible and native plant gardening. She keeps a worm bin and misses the open compost pile in her old home terribly.