Haywood County Master Gardeners Participate in Statewide Research Trials

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Master Gardener volunteers (MGVs) are a critical component of Extension outreach, serving as volunteer educators in communities across the state. With changing demographic and technology trends, new volunteer opportunities, such as applied research, will keep MGVs engaged with Extension. Engaging MGVs in applied research increases their understanding of Extension’s mission, provides a fulfilling volunteer experience, and enhances Extension ability to conduct consumer horticulture research in multiple locations.

‘Genovese’ basil is the most widely available sweet basil variety for commercial and home production alike, despite its high susceptibility to the plant disease Basil Downy Mildew (BDM). Currently, BDM management programs rely heavily on fungicide applications which are often not effective or practical for home gardeners. Resistant varieties have the potential to offset and reduce fungicide applications by suppressing BDM and prolong production time for home gardeners.

Basil downy mildew (BDM) is a common and fatal disease of sweet basil varieties like ‘Genovese.’

Using funds provided by the Consumer and Youth Horticulture Working Group, county Extension agents and state Extension Master Gardener program staff developed a pilot project to assess MGV interest, competency, and satisfaction with conducting research in the home garden or at Extension demonstration gardens. Four counties representing each growing region (mountains, piedmont, coastal plain) of NC and approximately 30 Master Gardener volunteers participated in this pilot project.

We investigated how resistant varieties of basil perform on a smaller (home/community garden) scale so that we may provide relevant information to home gardeners. Volunteers grew and maintained basil throughout the 2021 growing season, observed plants for disease symptoms, and collected data for this statewide project.

Sue Beard and Brenda Merrefield set basil plants for the 2021 BDM Research Trial.

Very low disease pressure from basil downy mildew was observed statewide in 2021. Relatively few cases of basil downy mildew were observed on susceptible ‘Genovese’ cultivars, therefore additional studies are needed to validate the resistance of new cultivars relative to ‘Genovese’. According to qualitative surveys and taste test comparisons, the flavor, aroma, appearance, and ease of cultivation of ‘Obsession’, ‘Passion’, and ‘Prospera’ cultivars compared favorably to ‘Genovese’.

Master Gardener volunteers can be effective for small scale research trials, and MGVs expressed strong interest in participating in future research projects. Involving MGVs in applied research and sharing the results with gardeners in local communities reiterates the mission and value of Extension, and is a new and innovative way to enhance volunteer engagement. This trial will be repeated with additional volunteers and agents in 2022.

Volunteers conducted taste tests to see if disease resistant varieties of basil compared favorably to ‘Genovese’. Image credit: Lisa Padgett