The past two weeks have been “fast and furious” with samples, students, interviews and customer service responses. I wish that there are more people in the Plant Clinic so that we are able to provide a better service to the folks. Unfortunately I only have one diagnostician, several able-bodies students and a limited amount of time. Another things that I wish for is that meeting are all done in College Station, where I can come and go as I like and still get work done at the lab. Alas, life is not my ideal. This few days I am in Tennessee at the Southeastern Professional Fruit Workers meeting – renewing relationships and learning what is new in the works and progress of some applied research. This is a small meeting where you have horticulturist, agronomist, entomologist, plant breeders and plant pathologist who work with fruits (peaches, apples, berries) who come to sit together as share their work and insights. Most of this work is geared toward the commercial growers: people who produce large quantities for the public. However, the informations that is learned from our collective experiences can also be applicable to folks at small scale (aka homeowners backyard) to some degree. Then there are some things that work better than other with the homeowner and vice versa.
One interesting experience that was heard is of the testing of a natural product which was marketed as an enhancer to pesticide (i.e. add this and your pesticide will work better). Results from the first year (3 years ago) was promising, hence this research result was used in the marketing of the product. This product was continued to be tested on. This 3rd year yield results that were similar to last year where according to the data, the product resulted in worse control by the combination of pesticide and natural product than the pesticide alone. How could this be? Why did it work one year but not others? How come this is information is not readily known? All of these are good questions.
How could this be? Efficacy of a product (how well a product works against pest or pathogen) is dependent on many variables. Of which, the most obvious is the environments. For example, a plant may not act the same (at the physiological level) when cold as oppose to hot – uptake of product into plant may be different.
Why did it work one year but not another? Look at explanation above. In Texas, 2011 was different from 2010 – we are hotter and drier in 2011. When we get this sort of results, we have to double check our procedures for testing. The ideal situation is to have not only identical conditions but also identical procedures and the execution of those procedures. That is why good research required good notes and records to ensure that the test is repeatable.
How come this information is not readily known? Several logical explanations exist here. (1) Manufacturers of the products are in the business to sell product. (2) Researchers question their own confidence in their data. i.e. Is this correct or merely an artifact from external factors such as the environment alone. (3) Results are published in academic journals or presented at professional meetings. These are not typical reading material that the general public who select.
BUT the big question of all is DOES THE PRODUCT WORK? The answer to that is IT WORKED (at some point and for some people). One must remember that before something can be a pest/pathogen management product, it must have worked to convince someone to actually take a look at it as a viable commercial product. There usually is some testing that has been done to ensure that the product does work and is not a total dud. Investors are not going to put their money in a product that one cannot put their trust on. So it does work…..sometimes.
Will it work for me? That is the million dollar question. It is my belief that many natural products tend to work better for the home gardener, particularly those that seek out information and are more vigilant in scouting their garden. The home garden is a limited site compared to a grower who may farm tens to hundreds to thousands of acres, depending on their crop. The limited area allows for the home gardener to be able to spend more time with their plants: observing their progress and providing “customized” care to the plants. There is also less variation in the environment in a home garden than in a large field.
When you see a product that piqued your interest and makes certain plant health claims, check out and substantiate those claims if possible. Then try it out. There may be a good chance that may work. BUT be realistic in expectations. Understand that there is always that possibility that a product might not work. Also understand that a product may work on year but not another. Keep looking for information as there is going to be new information available as research is being done. This is one reason I love my job: there are so many things to learn.