The Plant Doctor Is in the House

Tom Tiddens —  July 6, 2014 — 2 Comments

A couple years ago, in early spring, I got the kind of call that puts a “plant doctor” like me on edge. “Come look at the roses right away,” someone said. In my 25 years at the Chicago Botanic Garden, no one has ever called me to say, “Hey, Tom, come look at the roses; they look great today!” I’m in charge of plant healthcare at the Garden, so when I pick up the phone, there’s usually a problem.

I got the call about the Krasberg Rose Garden following a string of very damp nights that meant trouble—a white fuzz had spread over all the roses. The fuzz was a destructive pathogen that produces mycelium, or fungal spores. It can happen pretty much overnight. We ended up managing the problem, but it was scary to start off a season like that. Roses are tricky, prone to a lot of diseases and insect problems. Our friends at the Missouri Botanical Garden lost all their roses to a virus called rose rosette disease. 

I don’t just get calls about diseases or pests such as the emerald ash borer. I get called to the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition if the staff is worried about a larva or to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden if there’s a raccoon problem. I like to say that I’m sort of like a CSI detective when it comes to plants. If a plant is failing, I try to find out why and what it needs. I look at the buds, the stem, the trunk, the root flare, the soil, and the plant’s history over the years.

PHOTO: Tom Tiddens poses with a cardboard coyote cutout, used to deter varmints from veg.

Tom Tiddens and a plant healthcare specialist’s best friend head out to play fetch.

I also work with the horticulturists on preventive care, including watering, pruning, weeding, and fertilizing. When I see a problem in the early stages, I’m very patient and tolerant. I like to see if Mother Nature might take care of it—maybe a hard rain will wash away any aphids or the ladybugs will get rid of the pests, for instance.

People ask me how I track the health of more than 2.6 million plants here. I have two great plant healthcare specialists who work with me, and I really rely on the horticulturists—they’re my eyes out in the field—and my volunteer team, which includes a lot of master gardeners. Every week, I give the volunteers a map and checklist marked with target plants and pests. So a typical volunteer assignment, for example, would be to check the spirea bushes in the Sensory Garden for aphids.

PHOTO: Bagworms infect a pine.

From bagworms…

PHOTO: Rust infects a fruit and leaf.

…to rust…



PHOTO: Black spot infects rose foliage.

…to black spot on roses, Tom Tiddens treats them all.

The average home gardener doesn’t have to be so methodical. Gardening shouldn’t be a chore. I like to keep things simple at home. I don’t like weeding, and I avoid using a lot of perennials or groundcovers. I like having a nice woodchip mulch bed and a mulching lawnmower. It’s the same thing with fall leaves. Everyone bags up all the leaves. Nope. I raise my mulching lawnmower, and I just grind them into the lawn.

Register now for a certificate class with Tom Tiddens, plant health care supervisor and certified arborist. From July 21 to August 28, he will teach Plant Health 2 with Kathie Hayden, the Garden’s manager of plant information service.    

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Tom Tiddens

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Tom Tiddens is plant health care supervisor at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Plant Health Care (PHC) Department monitors the Garden for insects and diseases on a weekly basis, as well as other plant health concerns, to discover, evaluate, and treat pest concerns in their early stages.

2 responses to The Plant Doctor Is in the House

  1. Hi….I am wondering if you can help me with this plant problem. I was given a little ficus plant by a fellow church member/neighbor in the late 1980′s. Believe it or not, I have kept this wonderful plant through the years and it has really thrived until recently when it came down with a nasty case of scale. I have treated it by cutting off all infected areas and spraying it with a combination of dish soap/vinegar and water. I also wiped down the entire plant. I thought I concurred the problem and I saw five more of the bumps yesterday along with a couple of shiny dripping leaves. Yuck! I am hoping to cure this naturally, any help you can send my way would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

  2. Marsha Magala July 13, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Last year I had some type of larva or beetle eating my cone flowers. I tried several natural
    remedies last year, but nothing helped. They seem to be back this year. Can you recommend
    a fairly safe insecticide..other than 7 Dust or Roundup. Thanks.

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