Plant detective solves yard mysteries
With the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, County Agent T. Michael Likins, 67, snapped a green leaf from a plant growing in the Chesterfield County Extension office’s demonstration garden and placed it under his microscope.
“Aha,” he exclaimed as he viewed the slide, “not only are there aphids on this leaf, but one of them is pregnant!”
Likins serves dual roles as both director of the Chesterfield County Extension office and as the Chesterfield County agent in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Horticulture. As a result, he spends much of his time in meetings and performing administrative tasks.
But most of the time, he’s in his element: the lab. “I visit alien worlds every day through the microscope,” he said.
As director since 2002, Likins has been on the forefront of diagnosing and developing best management practices for plant pests and diseases in the Richmond area.
For example, in 2013, Likins detected boxwood blight in a fungus in shrubbery in Chesterfield County. As an original member of a state taskforce, he worked to develop a tracing system and to locate other diseased plants.
With plant pathologists at Virginia Tech, Likins published a paper on the first boxwood blight discovered in the groundcover pachysandra and sweet box shrubs in Virginia.
These findings and associated protocols have helped others worldwide. Not long ago, a researcher in Vancouver, British Columbia, thanked Likins for establishing definitive disease diagnosis and treatment protocols for boxwood blight.
Even makes house calls
To help solve botanical mysteries, Likins recommends that homeowners and commercial landscapers bring in wrapped plant samples (to reduce disease spread) for testing. If he can’t get enough information by looking at samples under a microscope, Likins makes a house call.
Recently, for instance, when plant samples from a privacy hedge couldn’t explain the decline of the shrubs, Likins visited the site. After he spotted an overhanging branch from a neighbor’s property, he recommended removing the sun-loving shrubs for something that will grow well in shade. Much like an EMT, he’s glad he can make a difference.
Likins got a master’s degree in plant pathology from West Virginia University, and spent years in the lab before he first started as an associate agent in Chesterfield County almost two decades ago.
He “jumped on a moving train,” he recalled, finding a backlog of plant samples to be tested. He’s been busy ever since, peering at pathogens to look for clues.
When grateful citizens receive trustworthy answers, they often ask Likins about the cost of his diagnosis. Likins simply responds that if the person pays taxes, then the extension’s free services were “prepaid.”
In addition to providing plant disease diagnosis and gardening advice, the Chesterfield County office of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) provides financial management resources as well as nutrition education.
It also oversees the county’s 4-H (Head, Hands, Heart and Health) youth development program, which includes clubs, summer camps and enrichment programs.
The VCE is a joint program of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state and local governments.
The extension provides research-based answers to residents’ questions.
When asked to name the most concerning local environmental threat, Likins quickly answered, “Misinformation from the internet.”
Rather than take a sample to the extension office for diagnosis, residents often troubleshoot problems incorrectly, many times online, then ask a local retailer for a chemical herbicide to treat the misdiagnosed problem.
Not only will the original problem not be solved, Likins said, it may lead to more serious soil and water issues.
Sharing his knowledge
Although more comfortable behind the lens (of a microscope) than in front of one, Likins engages the public with his enthusiasm for and expertise on timely subjects. He gives presentations on topics of concern to nursery and landscape professionals among others.
In addition to training volunteer Master Gardeners to identify plant pathogens, he lobbied to establish a laboratory in the new Extension office, which opened in 2018 near the Central Library.
With a window into the lab and a large screen projecting what’s under the microscope there, visitors to the library, especially children, can get excited about STEM study and its real-life applications.
Riding into the sunset
Likins plans to retire from his full-time county position in July. But he won’t be backing away from the microscope entirely. He hopes to be the successful candidate for a part-time lab specialist position in the county. After all, he’s having a good time.
“Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that science is true whether we believe it or not,” Likins said. “I say that science, especially the biological sciences, are also fun.”