April brings the start of nursery inspection season

by | Apr 7, 2021

April Bauder, NCDA&CS Central Region Field Certification Specialist, looks over a discolored leaf during a nursery inspection.

Spring is upon us, and with it comes the start of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ nursery inspection season.

Inspections began formally on April 1, and are carried out by the Plant Industry division’s Plant Protection section. Inspections are fundamentally about keeping North Carolina safe from invasive species, and the nursery program’s goal is to facilitate the movement of nursery stock while preventing the introduction and spread of insects, plant diseases and invasive weeds through the movement of plant material.

Responsibility for this falls on the nursery inspectors who cover 19 regions across North Carolina. April Bauder is the Central Region Field Certification Specialist, responsible for inspecting nurseries in Durham, Orange, Person and Wake counties. She said that inspections both help nurseries sell their products nationally and internationally while also protecting North Carolina and other states from dangerous plant pests.

“We have two types of nurseries licenses for businesses that grow nursery stock; registered and certified. Registered nurseries are less than one acre and only sell within North Carolina, while certified nurseries are larger than an acre and ship outside the state.” she said. “Especially with the certified nurseries, it’s important to know the regulations of the states you’re selling to, and we work with growers to make sure they’re following those guidelines.”

Sometimes that interaction is as simple as pointing out minor pests like aphids or tea scale, in which case inspectors may simply make the growers aware of the pest and discuss possible treatment options.

Plant Industry division staff make control recommendations following the NC Agricultural Chemicals Manual published by North Carolina State University. In the case of state or federal regulated pests – more dangerous pests which the department is actively working to mitigate or keep out of the state – inspectors cannot give as much leeway. One example of such a regulatory pest is Phytophthora ramorum, a plant pathogen which causes the Sudden Oak Death disease.

“In the case of regulatory pests, we follow strict treatment guidelines prescribed in state or federal treatment protocols. For imported fire ants, or Japanese Beetle, for example, we are required to follow the USDA-APHIS-PPQ guidelines for treatment. “If it’s a common unregulated pest like tea scale, we try not to tell them exactly what they have to treat with. But, for example if I’m doing an inspection and I see something that looks like Phytophthora ramorum, and I send in a sample for testing and it comes back positive for this destructive disease not found in NC, we then have to take a much stronger action like destruction to prevent the spread of the disease to NC forests.

One of the nurseries Bauder visits often is Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill. True to its name, the nursery focuses primarily on Camellias, and Bauder kept a close eye on the pink and white flowers as she walked slowly through the rows of potted plants. Every now and then she would point out a small patch of tea scale or some slight discoloration in leaves – all completely normal things to spot at a nursery but potentially easy to miss for the untrained eye. Bauder makes note of the small, routine details, even though they are likely not cause for alarm.

“When I see things like that, most of the time I’ll just ask the growers about them so I know what’s been going on,” she said. “When you see some plants that don’t look like they’re doing as well, the growers will usually know why that is. Maybe those plants just got hit with a cold spell, or something was going on with their irrigation. Some plants are also just finnicky, and there a wide range of abiotic factors that go into evaluating why a plant looks unhealthy.”

In the cases where neither Bauder nor the growers are sure what is causing an issue, Bauder can send a sample to North Carolina State University’s Plant Disease and Insect Clinic for further diagnosis. Other experts within the NCDA&CS, such as state entomologist Whitney Swink or plant pathologist HT Tseng may also assist in identifying pests that inspectors may not be able to nail down in the field.

Nursery inspections are part of the first line of defense against a wide variety of dangerous invasive species. Through their technical expertise and relationships with growers, inspectors in the field help keep North Carolina’s natural resources safe while also protecting the quality of products sold within the state, around the country and worldwide. To learn more about nursery regulatory services, visit http://www.ncagr.gov/plantindustry/plant/nursery/lictbl.htm.