AMES, Iowa -- Dead spots in the lawn, shrubs to prune, insects on garden vegetables, unidentified blooming flowers – these are all things that prompt Iowans to call Hortline, the Iowa State University Extension hotline for consumer horticulture questions. In fact, more than 200,000 phone calls have been made to Hortline since it was established in May 1983.
Richard Jauron, ISU Extension horticulturist, is the Hortline expert at the other end of the phone. Jauron administers Hortline and has served as the chief question responder for nearly three decades, with occasional support from other horticulture staff.
From his Iowa State office in Horticulture Hall, Jauron answers an average of 3,500 client questions called into 515-294-3108 each year, and replies to a growing number of emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. “Questions called into Hortline are resolved much quicker than questions emailed by clients,” said Jauron. “When we are on the phone, I can get details specific to their question and generally can nail down an answer in a few minutes. Email questions are often very vague and require a chain of emails to get all the necessary information, which takes much more time.”
Jauron says two out of three Hortline callers over the years have been female, but in 2006 the number of men calling the hotline began to increase. “With the increase in male callers, I also saw an increase in tree and shrub questions and a noticeable decline in houseplant and vegetable calls,” he said.
When the Hortline phone rings, Jauron can quickly access a database, drawers filled with reference materials and a small library of books, but he confesses that many questions are common and easily answered. The questions that demand a little more research or a call to a colleague are the intriguing ones to answer. “With weed, greenhouse and turf experts right here in the building or very close by and with the herbarium right next door, there very few questions that we can’t answer right here at Iowa State,” Jauron said.
Jauron answers Hortline calls from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. He is the primary Hortline expert, but that hasn’t always been the case. Periodically, there has been funding for student interns who assisted with the calls and emails. For several years, Hortline was a toll free number with two experts taking calls on two incoming lines. But that didn’t cut back the work load; it just doubled the number of calls. “We went back to a local number so we could manage the number of calls better,” said Jauron. “Now when the line is busy, folks just have to call back until they get through.” Or, send an email – which Jauron says is an ever increasing way that people are reaching out to Hortline.
In the past year alone Hortline received 1,300 email questions – up from 259 emails in 1997, the first year the email option was available. Jauron surveyed the 2010 online clients to learn more about them. “Two-thirds of the respondents had tried to find an answer another way before emailing Hortline,” said Jauron. “Most of them (94 percent) said the answer they received was helpful to very helpful.”
Those surveyed said they looked for an answer by searching the Internet (84 percent), looking in books and magazines (45 percent), and talking to friends and relatives (38 percent) or garden center employees (33 percent). Most respondents (70 percent) said they had emailed Hortline one or two times with questions, but 13 percent said they had emailed five or more times to get gardening answers. Similar to Hortline callers, two-thirds of the email clients were female; and tree and shrub questions were asked more often than other categories of questions.
Jauron reminds Hortline clients in his phone and online responses that Iowa State and ISU Extension have additional gardening resources available. His online clients said they had used many of them, including county offices (50 percent), yard and garden news columns (41 percent), ISU Extension online store (40 percent), ISU Horticulture Web page (36 percent) and Horticulture and Home Pest News (34 percent). A review of the top 100 publications downloaded from the ISU Extension online store during the week of April 25, 2011 reveals that 60 percent of downloads were yard and garden related.
The Hortline call and email numbers, as well as the survey results, indicate no shortage of questions for horticulture specialists and a continuing demand for a variety of Iowa State yard and garden information.