This weekend I received a link to a Maryland gardening column with the intriguing title “Murder by Mulch.” My correspondent was concerned that her planned use of arborist wood chip mulch was going to cause problems. I assured her that it would not – but then spent some time looking at the column and putting it through CRAP analysis (credibility, relevance, accuracy, and purpose). It’s a skill that I encourage everyone – not just gardeners – to develop. (You’ll need to read the linked column to understand the context of my comments below.)
So we’ll start with credibility. The column is not a peer-reviewed resource, but then again neither is this blog. The author is a retired Extension specialist with research publications in compost science. That would seem to fit well with the topic. We’ll give it the benefit of doubt for now.
How about relevance? Is this information relevant to the use of mulches in home landscapes? Absolutely.
Is this accurate information? At this point the column starts to fall apart. Let’s start with the photo (you’ll need to go to the linked column to see it). This tree didn’t die because of mulch, but because it had girdling roots – the result of planting trees improperly. Furthermore, there is no mechanism I can think of in which mulch would “strangle” a tree.
Next, there is no distinction made among different types of mulch. Bark is not the same as wood chips, and coarse materials function differently than fine mulches. Bark mulches don’t absorb water like wood chips do, and fine mulches inhibit air and water movement into the soil (coarse mulches don’t cause this problem).
Finally, there is the statement that repeated application of bark will raise soil pH and increase manganese levels. There is no research I could find to support either one of these claims.
The purpose of this column was to educate – but it has failed to do so for the reasons outlined above. Where did the CRAP analysis fall apart?
We need to go back to looking at the author’s credentials. It’s not apparent from his publication record that he’s researched mulches at all. His work was primarily on composts, with the most recent article published in 1998. Nor has he published articles relevant to management of woody plants.
Urban horticulture and arboriculture are relatively new fields of study that are rapidly evolving. Information once accepted as factual decades ago may no longer hold true, as newer research changes our understanding of the way that plants and soils work in managed landscapes.
By Visiting Professors Dr. Charlie Rohwer and Ulrike Carlson
I’ve had this dream of doing a full academic etymological study of oranges, with the help of a second-cousin-by-marriage linguist and her historian husband. Being honest with myself, I know that’ll never happen. And also, honestly, they’d have to do all the work anyway.
But, the Garden Professor’s Facebook post about the citrus family tree revived my interest. Not for a full-blown academic analysis of the word ‘orange,’ but for a blog-friendly, factual, interesting post. So I got my linguist cousin Ulrike Carlson to edit for accuracy too.
The name given to the orange by Linnaeus was Citrus aurantium, and the only other citrus species he noted in his first volume of Species Plantarum was Citrus medica. The current taxonomy of citron is Citrus medica L., and bitter orange (or Seville orange, used for marmalade and Belgian beer) is Citrus aurantium L. According to Linnaeus, sweet orange and pomelo were separate varieties of C. aurantium (var. sinensis and var. grandis, respectively). For a pretty image of the family tree, see the National Geographic article here. Basically, it is now known that all common citrus fruits are hybrids derived from citron, mandarin, pomelo, and papeda.
The current taxonomy for sweet orange, Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck, clearly defines the fruit’s Eastern origin (sinensis comes from Latin for ‘Chinese’) and altered nomenclature (Osbeck refined Linnaeus’ original taxonomy). But the name given to bitter orange, C. aurantium, points to its South Asian origin, and here’s why. The Tamil (south India) word for orange transliterates to ārañcu; Sanskrit words look similar; the Persian nārang is derived from there. As the bitter and sweet orange hybrids were likely made somewhere between Northern India and Southern China, it would be expected that the European names for these fruits come from these or nearby areas too. The origin of Linnaeus’ aurantium are obvious. Aurantium is Latin for the orange tree, and aurancia is the fruit. If you say these words aloud, they all sound similar to each other, to nārang, and to the English orange.
But here’s where it gets more interesting, with a preface: the word apple has historically been used to describe any fruit that’s not a small berry. Also, bitter oranges were common in Europe before sweet oranges. In fact, when sweet oranges came on the scene in the 17th century, wealthy people built greenhouses or gardens (“orangeries”) specifically for the new, more delicious versions of the fruit.
Orangery at the Château_de_Versailles
By Djampa – Own work
My first time in the Netherlands, I noticed orange juice is called sinaasapelsap. I don’t know Dutch really, but…doesn’t that mean ‘Chinese apple juice?’ Sinaas: Chinese (sinensis); apel: apple; sap: …sap (juice)? I knew in French that it’s jus d’orange (juice of the orange), and I knew ‘orange’ in Spanish is naranja (looks & sounds a lot like orange and narang). Why would the Dutch call it Chinese apple juice? Fast forward a couple years, I’m in Denmark, and what do I see? Appelsinsaft. CHINESE APPLE JUICE…English, Dutch, Danish, they’re all Germanic languages. Shouldn’t the Germanic languages call it orange juice, like I do? Then it hits me. English is the odd duck here. The Germanic languages call orange juice ‘Chinese apple juice’. This reflects the name Linnaeus gave the sweet orange (var. sinensis, or ‘Chinese’). Best I can tell, among Germanic languages, only English, Afrikaans, and Scots gets their word for the sweet orange from the older word for the bitter orange, nārang.
That’s not the last word on the subject though. You can go to Italy for sweet oranges and get arance, the Czech Republic and get pomeranče (apple-orange), Ireland and get oráistí, Bulgaria and get oranzhev, or Portugal and get laranjas (aka, oranges). All words that come from nārang or aurancia. You can go to Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany and get some kind of Chinese apples (aka, oranges). But even as most Italians eat arance, you’d instead ask for a partuallu in Sicily. Or you’d eat a portokáli in Greece, portokall in Albania, etc. The Portuguese, with their awesome shipping routes, imported sweet oranges from China, then grew and distributed them through Europe in the 17th century. They were a big improvement over the bitter orange (which would you rather have, marmalade from a bitter orange, or a juicy sweet orange?). So some countries called the sweet orange by the name of the proximal country they were shipped from, Portugal. Bitter oranges (AKA Seville oranges, named from where they were grown) are called pomerans (from apple-orange) in Swedish, Pomeranzen or Bitterorangen in German, pomeransen in Dutch…so it seems that when sweet oranges came to Germanic-speaking countries, the languages kept the word they’d been using for the bitter orange (calling it an orange-apple or bitter orange), and added a different word for the sweet orange, calling it a Chinese apple. This is all complicated because political boundaries have changed a lot in Europe, and languages borrow from each other. So northern Germans might still eat Chinese apples, but southern Germans might eat oranges.
Also, if you’re interested and you’ve made it this far, the color orange is so named because that’s the color of the fruit. It’s not the other way around. It’s a pretty recent color descriptor. That’s why robins, with their orange breasts, are called robin red-breast. There was no word for the color orange when the robin was first described.
Also of great interest is the House of Orange. If you’ve seen a Dutch soccer game, or been to the Netherlands, you’ll know they like the color orange. William I of Orange, basically the founder of the Netherlands, came from a principality called ‘Orange’, now in France, and the Dutch celebrate their royal family with the color of its namesake. BUT, Orange, France was named, a couple thousand years ago (before the fruit came to Europe), after a Celtic water god, Arausio. At the time, this had nothing to do with the fruit or the color. HOWEVER, since the middle ages, the crest of the French city shows orange fruit on a branch, and the crest for the German city of Oranienbaum (orange tree) has, you guessed it, an orange tree. According to Wikipedia, Oranienbaum was named after the Dutch House of Orange.
For more about how these languages are related, here’s a ‘simple’ chart.
Here at the Garden Professors we try to focus on sharing the best applied plant and soil science information for gardens and landscapes. But sometimes we get sidetracked by information that is SO bad that we need to share it too. So the purpose of this occasional feature – Worst Gardening Advice – is not to poke fun, but to point out the real hazards to plants, people, and the environment by following scientifically unsound practices.
Without identifying which of my GP colleagues nominated this video, we now present how NOT to fix storm damaged trees.
Recently I was at the Northwest Flower and Garden show and spoke to a gardener who was excited about some new information from his garden club meeting. Their speaker was a dowser – who promotes dowse gardening.
Now this was a new concept for me. I’ve heard of dowsing, of course, in the context of finding underground water. But dowse gardening?
Fortunately, my gardening friend shared his handout with me. I did a little Internet sleuthing and found the author, whose goal was to combine her two interests: dowsing and gardening. In a 2003 column, she stated “My main focus is ways of using subtle energy to get good crops or gardens.”
For me, this was an immediate red flag. It’s very much like the author’s motivation in The Sound of Music and Plants. Searching for a topic for an undergraduate research topic, she asked “What in the world can I do with music and plants?” Trying to force two unrelated subjects together without preliminary data to suggest the pairing is not a logical approach to scientific inquiry.
Anyway. Back to dowse gardening. It would take me weeks to dissect all of the claims made in the handout. In brief, the presentation explains how to find energy, how to receive and broadcast energy, and how to use “subtle energy” to grow healthier plants and control pests.
Unfortunately, the specifics on exactly how this happens were not given. But attendees were advised to create circle gardens (they are energy outgoing), to use earth energies to determine where and where not to grow plants, and to use prayers and crystals to improve seed sprouting. At least in this last case there were data:
“Prayers over seeds -30% increase in sprouting and production – energy! Next step – crystals pointed at sprouting seeds, 50% increase in sprouting and production – energy!”
And finally, there were all kinds of products that were recommended, including
French coils for “inducing beneficial energies in trees and larger perennials”
Energized water made by a process “that can transform our banal tap water back to its natural potent state as the elixir of life”
Sonic Bloom – an “organic fertilizer applied with sound”
Slim Spurling’s Light Life Tools which “support the work of environmental clearing, air pollution clearing, energy balancing, water improvement, alternative agriculture methods, insect control without sprays, beneficial insect enhancement, alternative health methods, personal self-care, computer radiation reduction, EMF pollution reduction, personal life improvement as well as business improvement”
Intrinsic Data Field Analyzer – “a consciousness interactive instrument that has been used experimentally to detect and balance the IDFs of plants, animals, minerals, and virtually all animate and inanimate objects”
As a scientist, it’s easy for me to discount all of this as silliness. But the fact remains that many people, including gardeners, long for mystical approaches to life. And unfortunately there are always going to be hucksters waiting to take advantage of that longing.
It’s been over a year since I’ve posted to our blog.
I feel bad about that. But there’s always something else competing for my time, and the blog slipped away from the top of my “to do” list.
Today the federal government has clamped down on the ability of its scientists to communicate with the public. This is real – and it is frightening.
There’s not much I can do about that edict in my position as a state Extension specialist. But as a state Extension specialist I have a responsibility to translate and transmit information to the public relevant to my discipline. So here’s my offer.
If you are, or if you know, a federal scientist who has information relevant to my discipline (applied plant and soil sciences) that you want the public to see, send it to me. I will post it here, and in our social media, keeping the source anonymous.
Science will NOT be suppressed. Yes, that sounds dramatic, but I don’t think any of my colleagues foresaw what is happening with the new administration. It’s time to act.
And there it is….Our own Linda Chalker-Scott has been accused of being incompetent and is being investigated by Washington State University. If found incompetent she will be removed from her academic position – in other words she will be fired.
I have had the opportunity to read the investigative report…. And it’s damning.
I mean, you know, if you call 29 pages of rumors, accusations, and the author repeatedly pointing out that Linda isn’t doing a job that she wasn’t hired to do damning.
You can read the report too – it’s over on Facebook. It’s a closed group so you need to get there through this link
So regarding this letter — I call BS (meaning Bad Stuff).
I have two major problems with it. First, the report is packed with unsubstantiated “facts” intended to create bias against Linda, and second, it’s an attack on you.
That’s right. This attack on Linda is a direct attack on you. At this point in time there is no University based extension professional doing a better job of transferring science-based information to the general public.
Linda’s appointment is 100% extension. That means that 100% of her time should be devoted to transferring research based information to you, the public. Well guess how she spends her time? She’s giving you what you, the taxpayer, are paying for. The investigators are saying she should do more experimental work – something she is not paid to do.
Do faculty with 100% research appointments do a lot of work to deliver the work of other researchers to the public like extension professionals? If you’re hired to do a job, you do that job. To do otherwise would be dereliction of duty.
This is absolutely ridiculous.
But let’s be honest, Linda is a polarizing figure (if I had a dime for every time that was said or implied in the text I’d be a rich man). Yep. You’ve got that right. She’s strong willed and stubborn and it comes across in her talks and her writings, and that is part of the reason she’s so compelling. And I say, if she is faithfully doing the job she was hired to do, who cares?
If she were a researcher bringing in a million dollars a year no one would care how obstinate she was. The truth is that, in her field, Linda is doing better than the researcher who brings in a million. Shoot, there are lots of researchers who bring in a million, tell me how many extension people have won the number of writing awards that she has won, talked to the number of people she has spoken to, or had their work read by as many people as she has had her work read by? As an Extension faculty member who targets the home gardener and arborist Linda is a rock star equivalent to Paul McCartney.
Unfortunately the area that she has chosen to work in, Extension, isn’t seen as sexy and so she is being marginalized.
But that’s just my first problem. And, I dunno, maybe I’m being silly. After all, everyone knows that doing the job we’re hired to do is overrated. Dang, if Linda had had just a tiny bit of foresight and acquired a million dollar grant working on the cell walls of soybean cortex tissue and then published a couple of papers on it we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Linda, you silly goose!
Don’t laugh, it’s true.
How sad is that?
Not as sad as the amazing quantity of unsubstantiated material that appeared to be present simply to create a bias against Dr. Chalker-Scott in this report. For example, on page 18 we had the opportunity to read about how an Extension Director was displeased with how Dr. Chalker-Scott disagreed with a soil scientist and should respect his opinions. No attempt appears to have been made to contact the soil scientist or to be specific about the disagreement to establish whether Dr. Chalker-Scott might have a reason to disagree.
Apparently simply disagreeing with an expert is a sin in and of itself.
Indeed, throughout this entire report hear-say seems to be the order of the day. Repeatedly we hear that Dr. Chalker-Scott gets the facts wrong, but we never hear the facts she is wrong about (except in the most general way).
This is ludicrous.
But let me end with the most inane thing in the report. Something that is truly staggering. On page 17 it is reported that an employee who was eavesdropping on Dr. Chalker-Scott through the wall “could not help but notice Dr. Chalker-Scott spent a lot of time complaining about WSU to people on the phone.”
I made this little image to try and make a point, not about Bt or GMOs or organic agriculture (all important topics for another day), but about the use of buzz words. I’m tired of the way words like “chemical” and “natural” get thrown around to try and make things sound bad or good. Neither of them are particularly useful terms because the definition of chemical is so broad as to cover just about anything, and “Natural” is more-or-less meaningless and entirely subjective.
So, my simple plea is to not let emotionally loaded buzz words sway you, but dig into the actual research and evidence to make decisions about what you think is good or bad.