Hey, Consumer Reports Wrote Back! And Yes, They Are Comfortable Recommending Useless Chemicals That Might Cause Cancer!

Two weeks ago I wrote an open letter to Consumer Reports voicing my concerns about some recent articles they had published regarding lawn and garden care, as well as reiterating some issues that Linda Chalker-Scott Ph.D. had with one of their stories. You can read the article for yourself, but the long and short of it is that they made some weed control recommendations that don’t work and recommended a chemical which might cause cancer. Honestly, I fully expected my post to be ignored, but you guys grabbed onto it and posted it over on the Consumer Reports Facebook page and, amazingly enough, they wrote back to me that night and told me they’d get back to me!

Man, was I excited, because hey, even though I’m no longer with a University Extension Service I still have that “impact” mentality. I was looking forward to Consumer Reports writing a little letter in the front of the magazine saying that their recommendation was faulty and that they would do better in the future. Or at least I was expecting them to write me a little note saying hey, we were wrong, and in the future they’ll do better. Look, I’ve worked with pesticides and plants for over 20 years, and to have the chance to influence Consumers Reports, a magazine whose integrity I’ve respected for years…. and maybe even help them see where they’d gone wrong and improve their future recommendations?…Wow…This was a dream come true!

After a week I was getting a little antsy, but they wrote back again, told me some people were on vacation delaying their response, and I’d get something soon.

Then last Thursday they sent me the letter which I have included at the end of this post. It was totally worth the wait!

The first thing I noticed was that Linda Chalker-Scott had somehow lost her Ph.D.. I think I speak for most Ph.D.s when I say that it isn’t a big deal if you don’t include our degree when you write to us, but if you write a letter to two Ph.D.s and include the Ph.D. for one and not the other it’s a little weird, especially if the Ph.D.s are a man and a woman and the man gets the Ph.D. and the woman doesn’t. But I quickly got over any insult I felt for Linda because hey, they misspelled my name. Linda and I have both been insulted before, but to insult us both before even starting the body of the letter?

That’s pretty special!

Now I knew I was in for a good read!

In our letters Linda and I voiced concerns about the efficacy of the treatments that Consumer Reports was offering. With that in mind I provided in my letter my name and a few of my credentials demonstrating that I had some idea of what I was talking about when it came to weed control. Consumer Reports obviously took this very seriously and when they wrote back to me they provided the names of the organizations they contacted for information including “experts from the Beyond Pesticides and the Great Healthy Yard Project”. The experts themselves went unnamed.

Though unnamed, they did provide the credentials of the experts from these organizations, namely that they were “two groups we’ve consulted in the past.” Wow, impressive.

Let me be clear here, these are two fine organizations with worthy goals and good people, but do they have people on staff whose horticultural knowledge approaches the two Ph.D.s and decades of experience that Linda and I have? If they do then please let us know. There’s a comment section below.

Our degrees and experience don’t automatically make us right, but they do suggest that we deserve to be taken seriously. Specifically, if we tell someone that wiping clove oil on a cut stump won’t kill kudzu or barberry then guess what? IT ISN’T LIKELY TO KILL KUDZU OR BARBERRY. It is not a matter of speed or repeated applications as you infer in your letter. If Consumer Reports doubts the information that Linda or I provide then it would be appropriate for them to contact some other experts with legitimate credentials – regardless of whether they are members of “groups we’ve consulted in the past” or not. Or they could try it themselves. Shoot, this is Consumer Reports we’re talking about. They’re supposed to test everything!

To take this a step further, if Consumer Reports were looking for credentialed experts then why didn’t they contact Extension personnel from their favorite state university? Sure, they consulted some extension articles but, based on what was written, I’m not sure they understood what they read. For example, I looked all over and nowhere could I find a University of Minnesota publication suggesting that “going over the lawn with a core aerator might eradicate [dandelions]”. Eradication is a strong word that isn’t usually associated with aeration and, unless they can demonstrate otherwise, I think it likely they’re either misunderstanding or misrepresenting what they read.

Actually, this part of Consumer Reports letter was kind of funny because they called it “the University of Minnesota extension”. That’s kind of like saying “the University of Minnesota music” or “the University of Minnesota botanical”. It should be “the University of Minnesota Extension Service”. But I’m being petty.

Now to the heart of the letter, and my greatest concern since it deals directly with Consumer Reports status as an advocate for consumers.

I am no fan of any pesticide, but I am especially concerned about organic pesticides because, as natural products, consumers often assume that they are necessarily safe. The clove oil recommended to kill the cut stumps of certain plants in the original article is a perfect example. This was a great opportunity for Consumer Reports to demonstrate that natural does not necessarily mean safe. Instead Consumer Reports defended their position stating, simply, that they consider clove oil to be a safer alternative to Round-up. For anyone concerned about the safety of their family I’m sure it’s comforting to know that the precipice they’re hanging over by using clove oil is 50 feet rather than 300.

To summarize why I feel they’re making a mistake in taking eugenol so lightly you can view the blog post I made previously and follow those links (To summarize, it offers a study where tumor incidence increased in mice exposed to eugenol and shows that the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances lists this compound as a carcinogen). And, just for fun, here are some additional sources that demonstrate that eugenol may have some serious potential to be hazardous to one’s health.

It has been found to be a potential mutagen

It has been shown to cause chromosomal aberrations in hamster embryo cells

It has shown some level of genotoxicity

It is quite cytotoxic to skin cells even at low levels

Here’s another poisoning besides the one I offered in my last letter

And another

These poisonings are only a few of the ones listed in the literature – you can find more, and you can bet that there’s even more that have occurred which simply didn’t get written up.

Wait! Wait! I’ve gone too far! Consumer reports did say in their letter that they would include a section which states that: “we will note in the future that the oil can be dangerous if ingested.” That’s great, especially considering the cytotoxicity that this chemical has to human skin cells (see the article above).

I know I feel a lot safer now.

And the crazy thing here is that anyone using clove oil as suggested by Consumer Reports is subjecting their family to a danger that isn’t even necessary – because clove oil won’t even be effective for many of the purposes for which it was recommended!

There’s a lot more to the letter below than what I’ve listed here, but this post is getting way too long. Please feel free to read and comment as you see fit. I will not be renewing my subscription to Consumer Reports this year. I do not necessarily encourage you to do the same, but I do encourage you to let them know how you feel on their facebook page or otherwise. If you don’t, things will not change.

I recently read that there was a brain drain at Consumer Reports, I dearly hope that this is not true.

If Consumer Reports really wants to advocate for consumers, then let’s hold them to it.

Jeff Gillman

 

 

Here’s the letter:

Dear Linda Chalker-Scott and Jeff Gilman Ph. D. (cc Garden Professors),

Thank you again for your responses to our article “Beat Those Weeds,” which first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports. Though our advice was aimed at homeowners, we appreciate this opportunity to engage with the professional gardening community, and we welcome any additional insights you have into the issue of sustainable lawn and garden care.

Our goal was to introduce homeowners to non-toxic forms of weed treatment. As we noted in the article, the average yard contains 10 times more chemicals per acre than a typical commercial farm, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The article also alerted readers to the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, had recently designated glyphosate (the active ingredient in herbicides like Roundup) as a probable carcinogen.

In developing our list of alternative weed treatments, we worked with experts from the Beyond Pesticides and the Great Healthy Yard Project, two groups we’ve consulted in the past. We also referenced numerous cooperative extensions. For example, our point that aerating soil can help control dandelions is supported by the University of Minnesota extension (on whose faculty we understand you served, Dr. Gilman), while the statement about Canadian thistle being common in vegetable gardens with peas and beans came from the Penn State extension.

As you know, lawn and garden care often involves a lot of trial and error, and there’s no shortage of controversy surrounding certain techniques (for years we’ve said corn-gluten meal can be an effective natural pre-emergent herbicide, though we know there are those who disagree). It’s also true that “home remedies” usually aren’t as aggressive as chemical treatments. We tried to make this clear by telling readers that repeat applications would probably be necessary with certain methods, though perhaps we could have stated the fact more clearly. Again, our principal goal was to offer safe treatments, not necessarily those that deliver the fastest results.

That takes us to your point about clove oil, which we offered up as an effective treatment for barberry and kudzu. You note that its main ingredient, eugenol, is classified as a carcinogen by the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances. You also reference a case in which a 2-year-old child nearly died after drinking between 5 and 10 ml of clove oil.

We would certainly agree that clove oil should not be ingested. However, we would also note that, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO IARC), eugenol is classified as Group 3, where there is limited evidence for carcinogenicity from experimental animal studies. Glyphosate, on the other hand, was recently classified by the same agency, WHO IARC, as Group 2A, a probable carcinogenic to humans, due to limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma from agricultural exposure studies and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from experimental animal studies. So relatively speaking, we feel strongly that clove oil is a safer alternative to Roundup. However, we will note in the future that the oil can be dangerous if ingested.

Moving forward, we will also emphasize the advice you end your letter with—that the most effective, safest, and easiest way to eliminate weeds is to pull or dig them out. On that point, we couldn’t agree more.

Thank you again for your feedback. We look forward to more spirited collaboration and dialogue on future lawn and garden-related content.

Sincerely yours,

Consumer Reports

Joe Diliberti
Corporate Relations Associate, Consumer Reports

Out of the bottle and into the bag

Last week I was having lunch with my mom at our favorite nearby nursery/café. After failing to resist the grilled cheese sandwich (3 cheeses! And buttery panini bread!), we walked off lunch in the garden supply part of the nursery. Normally I’m on my best behavior when I’m shopping with my mom (i.e. I don’t take photos of things I’m going to take to task on the blog). But like the 3-cheese grilled sandwich I was unable to resist the bags of biodynamic compost.

Biodynamic compost is now available at garden centers
Biodynamic compost is now available at garden centers

Long-time readers of the blog may remember my earlier column and post on biodynamics. Since I wrote the original column over 10 years ago I’ve watched biodynamic marketing move from boutique wines to coffee, tea, tomato sauce…and now to garden products. Really expensive garden products, as in $19.99 for one cubic foot of compost.

An "untapped source of power and majesty" makes this compost different.
An “untapped source of power and majesty” makes this compost different.

What makes this bag of compost worth $19.99? One has to assume it’s the biodynamic preparations used to treat the compost. They’re referred to in the label under “concentrations of yarrow” and so on. Do these preparations make a difference? The label suggests it might be to restore the soil’s vitality. Is there validity to this claim?

It's doubtful that all of these ingredients are locally available. And why are so many materials needed?
It’s doubtful that all of these ingredients are locally available. And why are so many materials needed?

In 2013 I published a review of the scientific literature on biodynamics, specifically looking at whether biodynamic preparations have a measurable impact on anything they’re applied to. In a nutshell, the answer is no. (Though this article is behind a paywall, I can send a pdf to you by email if you’d like to read it.)

Don’t let packaging and magical words sway you. Compost made with local materials like bark or agricultural wastes and certified by the US Composting Council is reasonably priced and sustainable.

 

James Kennedy on Chemistry

 

Caffeine_(1)_3D_ball
Caffeine Molecule – Wikipedia

 

Sometime in the last twenty years or so, the word “chemical” has become a dirty word.  Hard to pronounce words. Unnatural synthesized substances. Mad scientist concoctions brewed in a laboratory.

I used to try to introduce some perspective when I facilitated pesticide workshops for the general public by teaching how scientists and regulators determined toxicity, so comparisons between familiar substances, like caffeine, aspirin, or detergents could be made, to varying degrees of success.

It was the “unnatural synthesized substances” part that I had the most difficulty overcoming.

James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia noticed the same problem, and started a blog and outreach effort, using infographics to illustrate the chemical make up of familiar fruits and vegetables.

In this NY Times piece, he gives the reason why:

As a high-school chemistry teacher, I made these posters for my students as a visual introduction to our organic chemistry course. I want to erode the fear that many people have of ‘chemicals’, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab.

The success of the basic chemical makeup posters led further to include the evolutionary history of fruits and vegetables from their wild ancestors, as explained in this Brad Plumer article at Vox.

Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago, as generation after generation of farmers artificially bred crops to select for more desirable traits like size and taste.

But that change can be hard to visualize. So James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, created some terrific infographics to show just how drastic the evolution has been.

His blog is simply called James Kennedy, and here are all the infographics, which also can be ordered as posters.

Show me the data!

One of my favorite bumper stickers from days gone by said simply “Stop Continental Drift”. Good luck with that.

stop_continental_drift_530

Today’s topic deals with another type of drift – a phenomenon one of my professors referred at ‘Bibliographic drift’.   This type of drift occurs when authors cite a paper without bothering to look up the original source.  Then a second author cites original source based on the first author’s paper; then a third author cites it based on the second paper and so on and so forth.  This is why grad students learn that second citing is a cardinal sin.

 

It’s an easy trap to fall into even in the age of access to electronic journals.  It can happen in all sorts of ways, especially if the point the author trying to support is something that is intuitively appealing and not likely to be questioned.  For example, I was recently reading through The Practical Science of Planting Trees by Gary Watson and E.B. Himelick.  It’s a good book with lots of great info and photos but under the section on digging the planting hole there is a subsection “wider is better”.  This is something we all ‘know’ but there is no data with any scientific rigor to support it; at least not that I’ve ever been able to find and I’ve looked repeatedly.  So I was intrigued to see Watson and Himelick cite four papers to support the notion that wider is better. Cool. So I went through the bibliography to look up the citations.

Can you dig it? My former research technician Dana Ellison installs a tree in Detroit.
Can you dig it? My former research technician Dana Ellison installs a tree in Detroit.

First up, Arnold and Welsh 1995. Effects of planting hole configuration and soil type on transplant establishment of container-grown live oak. J. of Arboriculture 24:213-218. This paper doesn’t even discus planting hole width, at least not directly.  The authors looked at various planting hole configurations (round, square, star-shaped) but made a point to keep the planting hole volume the same. Zero points for wider is better.

 

Next, Corley 1984. Soil amendments at planting J. Environ. Hort. 2:27-30. One of the experiments in this paper compared root and shoot growth of four shrub species transplanted from #1 containers into holes that were with 1.75x or 3.5x the width of the root-ball. The author measured root and shoot growth after two years and the results were a mixed bag.  They found the wider hole was better about half the time, the other half of the time it didn’t make a difference.  One point for wider is better (sort of).

Next, Montegue et al. 2007.  Influence of irrigation volume and mulch on establishment of select shrub species Arboriculture & Urban Forestry.  33:202–209.  The title of the paper says it all; the authors compared water relations and growth in response to mulch and irrigation but planting hole size wasn’t included as a variable. (Spoiler alert: mulch improved growth and water relations). Zero points.

Last and most interesting, Watson et al. 1992. The effect of backfill soil texture and planting hole shape on root regeneration of transplanted green ash. J. of Arboriculture 18:130-135. In this study the authors looked at new root growth and shoot and diameter growth for three years after transplanting green ash trees into planting holes that were 1.2x, 2x, or 3x the width of the root ball. And they found… nothing. Well, not nothing but they didn’t find any effects of planting hole size on root density, shoot growth or caliper growth. To help visualize the response I’ve summarized their growth data three years after transplanting below. One point for it doesn’t matter.

Cumulative growth response of green ash trees to planting hole width 3 years after transplanting. adapted from Watson wt al. 1992
Cumulative growth response of green ash trees to planting hole width 3 years after transplanting. adapted from Watson wt al. 1992

 

As a final note I include a photo from the Waston et al. paper 1992.  The photo is fuzzy but the caption should be clear.

watson et al 1992

So where does that leave us? Digging a wider hole doesn’t hurt, except maybe your back. And I think that’s part of the appeal of this advice:  If it’s more work it must be better. Dig a hole 2 times, 3 times, 10 times the width of the root-ball if you want. Just don’t say “Research shows wider is better…” because it’s ambiguous at best.

Why doesn’t my plant flower? Part 1

I often get horticulture questions from county extension agents, Green Industry professional, gardeners and my next door neighbors. One of the most common questions I get is why their plant did not flower that year. There are many reasons why a plant, either woody or herbaceous perennial, will not flower and both new and established plants can be affected. Some of the below reasons are obvious, some not so obvious.

There may be several reasons why a landscape plant does not flower (more to come next week):

Sun loving plants will not flower properly when grown in too much shade
Sun loving plants will not flower properly when grown in too much shade

1) Plants requiring full sun are not receiving enough sunlight.

  • Sun loving plants require at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to produce flower buds
  • Flowering is significantly reduced in areas with too much shade
  • Foliar diseases may be increased, such as powdery mildew, as foliage stays wet longer after rain
  • Growth is tall and “leggy” with most of the foliage and flowers occurring at the top of the plant

2) Transplant shock may result in little to no flowering 2-3 years after planting.

Transplant shock of 'Royal Red' Norway maple (Acer platanoides 'Royal Red')
Transplant shock of ‘Royal Red’ Norway maple (Acer platanoides ‘Royal Red’)
  • After planting, woody plants are using energy to establish a root system to support future leaves and flowers
  • Make sure plants are receiving enough water to encourage root growth and plant establishment
  • For trees, it may take longer than 3 years to produce new flowers

3) A plant may not flower because it is not cold hardy to your area.

Winter flower bud death on forsythia. Notice flowers at bottom of plant due to being under the snow line.
Winter flower bud death on forsythia. Notice flowers at bottom of plant due to being under the snow line.
'Sunrise' forsythia blooms reliably each year in zone 4
‘Sunrise’ forsythia blooms reliably each year in zone 4
  • If you live in U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zone 4 and plant is rated to only zone 5, buds may be killed over winter
  • For some plants, like forsythia, vegetative (leaf) buds can be a half to one zone more cold hardy than the flowering buds
  • Make sure to select a plant and cultivar rated to your cold hardiness zone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4) In warmer cold hardiness zones a plant may not receive enough chilling hours in winter to break dormancy.

'Dark Night' early flowering lilac (Syringa x hyacinthiflora 'Dark Night') has a low chilling hour requirement
‘Dark Night’ early flowering lilac (Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Dark Night’) has a low chilling hour requirement
  • Chilling hours are the total amount of time during winter below a certain temperature, called vernalization
  • Required temperature are either below freezing, 0° C (32°F) or below 7°C (45°F) for temperate species
  • Plants suited for colder climates, like common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), require at least 3 months of cold temperatures in order to break dormancy and bloom in spring
  • In areas with mild winters, these plants may not flower or set fruit
  • Low chilling hour requiring plants are available for warmer areas
  • There is no definitive data on number of chilling hours required for all species

5) Severe late spring frosts can kill flower buds coming out of dormancy or emerging buds.

Late frost injury to new growth on boxwood (Buxus spp.)
Late frost injury to new growth on boxwood (Buxus spp.)
  • Developing spring buds are in advanced stages of development with minimal cold hardiness
  • Flowers can be killed or severely deformed
  • Especially damaging if the hard frost occurs after weeks of warm temperatures resulting in budbreak
  • Little to no fruit is produced that year; a serious problem for fruit growers

6) Pruning trees and shrubs at the wrong time of year will remove flower buds.

Beautiful flowers of Beauty of Moscow common lilac (Syringa vulgaris 'Krasavitsa Moskvy')
Beautiful flowers of Beauty of Moscow common lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’)
  • Flower buds are produced during the preceding summer for spring flowering plants
  • Prune within two weeks after flowering in spring
  • Avoid pruning in mid to late summer as next year’s flower buds are developing for next year’s bloom
  • Can prune large, suckering shrubs in dormant season, but realize flowering will be reduced that year
  • For summer flowering shrubs, late winter to early spring before growth begins is a great time to prune as flower buds have not developed yet for that summer

7) Flowering can decrease significantly on older, overgrown shrubs like lilacs, forsythias, chokeberries, and spirea.

Before renewal pruning of Chinese lilac (Syringa x chinensis). Notice larger diameter branches crowded together.
Before renewal pruning of Chinese lilac (Syringa x chinensis). Notice larger diameter branches crowded together.
After renewal pruning of Chinese lilac (Syringa x chinensis). Notice thinning of plant.
After renewal pruning of Chinese lilac (Syringa x chinensis). Notice thinning of plant.
Forsythia pruned as hedge copy
Shearing flowering shrubs into meatballs removes flower buds and destroys the natural arching habit
  • Larger diameter branches have reduced flowering as the stems age, especially for lilacs
  • Flowers may only be at the very top of the plant out of sight and smell
  • Large, suckering shrubs need renewal pruning, also called thinning
  • Depending on the species, every 1-3 years, remove about a third of the largest diameter branches (greater than 1.5” in diameter) back to the base of the plant to allow light penetration
  • Regeneration of new suckering branches will occur at the base of the plant that produce new flower buds the second or third year and fill in the plant
  • Thinning (renewal pruning) also preserves the overall plant shape
  • Never shear flowering shrubs as you will be removing flower buds and ruin the plant form
  • Renewal pruning should only be done for shrubs that sucker
  • Do not attempt this type of pruning on evergreens or slow growing plants

8) A tree or shrub may be alternate bearing with heavy blooming one year and sparse flowering the next year.

Sporadic flowering on CHINA SNOW Peking tree lilac (Syringa pekinensis 'Morton'). Many tree lilacs will flower heavily one year and sporadically the following year.
Sporadic flowering on CHINA SNOW® Peking tree lilac (Syringa pekinensis ‘Morton’). Many tree lilacs will flower heavily one year and sporadically the following year.
  • Common with some trees, such as Japanese and Peking tree lilacs (Syringa reticulata and S. pekinensis), and flowering crabapples (Malus spp.)
  • There is little a gardener can do to avoid this from occurring
  • If the fruit is not ornamental, removal of old flowers before fruit set may redirect a plant’s energy into flower bud production for next year’s bloom instead of fruit production this year
  • Select plants that reliably flower each year if you do not want to miss the show

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article next week!

Laura Jull, Ph.D. aka The Lorax

Eggplants getting their buzz on

eggplantflower

I was checking my eggplants today, and watching the bumble bees getting busy with the large purple flowers. As they flew in, buzzing away, they landed on the flower and kept buzzing — but the note changed, dropping in pitch. The bumble bee hummed away for a while, then flew off to the next flower.

I was watching buzz pollination at work. Egg plants, and a lot of other flowers, don’t leave their pollen hanging out in the open where any ant or fly that happens by could eat it. Rather they wrap them up in little packages that, when vibrated at just the right rate by a buzzing bumble bee, sends the pollen shooting out, so that bumble bees, which pollinate effectively, can access the pollen, but other insects, that would just eat it all, can’t.

In the garden, it isn’t easy to catch a glimpse of the pollen spewing forth, but luckily there are videos. Thank goodness for youtube. Watch it, and next time you are in your garden and hear a bee land in the flower and suddenly change the tone of its buzz, know you are seeing — and hearing — buzz pollination at work.

Observations regarding you-pick blueberries…

We just finished up with our 8th season of welcoming you-pickers to our back yard, which happens to include three acres of northern highbush blueberries. This has been an interesting venture – helps pay for our farm, obviously, but also presents an opportunity to connect with the “general public” outside of academia [that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise, considering we are both introverts]. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the folks that take the trouble to come to a you-pick are fabulous, functional human beings. We are very, very grateful for their patronage, especially since blueberries from Canada are on sale for $1.50/pint at the grocery store and take 5 seconds to plop in your cart.  We do, as you might expect, get some interesting questions and comments, and the “OMG! Nature!” thing has come up a few times.

bee berry farm

Here’s a selection of our [reasonably patient] responses to not-so-frequently-asked questions and comments that occur while handing out buckets and ringing up sales:

  • “No, we don’t have to plant them every year like potatoes. They are perennial shrubs.”
  • “The berries do indeed taste better if they are blue. Green and pink, not so much.”
  • “No, I cannot weigh you before and after picking to tell how many you’ve eaten in the field. Ha, ha, I’ve not heard that one before.”
  • “I’m sorry you saw a Japanese beetle.”
  • “Alas, we do not provide Wi-Fi out in the field.”
  • “I can’t go pick for you while you watch the sales stand. Sorry.”
  • “I know the picking season started one week earlier than last year, even though you were on vacation. It’s kind of a weather thing.”
  • “Nope, there will not be more berries ‘appearing’ later. This is sort of a one-shot deal, they flower in the spring, and that’s what you see here.”
  • “Yes, there may be some bees around. It’s a farm. We have bees. The name of our business is Bee Berry Farm.”
  • “No, we cannot put a net over three acres.” (People are very concerned as to how we are not overwhelmed with deer, birds, bears, etc.)
  • “I’m so sorry your child was stung while poking a stick in a yellow jacket’s nest.” (indeed very scary for all of us involved…especially the poor little guy with the stick.)
  • “We do not apply chemicals other than water and fertilizer. Pardon? Yes, water is a chemical.”
  • “Unfortunately, you cannot make your own bushes by planting these blueberries. And no, I’m not familiar with that website.”
  • “No ma’am, I do not know who placed excess zucchini in your unlocked car.”

Other observations made and behaviors noted:

  • Small children are usually not excited about roaming through a hot sunny field at 11:30 a.m. Though we salute the parents who think this might be a good experience for them.
  • Please do not send said hot and annoyed children to stand unattended under the sales tent, staring at the proprietor.
  • You would be amazed at how sound travels across a hillside; other pickers may or may not want to hear exactly what you think of your mother-in-law.
  • Please don’t park IN our perennial border.
  • It’s not fun to find a dirty diaper hiding in the bushes.

Odie

One of the coolest plants you’ll ever see is the titan arum. It varies quite a bit in height, but this one, named Odie, measured just a little over five feet tall. This amazing corm bloomed at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens last week. Unfortunately the bloom only lasted for about two days, and during that time the area around it smelled just like roadkill. We are now waiting to see whether a fertilization attempt was successful. If it was then soon (a few long months) we may have baby Odies!

odie 1

Dogwood rescue – an update

Long-time readers of this blog might remember a Friday quiz I gave back in 2010. It involved the slow but inexplicable decline of our dogwood (Cornus kousa). On the following Monday I revealed the reason for the decline and reported that we were moving this nearly dead tree to another location without the offending perched water table.

In 2011 I posted my first update along with photos of the new leaves and flowers. And today I reveal its obvious recovery to a fully functional if somewhat still spindly tree (several of its multiple leaders died as a result of the rotted root system).

The Lazarus dogwood
The Lazarus dogwood
A "grateful to be alive" floral display
A “grateful to be alive” floral display

There are several take-home lessons from this example:

1) Don’t assume that tree decline is due to a nutrient deficiency or pest/disease problems. The last thing a stressed tree needs is unnecessary additions of fertilizers or pesticides.

2) Explore soil conditions to find possible water movement disruptions. Our perched water table was discovered serendipitously with our pond installation. You can do the same with a good-sized soil auger. (I bought one of these bad boys, but haven’t had a need to use it yet. Some day…)

www.soil-net.com
www.soil-net.com

3) If a tree or shrub is failing, by all means move the poor thing to another location. In doing so, you may discover that the roots are still stuck in a clay ball and have not established into the native soil. Clean off all the burlap, twine and clay before replanting.

4) Be patient. If it took a while for your tree to reach its current sorry state, it will take a while for it to recover.

Ask an Entomologist

Aedes_aegypti_CDC-Gathany
Aedes aegypti mosquito. The image is in the public domain from Wikipedia Commons

No, I’m not one.  But the folks who run the Ask an Entomologist site are.  You can ask them anything about bugs, and some of their best posts result from questions that come from kids.

Don’t think of it as a place for identification, although they’ll do their best to answer, or direct you to a good place where that can happen; think of it as a way to prompt them to explain some aspect about the science of Entomology that may not be well understood by the general public.

From their About Section

If you’re interested in how insects are related to one another, how they work on the inside, how they behave, current events in the news, or anything else … you’ve come to the right place.

And here’s how they addressed the identification part in a recent post, introducing the science of Taxonomy:

Please don’t take this the wrong way. We *want* to help you, we’re just not qualified. Insects make up 58% of the biodiversity on the planet, with beetles alone consisting of over 350,000 species. People who study scarab beetles may not even have the expertise to help you identify your sap beetle. Joe and I are just two people, and two people just can’t know all the bugs. That’s why we refer you to places where many people with various areas of expertise are present.

And they’re not afraid to tackle controversial issues, with explanations and links to the science to explain how something works.  This one, for example, which addresses the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) using the new process of genetic engineering to create the sterile insects.

People have asked Nancy and me a lot of questions about the sterile GMO mosquitoes the British company Oxitec is planning to release in Florida. We get these questions on a Facebook page we administrate as well as through this blog. People are really curious about what’s going on with these mosquitoes, and we’re really excited to talk about them!

Since I used to be responsible for a mosquito management program targeting the mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus, as well as provide general public pesticide education, that post provided a great deal of clarity on the whole topic.  In particular, the part about Rachel Carson and a quote from her seminal work, Silent Spring, which endorsed SIT as a way to reduce dependence on pesticides; a way to selectively manage a pest in a local area at the species level.  That means zero impact on non-target species.  What an exciting possibility!

Two other places I follow to learn more general things about bugs and insects are Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson, and the Facebook Page Relax, I’m an Entomologist.

For a more specific understanding of pests in and around the home, there’s Insects in the City and everything you need or want to know about ticks, and how to protect yourself from them, Tick Encounter Resource Center.