The “safe seed pledge” is meaningless

The seed catalogs have started showing up in the mail, and a great number of them include something like this on the first few pages:


Here’s the thing: NO ONE is selling genetically engineered seeds to home gardeners. There is one company, funded by kickstarter, that is trying to sell genetically engineered seeds of a glow-in-the-dark plant sometime in the future (though, like a lot of kickstarter project, the actual release date keeps getting delayed) but other than that, genetically engineered varieties are only being sold to commercial farmers, and only after the farmer has signed a pretty comprehensive licensing agreement.

You can go to the store and buy food made from genetically engineered varieties — essentially anything that contains corn and isn’t labeled as organic will be — and you can stop by the pet store and pick yourself up a fish with jellyfish genes, but no one is trying to sell you genetically engineered seeds.

So those pledges in seed catalogs promising they contain no GMO seeds are technically true, but also pretty meaningless. So if you are worried about accidentally getting a GMO variety, don’t be. And if you wish you COULD grow one, sorry, you are out of luck, unless that kickstarter project ever actually gets up and running.

— Joseph Tychonievich

Cold Stratification for seeds

You may think of spring as the time for seed sowing, but I do a lot of seed planting now, in the fall. The reason is that most of the cold hardy perennials, trees and shrubs that I like to grow produce seeds that require cold stratification.
This simply means that they require a period exposed to cold temperatures while the seeds are moist and hydrated before they will germinate.

The requirement for cold is a pretty straight-forward adaptation to life in cold climates. Seeds that ripen in the summer and fall might not have time to get established before winter if they germinated right away. The requirement for cold means the seeds don’t actually sprout until spring, giving them a full growing season to get ready for the next winter.

An outdoor seed bed is an easy way to stratify seeds

You can — and I used to — give seeds this cold period in the refrigerator. Three months in the fridge in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to keep the seeds moist is long enough for most everything, though the exact period of cold required varies by the plant. The fridge works, but I think it is way easier to just do it outside. So the past few days I’ve been busy sowing seeds out in my outdoor seed beds. They’re just raised beds, filled with potting media, and covered with a screen lid to limit the number of weed seeds that blow in and keep disruptive animals out. I plant my seeds in the fall. Come spring, after the seeds have had their dose of cold, they sprout.

Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting
Dianthus seedlings ready for transplanting

Once the seedlings have grown on a while, I dig them out, separate the individual plants, and put them out into their final locations in the garden.

Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting
Individual seedlings separated and ready for planting

I do this with more and more seeds every year, even for perennials that don’t require a cold period to germinate, simply because it is so easy. No fussing around with lights or checking the calendar or even much watering. Just plunk the seeds in, and dig out the plants once they are big enough.

Watch a silly product morph into a lawsuit

A few years ago someone emailed me information on another garden miracle – this time a product called Mighty Wash. I found my notes on this product as I wondered what I should post about today. The sales information at the time advertised Mighty Wash as “frequency water” (which we’ll get to in a minute). Here’s part of the original advertisement:

Mostly water - plus "pink sauce" according to lawsuit documents
Mostly water – plus “pink sauce” according to lawsuit documents

“Mighty Wash is a new revolutionary way to solve your spider mite problem in all stages of development from eggs to adults…Mighty Wash is a ready to use “Frequency Imprinted” foliar spray. It is imprinted with special frequencies which target fleshy bodied insects. The use of frequency is nothing new to our world, and as you probably know all things have a frequency. What makes our products special is the fact that our proprietary frequencies are holding and stable for at least 2 years and running.

“One attribute of our Mighty wash is that it paralyzes the insect on contact not allowing it to flood out eggs and begin the resistance process! Essentially there is no resilience that can be gained from or product unlike so many others, and without the use of any chemicals. Mighty Wash does have very low levels of our naturally derived botanical oils, along with frequency make it the cleanest solution to your spider mite problem.”

Mites "flooding out eggs" [Photo source Wikipedia}
Mites “flooding out eggs” [Photo source Wikipedia]
When I looked for the manufacturer’s current information (an LLC called NPK), I couldn’t find reference to “frequency water” and its miraculous properties. After a bit of internet digging, I discovered that Mighty Wash was the subject of a bitter trademark dispute.  For me, the best thing about this dispute is the deposition, which states exactly what the original makers of Mighty Wash claim their products do:

“Yeti invented and manufactures three plant washes using a confidential and proprietary formula and process that includes electronic frequency imprinting.”

They accused the defendant of making knock off products “not manufactured using Yeti’s proprietary formula and process” resulting in products “substantially less effective than Yeti’s Products.”

Leaving the legal battle for a minute, let’s see try to figure out how this product is manufactured. “Frequency Water” is water that’s been exposed to vibrational energy or to minute quantities of dissolved substances. That’s the “electronic frequency imprinting” which is referred to in the legal complaint; it’s also called “water memory” and is the foundation for explaining how homeopathic dilutions work.

Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water [[Photo from Wikipedia]
Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water and presumably the memory of the substance [Photo source Wikipedia]
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that there’s no reliable, published science behind any of this. What is surprising is the amount of money these companies make on selling water in a spray bottle. Mighty Wash and related washes (PM Wash, Power Wash, and Ultimate Wash [which is “Mighty Wash without food coloring”]) must generate healthy sales for two companies to squabble over the trademark of a product that is basically…water.

And the Irony Prize goes to the charges of fraud and false advertising leveled at NPK by Yeti Enterprises.

Microclimate follow-up

Last year I talked about using cheap min-max thermometers to get a handle on the specifics of the micro climates in my garden, and I was reminded recently that I never followed up on what I actually found out, so that’s what I’m doing today.

Remember that these results are just ONE data point, specific information about conditions in my particular garden. Your conditions will probably be different, so don’t try and extrapolate from these to your garden. Instead, if you are curious about your micro-climates, get a few thermometers, scatter them around, and see what happens.


What I did:

I placed thermometers three different locations – up in the air on the north side of a shed, on the ground out in the middle of an open area, and on the ground up against the south side of a shed. I expected the ground thermometers to be warmer, thanks to the insulation of snow, and the one on the south side of a shed to be warmer still, thanks to the added heat from the sun.

What I found

I was surprised on several fronts. First, the south side of the building was, for me, only warmer during the day. I recorded higher high temperatures, but at night, it dropped down exactly as cold as everywhere else. This may be partly because we have extremely cloudy winters here in Michigan, so there isn’t a whole lot of sun to warm up the south side of anything. The wall is also an unheated shed, so there was no extra heat leaking out from inside the way there would be up against the walls of a house, particularly if it is old and poorly insulated.

Ground level, under the snow, was as I expect warmer than the air temperature above. Much warmer than I had expected, in fact. We had about a foot or so of snow during the coldest part of the winter, and that snow kept thing more than 20 degrees F (~11 degrees C) warmer than the air temperature above the snow line. Keep in mind that the USDA hardiness zones are based on 10 degree F differences, so that thick layer of snow kept things almost two zones warmer. I knew snow was a good insulator, but I didn’t realize it would make that big a difference. Thank you Lake Michigan for all the frozen white stuff!

What I’m doing with the information:

I’m no longer trying to put tender plants against the south wall – Instead, I’m piling on a layer of mulch after the ground freezes to augment the insulating power of the snow. And given that south facing wall is much warmer during the day, I’m using it to grow heat loving plants that tend to pout in my cool, Michigan summers. Melons, peppers, and eggplant all adore the extra 5-10 degrees F (~2-5 degrees C) that south wall adds to my daily high temperatures.

Trash or Treasure?

You’ve probably heard certain plants dismissed as “trashy” –  but what does that mean?  We have a delightful Magnolia macrophyla in our campus garden – with huge foliage, creamy blooms, the native factor, etc., it draws all kind of attention. So I’d hesitate to call it trashy. But the autumn leaf drop clutters the ground with leaves the size of a sheet of legal paper.  They aren’t rake-able, or really mow-able, have to gather by hand into “sheaves”.  And there’s a LOT of them.

Here’s another example:

We plopped a 3-gallon Koelreuteria bipinnata (many common names, such as Chinese Flame Tree, Bougainvillea Golden Rain Tree, etc). into one of our home perennial borders a few years ago. As Dirr notes, it started out “beanpole-like in youth” but has grown into a nice vase shape. It hit puberty last year, with a smattering of flowers and fruit. This year has been a different story – I swear it doubled in size; and judge for yourself its full-on adulthood:


Late August and early September brought huge panicles of yellow flowers – eye-popping for us, and a late-season bounty of pollen and nectar for our honey bees (and every other bee and wasp in the area). You could hear the canopy “buzzing” from several yards away.

The yellow petals then fell away, carpeting the grass and part of our deck. It their place developed shrimp-pink, papery capsules.

KPpodshabitI cut one of the capsule-filled branches off; and a month later everything is still pink and intact in a vase of water. I also noted each of three capsule sections bears one dark round glossy seed. Uh-oh. That’s a lot of seeds.

KPpodsWith our first freeze, the leaves fell – in big chunks consisting of a tough foot-long petiole and a bunch of leaflets. My mower didn’t do a good job chopping them up – ended up having to rake and move to compost pile. What the mower DID do was fling the papery capsules far into other beds.

KPtrashFlashy? Yes.
Trashy? Yes.
Invasive? Not sure yet. Will report back if seedlings appear!

Comments welcome – tell us about your favorite “trashy treasure”!

Another good reason to mulch

Posted by Bert Cregg

Researchers often get accused of concluding the obvious.  At some point we’ve all scoffed at headlines like, “Study finds cell phones and driving don’t mix” or “Researchers discover high heels make your feet hurt.”* But even when a study demonstrates something we already know, sometimes there is still value in being able to put hard numbers on the scope of the problem – and hopefully spur some action.

A case in point is a recent study by Justin Morgenroth, Bernardo Santos, and Brad Cadwallader at the New Zealand School of Forestry, “Conflicts between landscape trees and lawn maintenance equipment – The first look at an urban epidemic” Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 14:1054-1058.  Morgenroth and his colleagues surveyed over 1,000 trees in public greenspaces (parks, cemeteries, campuses) in and around Christchurch, New Zealand (pop. 375,000) to assess the amount of damage to trees by lawn equipment.  Their conclusion: Lawn equipment is hell on trees.  This conclusion, of course, surprises absolutely no one that has ever looked at trees near turf in a public place on this planet.

lawn mower blight 2


Morgenroth et al. claim their survey is the first systematic look at this issue and their data are staggering.  Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the trees they surveyed had at least one wound.  The proportion of trees with wounds was fairly constant regardless of type of planting (i.e., park, campus, cemetery, roadside verge), though trees in parks and campuses tended to have more wounds per tree than trees in nature reserves or roadside verges.

Not all the news was bad, however.  Morgenroth et al. found that grass cut-outs or mulching around trees significantly reduced the number of wounds per tree.

So, not a conclusion that should take anyone by surprise, but some sobering data to put some scale on the size of the problem.


*actual conclusions from real studies

Easy Overwintering

I love growing tender plants as annuals over the summer. But I don’t like buying them again every year, so I try to overwinter as many as I can indoors once frost threatens. However, I have pretty limited windowsill space, so I can’t keep many plants in active growth all winter. Luckily, I’ve found a simple hack that works for a surprising number of plants.begoniaoverwintering

The above begonia is on a high dark shelf. It will sit there all winter, getting essentially no light, and I won’t water it. All those leaves will drop off, leaving nothing but dead looking stems. But come spring, when I put it back outside and water it again, new leaves will start growing and it will come right back.

Quite a lot of tender plants can do this. Just keep them dry, preferably on the cool side (unheated basements are perfect), and they’ll go dormant, usually dropping their leaves, and wait patiently for spring. I personally have done this with both cane begonias (as pictured) and the rhizomatous rex begonias, pelargoniums (the annual “geraniums”), and lots of succulent plants like agaves and cacti. I’ve seen first-hand other people using the same method with great success with brugmansia, bananas, and tender shrubby hibiscus. It seems like it is works most often with plants with thick, woody or succulent stems, but I keep trying it with new things and being surprised when they come through just fine. So if you’ve got some cool tender plant you’d love to over winter, but no window space left, shove it in the basement and see what happens. If it comes back fine in the spring, please comment on this post so the rest of us can learn from your experience!

— Joseph Tychonievich