Friday’s freaky flower

Having now depressed my Michigan colleague with my earlier post, here’s a little lighthearted fun for the long weekend:

This photo is from Brandi at Fine Gardening.  Can you figure out (1) what it is and (2) why it looks like this?

Monday’s photo will reveal more, and we’ll discuss the second question in more detail.

Have a great holiday – enjoy yourselves!

Further decline of “public” education

“The Texas A&M University System is moving ahead with a controversial method of evaluating how much professors are worth, based on their salaries, how much research money they bring in, and how much money they generate from teaching, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports. Under the proposal, officials will add the money generated by each professor and subtract that amount from his or her salary to get a bottom-line value for each, according to the article.”

This bodes ill for faculty like myself who have Extension appointments.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with how Extension works, Extension specialists educate citizens outside university classrooms.  But with declining state support for universities, their administrators in turn focus on income generation from grants and tuition.  Extension specialists do get grants, but for those of us in areas outside food and fiber research (which is what the USDA funds), there’s not much money available.

Bottom line?  According to this model I’m not just worth nothing – I’m worth less than nothing.  I’m not worried about my job (I have tenure after all), but for the direction that outreach education is heading.  What will happen is that Extension specialists will be pushed back into classroom teaching, leaving no time for educating the rest of the state citizens.  Outreach education will become little more than an afterthought.

The ironic thing about this trend is that Extension is one of the biggest bargains states get from their land grant universities.  Extension education includes Master Gardeners as well as other programs tailored to local state and county needs.

It’s sad that Texas A&M puts so little value on outreach education.  What’s even sadder is that this economic approach will undoubtedly be adopted by other state universities.

My Long Suffering Basil

Sometimes I am not such a good garden professor.  That’s because, when I get home, I sometimes (OK — often) don’t give my plants the attention they need.  It’s also because, when we leave for vacation, I often forget to tell whoever is watching the animals to keep their eyes on the plants too.  Now, really, you would think that someone who saw a plant on the back porch in full wilt would think “Hey, Maybe I should water that!”  But still, I blame myself for not spelling it out.

What this all leads to, of course, is that we had a group of really nice basil plants in a container on the back porch which weren’t watered for a week while we were on vacation.  There was little rain over this week, and subsequently the basil was in full wilt for at least 2 days (perhaps as long as three).  We watered these plants soon after we arrived home (my wife loves caprese salad) and the plants perked up a bit, but the leaves were obviously damaged and now our salads will be a little less flat.

It’s not just basil that is affected by an incidence of drought.  Most plants, including trees, will actually suffer for a considerable period of time after the event.  Sometimes growth won’t return to normal for as much as a year or two.  This is a really bad situation if you’re buying trees grown in containers.  If the grower, or retailer, didn’t know what they were doing and let the tree wilt severely prior to selling it to you then buyer beware!

Rubber mulch – the discussion continues

Almost a year ago I posted my complaints about rubber mulch (you can find the posting here).  This week I was contacted by Jesse, a purveyor of rubber mulches.  We’ve had a very civil discussion about the topic, and he asked me to review his fact sheet (which you can see here).

Which leads me to today’s assignment. I have no personal experience with rubber mulch, so I’d like to hear from you about your experiences with this product.  Specifically:

1) Have you seen fungi growing on rubber mulch?

2) Have you had issues with the heat captured by the product – either to your feet or to your plants?

3) Does the mulch continue to smell, especially when hot?

4) How quickly do you notice degradation of the product?

Obviously this is anecdotal, not scientific, evidence.  But the scientific literature regarding rubber mulch is thin, and anecdotal evidence can often indicate directions that science should explore.  Perhaps this can be the beginning of such a study.

Why I like science (our visiting professor returns)

I like science.  I see it as a way to figure things out.  It creates a combination of a) things we’re pretty sure of (facts about the shape of DNA, the optimum pH for certain plant species, and theories consistent with such facts, for example) and importantly, b) questions we can ask next.  When research is designed to answer those new questions, the results will either support the things we’re pretty sure of and lead to an expanded understanding and new questions, or they won’t support what we thought we knew and the results will lead to a different understanding and new questions. 

Scientists do research, but it’s only useful if others find out about it.  Imagine what more Darwin might have come up with had he known about Mendel’s work on inheritance of traits.  And when a researcher shares his or her research results at a meeting or in a publication (like many colleagues got to do in Portugal last week, lucky dogs), they are opening their research up to critique from others.  Thoughtful critique is exciting.  It may feel like an attack on the researcher, but it is usually an attack on the borders of what is known. 

Stay with me, this relates to professors AND gardens.

One of my favorite papers full of criticism is about ‘Talking Trees’.  This idea emerged in the early 1980’s (and given a catchy name) when research was suggesting that trees with damaged (manually torn) leaves could cause chemical responses in nearby plants.  It was concluded that maybe, just maybe, one tree was acting as a beacon, sending out signals when damaged by a herbivore.  Then a tree fortunate enough to receive the signal could begin to mount a defense against herbivores before being damaged itself.  A paper published in 1983 (Baldwin and Schultz, Science, 221:277–279) showed evidence for this kind of communication.  But then an article published in 1985 [Fowler and Lawton, American Naturalist, 126(2):181–195] called into doubt the conclusions of the 1983 paper.  As the authors of the 1985 paper lay out, the statistical design and analysis of the 1983 paper was flawed.  We shouldn’t trust the conclusions without more research.  And one thing I really like about the new research detailed in the 1985 Fowler and Lawton paper, they clearly lay out potential shortcomings of their own work, and even consulted about these pitfalls with an author of the 1983 paper (which they thoroughly criticized!).  This is where the “what questions to ask next” are generated, and the authors did some of the heaviest lifting for us there.  Such discussion and disclosure helps to expand knowledge in the field, but I like it in this particular instance because it also gives a sort of narrative about thoughtful criticism in science.

So this does relate to gardening, because there is a lot more going on out there than just ‘growing’.  There has been a lot of research since 1983 on inter-plant signals, and it does seem to happen in the lab, but also at close distances in nature with some plants (the sagebrush-tobacco relationship is best-studied).  The research has also shown this signaling can reduce herbivore damage on undamaged plants.  For brief reviews, see Dicke et al. [Trends in Plant Science, 2003, 8(9):403-405] or Baldwin et al. (Science, 2006, 311:812–815).  And as an added bonus, the chemicals released by herbivore-damaged plants can attract carnivores that EAT herbivores (predatory mites and parasitoid wasps, for instance).  Some of the chemicals that may be involved in these responses?  Methyl jasmonate (smells like jasmine) and methyl salicylate (wintergreen oil).  Your garden is doing a whole lot more than you realize just under your nose, and I haven’t even MENTIONED all the plant and invertebrate sex, or the kinky inter-kingdom pseudocopulation that might be going on out there.  Plants and science are awesome.