Last puzzle of 2010

I had a few weeks’ hiatus while scrambling around for the holidays – but have one last teaser for you before the close of 2010.  This photo is reminiscent of what Christmas trees will start looking like in the next few weeks. Can you figure out what it is? 

Ignore the parallel horizontal lines – they will be explained on Monday.  And yes, the photo quality’s not great, but the reason for that will be clear on Monday as well.

Have a very happy new year, and be sure to keep reading us in 2011!

One To Go!

Just one more little holiday to go over holiday week (A week during which faculty at UMN were put on furlough — in other words unpaid vacation), but for many of you I’m sure it’s a big one: New Years.  I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions.  It’s always just seemed kind of artificial to me.  Still, some people find real motivation with the passing of a new year.  What about you?  Any great New Year’s resolutions out there related to gardening?

Annual reporting – and you can help!

As many of you know, we Garden Professors justify our existence as faculty members every year through annual reporting.  Blogging is one of the newer educational opportunities that most university systems haven’t quite figured out how to measure and evaluate.

So we’re taking matters into our own hands. I’ve created a short survey to assess our effectiveness in outreach education in the blogosphere. 

The more feedback we get, the easier it is for us to make the case for continuing this effort.  (And feel free to suggest other questions or metrics we should include.  This is a first attempt on my part to create this feedback tool.)

Thank you all for a great year!

Happy Holidays!

Relaxing at the in-laws in Ohio for the long Christmas weekend.  Hope all of our blog readers are having a enjoyable holidays.  In other words, I hope you didn’t have to fly anywhere over this Christmas weekend!

I’ve been catching up on some reading including recent articles on invasive alien plants that should be of interest to our readers.  I’ll share some thoughts when I get back on schedule next week.  In the meantime there’s still another football game to watch this evening and another plate of my mother-in-law’s cookies that need some attention.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences.  When doing one thing causes something you didn’t expect. Many unintended consequence stories in biology start with introduced species. I’m going to skip those here.   I’ve been thinking about unintended consequences recently while trying to figure out what to do about my hops. You see, hops have a nasty habit of getting powdery mildew. That’s one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of hops growing outside the relatively arid Yakima Valley (75% of US production). We started research on hops this year in relatively un-arid Minnesota, and I don’t want our plants to succumb to the dreaded disease. Because we’re growing varieties that don’t have a lot of resistance, and we can eventually expect to get the disease in this environment, I want to develop a way to manage it effectively so we can still do research.  But how do we avoid powdery mildew?  A lot of growers use weekly applications of sulfur.  It’s a nice fungicide for this purpose, and it’s pretty cheap compared to synthetic fungicides.  Great, sign me up for that!  Oh by the way, using sulfur early in the season may cause more spider mite problems later in the season compared to using other, more expensive fungicides.1  Oops, unintended consequence.

One of the most famous examples of unintended consequences that I can think of (OK, other than DDT and birds, or introduced species) is from hybrid field corn 40 years ago.  Detassling corn for hybrid seed production is a hassle, so a modified corn was developed that didn’t produce pollen.  Cytoplasmic male sterility, this technology was called.  Perfect!  No need to hire droves of unskilled labor to walk every acre of seed corn production fields.  Except it turns out that a side-effect of that particular modification made corn especially susceptible to southern corn leaf blight, which damaged a large amount of the corn crop in the early 1970’s.  Unintended consequence. 


Imagine the florist’s carnation.  It’s that flower in shades of white to red that you see on boutonnieres and corsages during homecoming and prom, or alternatively, that flower dyed green for St. Patty’s or blue to match Grandma’s hair.  Before breeding for increased longevity / vase life, carnations had a noticeable smell.  When breeders ignored fragrance, or possibly even unknowingly selected against fragrance (fragrance may decrease flower longevity), they made carnations that are just kinda pretty looking, and that’s about it.  Unintended consequence.  Now researchers are trying to figure out how to get fragrance back into flowers (and even into flowers that never had much in the first place).2


Here I will steal from a somewhat confusing speech of recent past, and turn it into somewhat confusing text to fit my story.  Unintended consequences are usually a result of ‘unknown unknowns’.  We don’t know even know what questions to ask (“Yes, I’m using sulfur to kill powdery mildew.  So what?”).  Turning an ‘unknown unknown’ into a ‘known unknown’, or something that we know we don’t know but can hopefully find out, takes an open mind, a keen eye, and creativity.  Like “hey wait a minute, now that I’m using sulfur on my hops, I seem to have more problems with spider mites.  I wonder if there’s a connection…”  That’s still unknown, but at least it’s a ‘known unknown’.  Turning a ‘known unknown’ into a ‘known’ takes science, and making it widely ‘known’ takes people who keep up to date on science and are good at writing or speaking.  Hooray for research and extension!
1 Gent et al. 2009. Effects of powdery mildew fungicide programs on twospotted spider mite, hop aphid, and their natural enemies in hop yards.  J. Econ. Entomol. 102(1):274–286.
2Vainstein et al., 2001.  Floral fragrance: new inroads into an old commodity.  Plant Physiol. 127(4):1383.


Organic Honey?

As there seems to be a good deal of interest in the topic of honeybees, and I’m a beekeeper, albeit relatively novice, I thought I might continue a bit of discussion.

I’ve been beekeeping for three years, and I sold my first honey harvest this fall.  Six gallons, divided into pint and half pint-sized jars.  As a newbie, extracting the honey from the frames and getting it into the jars was, by far, the messiest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s like wrestling with a living thing…the garage and kitchen still have sticky spots.  It also took forever – honey moves through a three- pail, three-filter system (eventually removing particles down to 200 microns) like…cold molasses.  Once it was properly subdued and contained, I looked into what was required for labeling.  Very interesting. And very, very, vague.

Honeybees have been described as “flying dust mops” – there is no way, unless the beekeeper owns all the land in a several-mile radius, that one knows what they’re getting into.   Our girls’ primary duty is pollination of our four+ acres of blueberries, so their primary pollen and nectar source in late spring is our four acres of blueberries. After that, they hit the sourwood, wingstem, mountain mint, and the smorgasbord of of perennials and annuals in the garden borders. We don’t use any pesticides on our farm (the cabbage looper and stink bug invasion this year is really testing me on that one). But that doesn’t mean the gentleman next door isn’t using Sevin on his squash or pyrethrins on his potatoes. And our bees are just as likely to be over at his house as ours (despite my stern lecture to them).

Noticing the honey labeled “USDA Certified Organic” sold for a premium at both my local grocer and favorite “natural foods” store, I spent some time digging as to certification standards, and whether it would be worth it to get certified. 

I came up fairly empty-handed.  There does not seem to be any USDA National Organic Program certification standards for honey.  Apparently there are some trade-law guidelines that allow honey to be imported from Canada and Central/South America labeled as USDA organic.  Very confusing, and very weird.  But apparently some U.S. honey producers, both large and small, have gone ahead and slapped USDA Organic labels on anyway.  Along with other meaningless statements like “Superior grade” or “All natural”.  Some states such as Pennsylvania are pushing for NOP standards, noting their beekeepers are at a disadvantage, marketing-wise, if they cannot certify their honey but Canadian or Argentine producers can.  On another front, beeswax, especially older wax in frames that are in brood hives for several years, can accumulate pesticides brought in from foraging bees like nobody’s business. So I’d also look askance at claims of products containing “organic beeswax.”