A Garden Professor is most severely vexed

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff’s recent post on “What happens to the horticulturist.” It’s true – universities rely more and more on faculty-generated grants for funding, so new hires tend to be in “hot” areas of research.  Fewer horticultural generalists are hired in teaching/research positions, and the same is true for Extension – the educational outreach arm of land-grant universities.

Many of you might not even know what Extension really is.  In my opinion, that’s because Extension as a whole has done a pretty poor job of evolving with the times.  When small farms were the mainstay of life for many people, farmers relied on practical, science-based information provided by university Extension services.  We’ve become an increasingly urbanized society, but Extension just hasn’t kept up.  The bulk of the research and information coming from plant and soil science departments is still geared towards production agriculture.  It’s of little immediate use for the majority of us living in urban areas.

So we have an imbalance:  there are increasing numbers of people living in urban areas who want good information on home gardens and landscaping, and decreasing university resources to fill those gaps.  Nature hates a vacuum, and this information gap is quickly filled with all kinds of stuff: some good, some bad, some dangerous, some illegal.  The very worst offenders, in my opinion, are the fear mongererss with most definite agendas but no solid evidence to support their claims.  For instance: I’m always skeptical when I hear about an article in an “obscure journal” being the only source of new information. If there was something new out there on an important topic, the researchers would not be publishing in an “obscure” journal. It would be in a highly visible and highly regarded scientific journal.  In any case, the information would be easy to find and discuss, not hidden away in a secret location.

I don’t have a good way to end this post, because I don’t have an easy answer to the problems that both Jeff and I see in horticulture departments and in Extension.  Do you?

Spin Cycle

The issue of potential damage to conifers by the turf herbicide Imprelis continues to get a lot of air play in this neck of the woods.  One of the interesting things about watching an emerging story such as this is watching some of the sideshows that go on around it and how people spin the issue to match their needs and agenda.


Example 1:

Heritage Lawn Care Company put out flyers in neighborhoods in southeast Michigan with affected trees to promote their service.  The flyer incldued the heading “ALERT:DYING PINE AND SPURCE [sic] TREES”  The flyer claimed that issues related to Imprelis damage to trees are “99.9% applicator and mixing errors”.  Surprisingly, there was no mention of where they got the data for this assertion.  But fortunately Heritage stands ready to save the day by using “only organic based fertilizers giving the same or better results”.   Again, no mention of how organic fertilizer controls tough weeds like ground ivy and wild violet.  Thankfully, “If you prepaid (your lawn care provider) for 2011, and want to switch companies, Hertitage is willing to extend you credit until your current company refunds your money.”  Call it a hunch, but I don’t think the folks at Heritage will be receiving an invitation to the local landscaper’s group picnic this year…


Example 2:

Mother Earth News trumpeted the news on Imprelis with the headline “Imprelis: Another Deadly Herbicide, This Time From DuPont” http://www.motherearthnews.com/grow-it/imprelis-killer-compost-zb0z11zrog.aspx  First of all, isn’t ‘Deadly Herbicide’ redundant?  Every ‘icide’ is designed to kill something so I think they’re supposed to be deadly, at least on their target.  While the unintended damage to spruces and pines is certainly unsettling, especially for a newly released product, this group of herbicides has low toxicity to mammals and in many regards is comparatively safe.  I don’t consider myself a nozzlehead but I’m sure most GP readers recognize I have little aversion to judicious use of chemicals around Daisy Hill farm.  So I was a little taken aback to find my “Fasten your seatbelt folks, this could be a bumpy ride” (GP Blog 6/27/11) quoted in Mother Earth news.  My reference was to applicators having to deal with customer complaints and potential litigation – but that’s the nature of putting things into the blogosphere…


Example 3:

On July 14 I received an e-mail advertisement from Growth Products, Inc. breathlessly announcing “An Essential Cure For Trees Damaged By Imprelis Or Sahara Herbicides.”  Pretty impressive stuff: We’ve only known about the issue for three weeks and these guys have already found the cure.  I had to read on.  The cure consists of an “Essential Cocktail” of three Growth Products liquids including Essential Plus (a rich concentration of organic ingredients including humic acid), Micrel Total (“Eight chelated minors to help the tree through stress”) and Companion (a biological fungicide).  Alas, once again eye of newt and wing of bat were apparently out of stock.  But, “The magic mix can be used as a soil drench and/or a soil injection.”  The e-mail also included a link to an article I wrote for our extension news that included a photo of some maple trees that had largely recovered from herbicide injury by Sahara in 2009.  I also documented the case here on the GP blog I wasn’t aware, but apparently a landscaper treated the trees with some of these concoctions.  No word in the e-mail from Growth Products on how the untreated control trees did.


Voodoo and the evil eye

Friday’s “evil frog eye” was actually part of a voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris), found growing in a drainage ditch in California (I’ve seen one in a drainage ditch in Seattle as well):

Obviously this introduced garden ornamental has escaped cultivation and is now “going rogue.”  Will it become a nuisance weed? Will it displace native species? Should it be banned from sale by nurseries?


A Nice Museum

I’ve been to Chicago before, but mostly on business.  It always seemed nice though, so, last week I went with my family and, for the first time, I had the chance to look at some of the sights.  Navy Pier – overrated.  Shedd aquarium – met expectations.  Chicago style pizza from Giordanos – so much better than I expected.  Chicago hotdogs – damn good, but not equal to Chicago pizza.  The Field Museum – TERRIBLY UNDERRATED.  I just loved the Field museum.  There were all kinds of fantastic displays on everything from whales to evolution.  There was also a great display on plants.  The information in the display was spot on, but this was definitely one of the simpler displays at the museum.  In fact, to be honest, it seemed a little bit like the display cases were made in the 1950s or 60s.  That said, there was a lot of room for the display to spread out across, after all, this is, supposedly, a major attraction for the museum.

The thing is, no one was there.  It was freaky.  My wife was taking the kids to another display hall (one more suited to younger kids where they could actually play with stuff), and so I went to the plant display by myself.  My feet echoed across the halls as I walked down the corridor.  When I turned around to look at the direction from whence I came it felt like a movie where I was walking in a hallway from the fifties and everyone outside was hustling and bustling in the 21st century.  When I turned a corner in the hall there was a guy apparently passed out over his laptop.  This was the only living person that I saw while visiting the display — and he obviously had no interest in plants – at least not when I saw him (Truth is, for all I know he was dead.  The next day I felt guilty for not checking his pulse to make sure he was really alive).  And, based on this photo from someone on flickr, I’m not the only one who has seen this exhibit empty.

Is this the interest that people have in plants today?  How sad.  No wonder we’re losing horticulture departments.   But on a livelier note, I’ve been such a downer the last few posts that I promise I’ll provide something a little happier next week!

In defense of weeds?

Blog reader Shawn sent this link to me yesterday. It’s a pretty short take on a complex topic, but even so I was troubled by the perception that all nuisance weed species are our own fault.

Sure, it’s true that humans have moved plants or plant parts around with them for centuries. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, and sometimes it’s been accidental. But other animals also move plants around, especially seeds. When we draw this kind of distinction between what we do and what other animals do, philosophically we are removing ourselves from the natural world. True, we have technology and all kinds of other human inventions, but as a species we are still part of the biosphere.

Ivy’s little dispersal units – spread by birds

Philosophical issues aside, there’s another part of this blithe acceptance of weedy species that concerns me. Though plants take advantage of animals as a means of dispersal, the rate at which nonnative, weedy species are spreading and colonizing new environments is unprecedented (this is where technology comes in). Ecosystems can adapt to new species and other environmental challenges – but when the rate is accelerated, the adaptive process is impaired. Thus, some native species go extinct when the rate of change is too great.

Ivy left to its own devices in a natural area

These are basic ecological concepts – and we ignore them at our own peril.

New Pot Crops

Just back from the national OFA  Floriculture short course and trade show in Columbus, Ohio.  There was quite a buzz (!) over the July cover story of the industry mag GrowerTalks:

Maybe, if there’s a variegated form…

GrowerTalks is NOT High Times.  Commercial floriculture is a very, very conservative industry. Many family businesses. New petunia cultivars and seed-sowing technologies are the usual fodder for feature stories. But as a publication reaching out to people who grow plants under glass (or plastic) for a living, GrowerTalks has brought up a good point.  As article author Jennifer Zurko points out, there are now 16 states where medical marijuana is legal, and many more have it under consideration. The average margin on wholesale bedding plant production is around 1.3.  My guess is marijuana might do a little better than that. “Legal” sales in California are projected at $1.3 billion for this year. The entire U.S. Floriculture industry (wholesale value) is worth $4.3 billion currently.

Floriculturists are the preeminent controlled-environment specialists.  Example: a grower takes an Easter Lily through 24 weeks of vernalization and bench production from bulb to buds, maintain a 2.6:1 plant:pot height ratio, and hits what is essentially a 5-day market window that changes yearly. Marijuana would be a comparative walk in the park.

Jennifer does a great job describing the caveats and issues, both technical and moral. Not least of which is that marijuana is, of course, illegal in the eyes of the federal government.  But someone’s going to grow it. Heck, Scott’s Miracle Grow is already working on water-soluble fertilizer specific to the crop.