My Thoughts on 2,4 D


My sister, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, just gave me a call.  She and her husband have two kids and a lawn and she wanted to know my feelings about using herbicides to keep the grass free of weeds.  When we were growing up our parents had a large lawn (and lots of fruit trees) and it took two of us two hours to mow the whole thing.  It kind of turned her off to grass.  The truth of the matter is that she doesn’t even want the lawn she currently has, but her husband wants it – and he wants it weed free.  So she called me giving me the “you’re supposed to know about this stuff” line and asked me what she should do.  My response was that the herbicide her husband would be applying (trimec) wasn’t on my list of super bad things to apply, but that, in my opinion too many people want their lawn too free of weeds.   I don’t see anything wrong with applying an herbicide once a year – it won’t keep a lawn pristine, but it will knock out most of what most people want knocked out.  Why do people insist on having spotless yards – applying herbicides from three to six times per lawn per year?  It’s insane.  Not so much for the safety of humans, but for the good of the lawn ecosystem.  It’s good to have a mix of different plants – it’s healthy.  Using an herbicide really cuts down on you biodiversity, and can affect the safety of dogs too.  You see, 2,4 D, probably the most used pesticide on lawns in the US (and a component of trimec), isn’t rapidly excreted by dogs.  If we are exposed to 2,4 D we just pee it out – our kidneys process it rapidly and out it goes.  In a dog’s system this chemical sits and sits.  It is for this reason that 2,4 D is considered particularly bad for dogs and is suspected of potentially causing cancer.

One more note about dogs.  The reason that lawns get dog spots is because of the amount of nitrogen in the dogs urine – it kills plants – it IS NOT because of the pH of the urine.

Weird and Wonderful Plant Wednesday: Threefer!


This is a tale of three plants in my garden that would make the cruelest of multiple choice answers. Heh. Hence the inclusion of all three in this post:

a. Manihot esculenta

b. Abelmoschus manihot


c. Abelmoschus esculentus

d. All of the above

e. Aaaargh.

Manihot esculenta is Cassava or Tapioca; worthy of an entire post on its own. But the choice ornamental version is M. esculenta ‘Variegata’ or variegated tapioca.  I first saw it (gawked and squealed, actually) at Allan Armitage’s fab trial garden at the University of Georgia. Full sun, hot as blue blazes – not the usual environment variegated plants thrive in.  But this South American native loves it. It’s worked its way north in the trade; now nearly every plant nerd garden has it.  Perfect in beds or containers, it makes a lovely, well-behaved clump in temperate zones – a big shrub in warmer areas.  Interestingly, Manihot is in the Euphorbiaceae family; the other two are Malvaceae (hibiscus family).  Hardy only to Zone 9, unfortunately.

Manihot at the UGA garden in 2004. Love those red stems!

In our home garden. A bit of a shady spot, hence the less-vivid coloration.


Abelmoschus manihot is variously known as sweet hibiscus, sunset hibiscus, etc. and remains rather obscure. It’s easy to grow from seed, plus reseeds gently where happy (like the gravel paths in our kitchen garden).  Not much to look at until late summer, then the big lemon-yellow flowers unfurl – usually one or two at a time on each plant. The seed pods march up the stem, resembling a smaller version of okra.  Gets tall – up to 6’ or so – but the sturdy stems don’t need staking. Collect seeds from the dried pods to start next year.

The foliage is edible – I’ve gnawed a leaf or two but was underwhelmed. Maybe in soup.


The flower of Abelmoschus manihot is very similar to but a bit larger than those of okra…

Marvelous pods in the fall at Chanticleer.


Finally, the most common –  Abelmoschus esculentus – Okra.  Hitting its stride right now in the home garden.  Extremely ornamental, especially the red-stemmed varieties.

Okra ‘Hill Country Red’ at the Atlanta Botanical Garden this summer. Gorgeous!

The important bits.

Okra is a very unique veg.  You may be cringing from some past okra mishap, but I urge you to try it 1) fresh and  2) prepared correctly. Yes, it’s a bit mucilaginous, but what makes it gooey also serves a wonderful thickener for gumbo, stews, and the like. Pickled okra makes an exceptional cocktail garnish for vodka martinis (add a splash of hot sauce for a  Cajuntini).  I love okra dearly but never buy it in the store – as it sits around, the pods become woody and tough.  Try it fresh from the farmer’s market or even better, the back yard.  Not trying add to the food-blog-saturation point, but please allow me to wander off-topic and share my favorite fried okra recipe. The deep-fried, breading-buried stuff normally sold as
fried okra is far, far inferior.

Holly’s Fried Okra
(Materials and Methods)


Pick a mess* of okra. Slice up your pods (no more than ¼” to 1/3″ sections.  If it’s difficult to slice, discard that pod – too old/tough) and toss into a bowl with a sploosh of buttermilk, just enough to moisten it. Add salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne. Stir gently.  Get a big fry pan or wok (okra needs its space) and heat some veg or olive oil. Not a lot, just a few tablespoons. Don’t let oil get smokin’ hot, don’t want to burn it. Now throw a big handful of cornmeal into the bowl with the okra and stir gently again. Some will stick, some won’t. You should be able to see the okra, not just blobs of coating. Move okra to hot pan with a slotted spoon, giving it a shake over the bowl so you don’t get a lot of extra cornmeal in the pan. Just enough for one layer – don’t crowd the pan or it will be soggy. Toss gently over medium heat for about 5 to 8 minutes until some corners are very dark brown and crispy and everything else is either green or golden.  Remove to paper towel-covered plate; add a dusting of kosher salt, then start the next batch (replication).  Eat the first batch while standing there making the second batch. Helpers will magically appear. The first batch NEVER makes it to the table in our house.

Crispy, non-greasy, okra goodness!

*mess = “as much as you need for your meal”, be it for two or ten. This recipe uses about three cups of slices – though can’t say I’ve ever measured. Enough to feed two or three (two if they really like it). Adjust other ingredients accordingly.


Pop quiz answer

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s quiz on foliar fertilization.  I asked our blog readers to match the needle nitrogen content of Nordmann fir trees with the fertilizer treatments they had received.

Nutrient deficient Nordmann fir

The correct order is:

1)      control: no fertilizer 0.98%
2)      soil applied controlled release fertilizer 1.70%
3)      foliar nitrogen fertilizer 1.14%
4)      soil applied fertilizer + foliar feed 1.91%

While the foliar fert had a small effect, it’s important to note that, from a statistical standpoint, foliar fertilization did not significantly increase needle nitrogen concentration.  Moreover, foliar feeding alone was not sufficient to overcome the nitrogen deficiency of the control trees.  The main effect was from fertilizing the soil (actually container substrate is this case).

The take home message is that plants have evolved (or God designed them, if you prefer) to take up nutrients from the soil through their ROOTS.  They’ve been doing it for millions years and have been getting along quite nicely, thank you.  No matter how slick and clever the marketing, attempts to ‘short-circuit’ the process such as foliar feeding or trunk injection are short-term solutions at best or, as in this case, almost totally ineffective.  Foliar feeding and trunk injection treat symptoms, not causes.  Plant nutrient deficiencies occur because: 1) an element is lacking in the soil or 2) because the plant can’t absorb enough of the element (e.g., iron chlorosis).  Effectively dealing with a plant nutrient problem requires understanding which of those two situations is occurring and why.    

Podcast #8 – Water Works

We’ve finally gotten our summer here in the Pacific NW and it’s been pretty hot for a few weeks. The plants weren’t really prepared for this, so we’ve had to irrigate quite a bit to keep all that lush foliage happy. So the topic of this podcast is Water Works – focusing on how water moves in the soil and through plants.

One of the more interesting tidbits I found this week is a recent USDA study on growing more potatoes with less water. Sound impossible? Listen to find out the one single, simple thing that increased water use efficiency by 12% and reduced fertilizer runoff as well.

I also debunk the common myth about using drainage material in container plants. Research from 100 years ago demonstrated that water won’t cross textural barriers – so putting gravel in the bottom of the pot will actually create a bathtub effect rather than helping drainage.

The interview this week is with my garden – primarily the sunny south-facing side. I thought I’d take you on a tour to see what’s happened in the last 11 years. The photos below will help you visualize the interview.

The front yard in 2003. We’ve started taking out the turf and moving around trees and shrubs.

The front yard in 2003 from another angle. We’ve removed the second driveway and covered the area in wood chips. By the garage you can see two of the roses I dug up from the shady back yard and moved to the sunny front.

The new front yard, with fencing, more plants, a pond, and no turf.

The rhody-hydrangea corner in front of the arbor vitae hedge

The new street garden, with a new retaining wall to hold back the soil that used to wash into the street.  Everything not covered in plants is covered with wood chips.

This is the last podcast of the first “season” of The Informed Gardener. We’re going to take off for about a month before starting the next series. If you’ve got ideas about future topics, you can email me or post a comment here. In the meantime, you can listen to archived podcasts found on this blog; just click on “podcasts” on the right-hand menu.

Pop quiz time!

It’s the start of new semester.  Best way to get student’s attention is with a pop quiz right off the bat!  So in that vein, we’ll cross things up and give a quiz on Monday instead Friday.  Relax; to make things a little easier we’ll make this one a matching exercise.


Here goes.  At our recent Christmas tree conference in Austria, a colleague of mine at Oregon State University, Chal Landgren, presented the results of a study to look at the effectiveness of foliar fertilization on Nordmann fir.  Trees were grown in 15 gallon containers and assigned to one of four groups:

1)      control: no fertilizer

2)      soil applied controlled release fertilizer

3)      foliar nitrogen fertilizer

4)      soil applied fertilizer + foliar feed


Since Chal has yet to publish this I need to be a little careful with details but all fertilizers were commercially available products labeled and marketed for this purpose and were applied at manufacturers’ suggested rates and intervals.


At the end of the growing season, the trees were sampled for needle nitrogen content.  As a point of reference a needle nitrogen content of 1.5 – 1.6 % is usually deemed adequate for this species.


For your quiz: match the treatments listed above to the nitrogen concentrations below:

a)      1.14%

b)      1.91%

c)      0.98%

d)     1.70%


Answer and discussion tomorrow…



This past summer I had the chance to talk with an old friend of mine, Hamado Tapsoba, who I hadn’t seen in 15 years.  We had gone to graduate school together, but after graduation he headed back to Burkina Faso, and I headed up to Minnesota.  Anyway, while we were talking I told him that we were growing peanuts at the University (yes, I tell everybody — peanut news needs to be shared!).  When I told him some of the problems that we had with shorter seasons he asked why we weren’t growing Bambara groundnuts.  The answer was that I didn’t know what the heck Bambara groundnuts were.  Well, it turns out that these nuts are native to Western Africa and grow under the surface of the soil just like peanuts.  The reason Hamado recommended them to me was that they can have a growing cycle shorter than peanuts.  They can also be cooked like peanuts and have a flavor somewhat similar to chickpeas (or so I’m told).  I’ve had an incredible amount of difficulty finding Bambara in the US though I know that at one time they were grown here.  We have found a researcher in Burkina Faso who is willing to work with us, but that will probably take some time to get going.  Does anyone out there know about Bambara?  Especially where to buy plants or seed?)  It sounds like an exciting plant to work with.