A Thanksgiving Podcast

Round two of Season 2 is up and running!  In keeping with the season, this episode is called “Real Turkeys.”  I talk about some of my least favorite garden products and why they’re on my “turkey” list.

We’ve also brought back Riz Reyes, who’s wearing his horticultural consultant hat in advising my podcasting engineer Shelli at Sky Nursery.  Riz has some great ideas for container gardens that look great during the winter and keep performing the rest of the year, too.

If you haven’t seen it before, be sure to check out Riz’s web page.  There’s a link to some great container gardens that he’s put together.

Please let me know if you’ve got comments or suggestions for future topics and/or interviews.  I can even do Skype interviews, so living in Seattle is not a requirement!

Jeff Ball

Back in 2006, when I first started garden writing, I was invited to give a talk in Michigan.  It was really exciting to get this kind of invitation so early in my writing career and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to an audience that wasn’t composed primarily of students or academics. 

Looking back at those talks…well…they weren’t particularly good.  Sure, there was good information, but I wasn’t particularly comfortable giving talks at that stage and so I’m not sure I got my information across nearly as well as I should have. 

After my talks there really wasn’t much to do besides listening to other speakers, and so that’s what I did.  That’s where I got to listen to Jeff Ball, a garden writer and self-proclaimed yardener.  I was amazed at how this guy filled the room with people who wanted to hear him speak and further amazed at how well he spoke.   Being in academia I’m always surprised when someone speaks without visual aids – I had always idolized Michael Dirr, my former advisor and one of the greatest speakers I know, who always played off of his magnificent slides of plants.  I really had never seen anyone give a talk without slides, or overheads, or powerpoint, or a chalkboard, before.  But Jeff Ball did a talk right off the top of his head with nothing else, and he was magnificent.  I remember not agreeing with everything he said (can’t remember what specifically), but more importantly, I remember how the tone of his voice and his wonderful sense of timing and rhythm kept the audience interested and engaged.   After that day there were two speakers who I idolized, Mike Dirr and Jeff Ball. 

Jeff Ball passed away this past week.  It’s always sad when someone who you know and admire passes, but their passing also provides a time for you to think back on the good things which they did.  I didn’t know Jeff well at all.  Indeed, I never saw him speak again after that day.  But his talk was inspirational and led me to really think about how I give a presentation, and for that I can’t thank Jeff enough.

So we’ll just guess from now on…

First, the news:


NASS Reduces Agricultural Estimation Programs

Issued October 17, 2011 by the Agricultural Statistics Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). For more information, contact Sue duPont, 202-690-8122.

In light of funding reductions in fiscal year (FY) 2011 and the likelihood of additional reductions in FY 2012, NASS conducted deliberate reviews of all programs against mission- and user-based criteria, aimed at finding cost savings and forward-thinking business efficiencies so that key timely, accurate and useful data remains available in service to agriculture. As a result, the agency is discontinuing or reducing a wide range of agricultural survey programs. The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now. These programs are:

             Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate

             Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all

             Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate

             January Sheep and Goat Report – Eliminate

             Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage

             July Cattle Report – Eliminate

             Distiller Co-Products for Feed Survey – Cancel

             Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate

             Annual Hops Production Report – Eliminate

             Monthly Potato Stocks Report – Reduce from monthly to quarterly

             Annual Mink Report – Eliminate

             Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report

             Nursery Report – Eliminate

             Rice Stocks June and September reports – Eliminate but continue January, March and August reports

Recognizing the importance of NASS’s data products and services to U.S. agriculture, NASS will make available similar data either less frequently or within the every 5-year Census of Agriculture. The next census will be conducted beginning January 2013 to reflect activities in the 2012 calendar year. A Federal Register notice announcing the program changes will be forthcoming.


And now the why-I-care part:

 In the land of specialty agriculture (including production horticulture), there has not been a single applied research or extension grant proposal written that does not utilize the above reports.  The first thing ANY granting agency (or anyone else one might lobby for funding or policy change) wants to know is the economic value of the commodity. But even beyond that, the value of these reports is immeasurable (though I can’t speak to the mink report). How many farms and acres are impacted by suburban sprawl? How does the U.S. stack up against the world in producing hops/trout/poinsettias?  In-season forecasts for fruit and vegetables are kind of useless if they only come at the end of the year.  Trends in bee numbers and honey production are critical in this era of colony collapse. The price of beer is tied to hops production (and inversely, prices). If we need to make a point about the number of workers employed by the nursery and greenhouse industry, where do we turn?  The report I utilize most in teaching, research, and outreach is the Floriculture report.  The 2010 report is 72 pages long and presents data on cut flowers, potted flowering plants, foliage plants, potted herbaceous perennials, annual bedding/garden plants, cut cultivated greens, propagative material and special Hawaiian crops; also quantity sold, percent of sales at wholesale, wholesale price and value of sales at wholesale for 15 program states (cut back once already from 36) and growers having $100,000 or more in sales; and finally the number of growers, growing area and operations with hired workers for growers with $10,000 or more in sales.

Yes, I know budgets are being slashed in one department after another, the USDA included.  But the tiny NASS office (one field officer in each state with a handful of folks in D.C.) may be one of the most important – it’s hard to make a case if you can’t state the economic impact.



Our visiting professor weighs in on potatoes

According to the FAO (and their “year of the potato” campaign from 2008), 2008 was the year of the potato.  Did you all notice?  I may not have, except for the year-long display in the horticulture building at the University of Minnesota.  What I recently became curious about was how much garden space it would take for a person to grow enough potatoes to satisfy their annual average consumption.  But if you make it past that math in this blog entry, you’ll read about recent congressional action on the tasty tuber.  The government is not telling us how many rows of potatoes to plant in our backyard, but they’re discussing how many potatoes our kids can eat.

"La Ratte" fingerling potatoes

But first, how much space do you need for your annual potato need? OK, I’ll skip the math, but we need to assume what yield we can expect.  If we can get (on the low end) 100 pounds of potatoes per 100-foot row, we’d need a 35-foot row to get 35 pounds of potatoes.  And 35 pounds of potatoes is what the average American eats per year (not including pre-processed chips and fries and instant flakes, etc).  If we can get 150 pounds per 100-foot row, we’d only need a 24-foot row for 35 pounds of potatoes.  Imagine that this way: take 8 to 12 big-sized steps in a sunny spot in your yard.  Now imagine that area meeting or exceeding an average American’s (fresh) potato needs for the year.  Seem reasonable?  Why not try it next year?

But were this your typical blog, authored by enthusiasts or hobbyists, you’d be satisfied learning that much.  But no, this horticulture blog is rooted in science and current issues.  So by now, you’re pining for some research to sink your teeth into.  Some scientific debate or controversy, or even recent policy news, pertaining to potatoes.  So with that, I present to you: the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2012.  This juicy piece of legislation (passed on Nov. 1) has a potato provision, a tuber maneuver, to bypass the USDA, which wanted to limit the amount of ‘starchy’ vegetables served in school lunches to 1 cup (2 servings) per week.  Their list of starchy vegetables also includes lima beans, peas, and sweet corn.  Two senators from potato-rich states (Colorado and Maine) put the amendment in, effectively blocking the power of the USDA to implement such a rule.  The reasoning given is that the rule would be a burden to school districts, which would have to find a way to meet nutritional guidelines with more ‘nutritional’ vegetables.   A conference committee merged the House version (with no amendment to limit the USDA’s power) with the Senate version on November 15, and the full legislation does indeed contain the Senate’s provision to protect potato producers.

Harvesting beets.  (Not sure why this is here.  Maybe because beets are better for you than potatoes?  Maybe just to see how darn cute Charlie’s son is?)

So what do you think?  Should kids not be allowed to eat more than a cup of lima beans, potatoes, corn, and peas in school each week?  Should it depend on how they’re prepared (French fries, for example)?  Can we grow enough broccoli to replace the potatoes that kids aren’t eating?  Would your kids eat kale and squash at school if peas and sweet corn were taken away?  Are you more like the average Russian, who eats about 286 pounds of fresh potatoes per year?  Discuss.

Podcast Season 2 is here!

My abject apologies for being late in posting this week.  I’ve been in Angel’s Camp, California since Tuesday – a lovely, wonderful place – but without anything above 2G wifi.  Needless to say, posting on the blog was impossible.  So I’m in the Sacramento airport, enjoying a glass of wine and a crab Louis before I leave for Seattle, and finally able to access a 4G connection!

In any case, here’s the beginning of Season 2’s podcasts.  I’m assured that soon we will be on i-Tunes, but for now you can download the podcasts here.  The first podcast is built around the theme of “Scary Garden.”  A little late for Halloween, but there you are.  For this first podcast, I take on lasagna mulching and bring you some garden tips for the fall/winter season.

Let me know if you’ve got some ideas for upcoming themes throughout November and December!

Looking for answers

“Stealing an idea from one source is plagiarism; stealing from many sources is research.”  This quote has been attributed to so many people I won’t bother trying to list them here.  But the point is a lot of what we do as professors is spend our time digging into the literature to look for substantiating or conflicting evidence for the ideas were interested in testing.  As a grad student back in the 1980’s, a time-honored tradition was to spend the afternoon at the library combing the stacks for journal articles, loading volume after volume onto a cart and then schlepping off the library copy center.  With the mechanical hum in the background and green glare of the scanner radiating off the walls, we’d wear our toner smudges like a badge of honor as the copy machine counte kept track of our progress.

Today, of course, things have changed dramatically.  The hardcopy CAB abstracts have been replaced by Google Scholar and Web of Science.  For those of us at major universities, hundreds of journals are available at our fingertips through on-line subscriptions through our libraries.  And an electronic interlibrary loan request can usually produce a .pdf of even the most obscure reference with a couple of days.  Unfortunately for those of us working in landscape horticulture some of the hardest to find journals were the ones that we often wanted most.  For example, journals from the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) were only available to members and just recently became open access and indexed through Web of Science and other indexes.  Fortunately the situation is improving for two other sources that contain the type of applied research we are often after.  Arboriculture and Urban Forestry (formerly Journal of Arboriculture) and Journal of Environmental Horticulture are both available on-line (or partly available on-line).  More importantly for GP blog readers, neither requires a subscription or university log-in.  

Arboriculture and Urban Forestry is available at http://auf.isa-arbor.com/ 

Journal of Environmental Horticulture is available at http://www.hriresearch.org/index.cfm?page=Content&categoryID=174

Both journals include a search function to make it easier to find related articles.

Leaves for Lawn Fertilizer

Yesterday I happened to see a garden calendar encouraging people to pick up their leaves so that they don’t pollute streams and lakes by encouraging algae to grow.  This was a good idea, I thought, but then I started to wonder whether leaves on the lawn might not be a better idea?  After all, the reason that leaves cause algal growth in water is because of the nutrients they have.  And if they have nutrients couldn’t those be used for fertilizer instead of the regular fertilizers which we use?  What if we raked all of our leaves onto our yards?

There’s no denying that leaves which drop in the fall can make great compost, but how well would they work as a fertilizer? So I did a little bit of preliminary research — reading old papers and such — and here’s what I’ve come up with:

Fallen leaves are very variable in nutrient content.  Some leaves have 1% nitrogen, and some can have almost 3% (these are mostly from leguminous trees).  In terms of phosphorus, fallen leaves tend to have around 0.1%, though once again, it’s very variable.   For the purposes of this post I’m going to stick with nitrogen.

For 1,000 square feet of grass yard it takes about a pound of nitrogen per year to fertilize, even with a low input variety.

In a heavily wooded lot it wouldn’t be odd to have around 100 pounds of leaves fall in a 1,000 square foot area.  At 1% nitrogen, the leaves would provide enough nitrogen for the grass, but that would probably end up being a moot point because the leaves would have a good chance of smothering the grass. 

So what I’m wondering is, if we planted trees which were legumes, and had higher levels of nitrogen, and if we chopped up the leaves so they weren’t as likely to smother the grass (using a lawnmower or whatever) could we provide enough nitrogen per year for a healthy low input lawn?  Personally, I think so.  We would need to keep these leaves off of driveways and sidewalks because this is where they would do their worst in terms of contaminating water, but if they were just in yards — I think it might work.