More Compost Tea Stuff

If you’re getting sick of the compost tea debate then you can skip this post.  If not, then read on! 

This past week I received my copy of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry 37(6).  And in it, page 269, I discovered an article titled “Laboratory Assays on the Effects of Aerated Compost Tea and Fertilization on Biochemical Properties and Denitrification in a Silt Loam and Bt Clay Loam Soils” by Bryant Scharenbroch, William Treaurer, Michelle Catania and Vincent Brand.  Basically what the authors did was to add dilute compost tea, concentrated compost tea, and a fertilizer to a couple of different types of soil in a laboratory setting to establish how they changed the soil.  To be honest the article was a little tough to read for a non-soil scientist and I found myself looking up terms quite often.  Still, I found their conclusions fascinating.  There were actually a number of conclusions, I’m just going to cover what I think are the most interesting:

  1. “Aerated Compost tea appears INFERIOR  [you read that right – inferior] compared to fertilizer in its ability to increase microbial biomass, microbial activity” and a few other things.   Hmmm…I’d been told that microbes hated synthetic fertilizer.  I guess not all microbes agree.  In terms of the fertilizer used, it was a 30-10-7.  I didn’t see it explicitly stated in the article, but I’d bet it was a synthetic fertilizer called Arbor Green Pro.  It was applied at what I would consider a heavy dose.
  2. Aerated compost tea, or at least the compost tea tested in this article, did contain a significant amount of nutrients.
  3. On the up side for compost tea it was pointed out that compost tea treatments might help a poor soil retain more nitrogen.  Maybe…but the authors also pointed out that “only the fertilizer treatment appeared to deliver enough available nitrogen to potentially meet tree needs in the Bt horizon soils” (in other words poorer soils).  Interesting – but if we just added compost we’d have a better soil anyway, which brings us to the next point….
  4. The compost tea tested contained only a small portion of the microorganisms that compost does.

So what’s the take home message from this article?  This wasn’t explicitly stated in the article — in fact I’m not even sure the authors would agree with me — but to me the important message is 1) ADD COMPOST and 2) IF YOU NEED TO ADD NUTRIENTS ADD FERTILIZER NOT COMPOST TEA (though I’d go with a nice renewable organic rather than a synthetic).   

Winter winners podcast

I got so excited about our live tree hunt (posted yesterday) that I forgot to put up the podcast!  So here it is…Winter Winners.

The interview of the week is at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, with Director Dr. Sarah Reichard.  We visited the Winter Garden, where she (wearing her taxonomy hat) picked out her favorite plants.  They include paperbark maple (Acer griseum)…


(the sun shining through the bark is incredible)

…and contorted hazelnut (Corylus contorta)…


(hard to see, but love the bare twigs)

…and Garrya x issaquahensis

Sierra Exif JPEG
(these most amazing catkins get longer and longer)

…and Rhododendron strigillosum with the coolest bristly petioles:


(a very tidy rhododendron)

As always, I would love questions and suggestions for future podcasts!

How NOT to run a Christmas Tree Business

Some of you know we have a you-pick blueberry farm; we work very hard on it and have been successful thus far.  It also happened to come with 6 acres of Fraser firs.  Most were already in the 10′ to 18′ range when we bought the place in 2007.  There is limited value in an over-grown Christmas tree; right up there with a poinsettia still on the store shelf on December 26th. 

They look MUCH better covered in snow.  That’s Bebe the Wonder Dog’s fanny, BTW.

Thankfully, our livelihood does not depend on selling trees.  I don’t know how folks can make money in this business.  I can’t tell you how fun it is to drag a big ladder around a steeply-sloped field and hand-prune trees in August.  It’s so fun, we decided to skip it this year.   Naturally grown? You bet. Haven’t put one thing on them, fertilizer or otherwise.  I did mow around them once this year, and was eye-to-eye with the most amazing number of praying mantises (manti?) you’ve ever seen.  They seemed…content. 

There’s a huge tree farm 2 miles from us, and that IS how they make their living.  We have no interest in taking any of their business, and don’t think we could if we tried. They’ve got all the pro stuff – power pruners, tree wrapper/sleever, wreath-making machines. Their trees are very dense and uniformly cone-shaped from twice-annual pruning.  Ours look like something from Dr. Seuss (lots of room to hang ornaments, though!).  They do the full on Agritainment thing: hay rides, hot cider, petting zoo. Open dawn to dusk, every day of the week.  Our customers, who also happen to be our friends and co-workers, are only allowed to come out on the weekend (it’s dark when we get home from work), ideally before noon/football or basketball comes on. Our customers get to drive down a bad road, hunt for a tree, and lash it to the roof or shove it into the boot sans tree-stocking.  They may get a complimentary beer and/or squirrel. However, they keep calling every year because they get a ridiculously cheap (but fresh! and very natural!) tree, and the transaction partially alleviates our guilt over doing a lousy job of maintaining and selling this overgrown field of firs.  

Final sales pitch: if you find yourself in the greater New River Valley this weekend, particularly on Saturday before noon, and can pay in cash, and have your own rope, and your kids aren’t  too annoying, come on by!
Trees less than 12′ are $25; over 12′ = FREE. Can’t beat that with a stick.

Bert, I’ll see your live tree hunt and raise you one Bulgarian

I just can’t resist telling our Christmas tree hunting tradition.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we drive out to Monroe (about 45 minutes north of Seattle) to our favorite tree farm, where we look for the perfect noble fir.  Here, Jim demonstrates his dubious taste in trees:

Jim's tree

This year, Charlotte brought a tennis buddy home from college. Nasko lives in Bulgaria and wasn’t traveling home for a holiday they don’t celebrate.  So he got to experience the Great Scott Tree hunt for himself:

My son Jack (on the left) complained that he NEVER got to choose the tree (Mom retains veto power over all selections), and happily for all of us this year he picked the winner:

Jim does the cutting, and the kids do the carrying:

This tree farm also has hot chocolate and candy canes, which we all enjoy before returning to town (Monroe that is) and having lunch at the local Taco Bell. It’s a tradition that started when the kids were littler and you don’t mess with tradition.

Needless to say, we will ALWAYS have a real tree.

The Real vs Fake Debate

My post on Christmas tree safety got blog readers Michael and Thad into the never-ending debate of what’s better for the environment: a real Christmas tree or a fake one.  As is often said: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”  In the interests of full disclosure I will admit my bias is on the real tree side.  My first job in high school was shearing Christmas trees back when minimum wage was $1.65 /hour (1976).  Also in the interest of full disclosure I work closely with the Christmas tree growers in Michigan and elsewhere and get a small amount of research support from the state grower’s association.  

Michael and Thad’s discussion turned pretty quickly to the bottom-line when it comes to carbon footprint.  Which choice looks better depends on the assumptions you are willing to make.  The critical ones, of course, are how long do you keep a fake tree and how far do you drive to get a real tree.  If you buy one artificial tree and keep it 50 years it replaces 50 real trees.  If you buy a real tree from a tree lot that’s on you way home and don’t make a special tree to get it, the real tree comes out looking good.  The American Christmas Tree Associate (a trade association for artificial trees, NOT a growers’ group) has commissioned a life cycle assessment and claim the carbon footprint question is a wash  http://www.christmastreeassociation.org/Article%20Pages/choosing-an-artificial-or-real-christmas-tree   This is in contrast to some earlier claims they had made the artificial trees were greener – based largely on the distance driven to get a real tree.

One thing to note is that there are other environmental impacts besides carbon emissions to consider.  Artificial trees are typically made from non-biodegradable plastics and most Christmas tree plantations require some pesticide and fertilizer inputs to keep trees looking good.  In many parts of the country Christmas tree plantation can provide habitat for certain types of wildlife, especially birds that use the trees for perches and nesting.  

Hannah and I embark on Tree-hunt 2011…

While everything seems to get boiled down to carbon comparison these days there are certainly more things to consider.  For those that buy a tree at a local ‘choose and cut’ farm, there is certainly the satisfaction that at least some of your holiday purchases are supporting the local economy.  At the end of the day, however, the debate between real vs. fake for most people gets down to one of two factors: tradition and convenience.  Even though my heart is on the real tree side, I can’t deny that pulling an artificial tree out of a box from the attic each year is easier than going out on a cold wet, December day and getting a tree from a farm and then bringing it home and setting it up.  But my mom was German and we always had a real tree in the house when I grew up.  Now that I have my own family, my daughter and I have a tradition of going out to a local Choose and cut tree farm and looking for the perfect Fraser fir.  No artificial tree can ever replace that. 

Fraser firs at Daisy Hill farm.  Still got a couple years to go, but eventually I’ll be cutting my own.

Quiz Answers

Some great guesses!

Most identified the seed head of a Clematis – this one is Clematis tibetana, also known as Orange Peel clematis due to the leathery golden-orange petals/bracts. It’s a late bloomer anyway, and the profusion of swirly seed heads sparkle in the autumn sun.  Quite vigorous when compared to the large-flowered clematis species and hybrids; more along the lines of sweet autumn clematis  (Clematis terniflora).  Covers small structures and slow-moving terrestrials in a single season.

The second was a stumper – though most folks were barking up the right tree/annual/perennial and guessing some apetalous members of the Asteraceae.

It’s Ajania pacifica (most of us learned it as Chrysanthum pacificum or Dendranthema pacificum) or "gold and silver chrysanthemum".  A very well-behaved, low, mounding, old-school perennial; best with good drainage and plenty of sun.  One of the last perennials to bloom for us; it’s also very frost-tolerant. The gray-green foliage is edged in white, and despite several hard frosts, still looks great.