I love Sechelt in the springtime

I’ve been out and about (oot and aboot?) much of the spring giving talks to various gardening groups, including the Sechelt Botanical Garden Club last weekend.  Sechelt (in English, pronounced "seashell" with a t at the end) is on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, and we did have a sunny April day (reason number one).  That made for an enjoyable visit later to one of the lovely private gardens (reason number two):

 

And then, there’s that Canadian sense of humor as evdienced by a locally made product (reason number three):

Have a great weekend!

Dandelions

Why does everyone want to kill dandelions?  I like dandelions.  I like that my kids go and pick them and give them to me.  I like that they break up the monotonous green of my yard.  I like that they can be used to make wine (though I’ve never had any).  I like that I can pick one and take it apart to teach my kids and the kids in my classes about the basic morphology of flowers.

I don’t like the fact that the most common herbicide used today to kill dandelions, 2,4 D, may have serious effects on the health of dogs, in part because it isn’t rapidly excreted from the dog’s body.

I also don’t like the fact that many shrubs and perennials are killed every year because of poor spraying techniques intended to kill dandelions.

But what’s most irritating to me is that we have a technique out there for controlling dandelions which is pretty darn effective, but which is almost never used.  It’s not a 100% control, probably not even an 80% control, but it still works pretty well if we’d just give it a go.  And that technique is….wise fertilization.  You see, dandelions like to be fertilized with potassium.  They love the stuff.  In fact, they love the stuff more than grass loves the stuff, so if we’d just reduce the amount of potassium we applied to our yards…we’d have fewer dandelions.

But if you just can’t get over the idea of having a yard clear of dandelions, there is a new, relatively safe, product out there that will kill them though it may take a few applications.  It is not an “organic” product – though in my estimation it’s safer than many organic products.  The active ingredient of that product is FeHEDTA, which is an iron chelate that delivers a dose of iron the dandelion can’t handle but which, apparently, grass can. This stuff is available in two products I can think of offhand – Ortho elements lawn weed killer and Whitney Farm lawn weed killer. 

But come on — dandelions are cool.  They’ve been in the US just about as long as European settlers and their descendants have — and taken over the landscape just about as effectively.  Shoot, we should probably have the dandelion as our country’s official flower! Why are we so anxious to toss ’em?

A great way to plant perennials “en masse”

North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, PA is a marvelous, native-centric (but not exclusively native) nursery.  North Creek is a wholesale propagator (sells liners
to other nurseries for finishing).  But if you can meet the $300 minimum, they’d probably be happy to fill your order. 
They have, among the usual liner sizes, a very neat product – "Landscape Plugs." I’ve been wanting to try them for a while – our work with the backhoe this past summer cleared some nice large swathes of the cursed autumn olive, and made room for perennials.  I selected a number of locally-native species from North Creek’s extensive listings, with the plan to scatter them along the creek sides and sunny spots of our 4-acre field/meadow/thingy.

Primarily marketed for restoration and conservation projects, these"landscape plugs" are simply huge liners – great for anyone who wants a large number of a certain species without paying an arm and a leg.  Each 5" deep tray holds 32 plugs.  North Creek carries a wide array of Eastern N. American natives perennials, grasses, and ferns – mostly straight species with a few named cultivars.  I ordered eight different species for a total of 256 plants (and 256 holes to dig). The species I picked out ran from $1.08 to $1.40 per plug. They arrived within a few days via UPS, packed two trays per box, and all were intact and in good shape.  All were well-rooted, having been "stuck" the previous season and then overwintered/vernalized. I expect most will bloom this year. Will report back!

North Creek Nurseries landscape plug of Solidago shortii ‘Solar Cascade.’ Nice roots, no?

The new American chestnut tree: resistant survivor or Frankentree?

Recently ScienceDaily.com posted an article about American chestnut trees due to be planted in New York City. Researchers hope that these trees will be resistant to chestnut blight, an introduced fungal disease that pretty much wiped out mature specimens over the last 100 years.

When I lived in Buffalo, I was a member of the American Chestnut Foundation and every spring I helped with efforts to replant chestnuts in the hopes that resistant individuals might be found.  The problem is that the disease doesn’t kill young trees: it can take many years to find out whether a particular tree is resistant or not.


Chestnut suckers from live roots of blight-killed tree. I saw these a lot in western NY forests in the 1990’s.

Part of the earlier research efforts involved crossing resistant European chestnut with American chestnut in hopes of creating resistant hybrids.  The downside, of course, is that such offspring would not be “pure” American chestnuts.  More importantly to many people, these hybrids might not produce the same quality of nuts.

The research mentioned in the Science Daily article involves creating transgenic plants: a wheat gene resistant to the fungus was inserted into the chestnut genome with the hopes that the resulting trees would be immune to blight.  These trees are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

It’s worth noting that it’s this kind of work that has been branded as “Frankentree” research, which incites a lot of fear and hysteria.  It’s what caused ecoterrorists to mistakenly firebomb the UW Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001 when I was faculty there.  It’s what causes people to freak out about eating GMO foods.

So my question for you – does the fact that transgenic chestnut trees will be “on the loose” fill you with fear?  Or does it make you hopeful that we’ve possibly found a way to overcome an introduced disease?  (As I just noticed in reading this over before posting that I used some form of the word “hope” in nearly every paragraph.  I guess it shows where I stand.)

Cypress mulch re-visited

After Jeff’s recent eclectic musical selection of Rasputina’s 1816, I thought I’d go a little more mainstream with Lynard Skynard’s ‘Swamp music’.  Turn it up and remember; if it’s too loud, you’re too old. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wJWBcj7lsY

So, what got me thinking about the swampy backwoods down South and the late, great Ronnie Van Zant?  The arrival of pallet after pallet of bagged cypress mulch at every gas station/convenience store in the area.  Like the first robin, the annual appearance of bagged cypress mulch is another harbinger of spring.  Awhile back (Oct 2009 to be exact) I commented on efforts by some environmentalists to boycott cypress mulch.  The rationale behind the boycott is that cypress mulch is harvested from wetlands in Louisiana and Florida.  Many of these areas are environmentally sensitive and it is difficult to regenerate new stands after harvest because of frequent inundation.

In response to the calls for a boycott, the Louisiana Forestry Association countered with a series of Cypress FAQ’s. http://www.laforestry.com/site/ForestFacts/Cypress/FAQ.aspx The Forestry Association, not surprisingly, deems the proposed boycott an overreaction, noting that cypress makes up only a small proportion of all timber harvested and that only about one-fifth of cypress harvested goes into mulch.  While it’s true that cypress is a comparatively minor species in terms of acres logged, much of this area includes some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the country.  And I was actually surprised to learn that the proportion of cypress that went into mulch was that high (20%).  Cypress timber is extremely valuable for decking and other high-end uses; I had always assumed mulch was a fairly minor component of the overall market.  But clearly, diverting a portion of the harvest to mulch could tip the balance and make some marginal logging operations profitable.

So, where do I come down on the boycott issue?  I suppose in a sense I boycott cypress mulch because I’ve never bought any and never intend to buy any.  Bob Schutzki and I conducted a study several years ago that showed that landscape shrubs grew as well or better when mulched with locally produced ground pine bark or ground hardwood bark than with cypress mulch.  Even mulch from ground recycled pallets (yes, that stuff dyed a red color not found in nature) did better than cypress.  So for me the issue has been moot.  Buy a local product and support your local forest products industry.

Quiz answer – difference between spores and pollen

You got it!  Horsetails don’t produce pollen, and those airborne particles are spores.  Primitive plants such as mosses, ferns, and horsetails don’t have the same reproductive structures as flowering plants and conifers. Instead of producing seeds, they form tiny, windborne spores that can be mistaken for pollen.

(To its credit, the Seattle Times corrected this error the next day.)