A Rose is a…Tomato?

Linda’s blue orchid (ick!) post may have led to this one subliminally.

I seem to have a thing for oddly-colored vegetables (see my orange cucumber post). When I saw this new tomato in the 2012 Johnny’s Seeds catalog, I had to have it.

‘Indigo Rose’ was bred by Dr. Jim Myers of Oregon State University. Jim wrote the book (literally) on Organic Plant Breeding – using traditional breeding methods to breed varieties of vegetables that perform well for organic farmers.  With ‘Indigo Rose’, his goal was to  increase the anthocyanin content in the skin for increased anti-oxidant properties. Hence the very cool color.  The inside is regular tomato-color, though. Darn.

Pardon my Late Blight.

Johnny’s calls it a "cocktail-sized tomato" – bigger than a cherry, but much smaller than a slicer. Not a good term or use of tomatoes, in my opinion, as it would displace too much of the actual cocktail when placed in the glass.
(insert rimshot)

It has terrific fruit set with trusses of five to eight tomatoes each. 

Please ignore the weed in the photo.

The young fruit is very, very dark purple with a green underbelly (not sure what the technical term is – I know tomato descriptions often include shoulders, so why not an underbelly?).  Red and purple when ripe.   I’m just now getting some ripe enough to eat – the flavor is fine, but nothing really different than your basic cherry tomato. Maybe they need another week or so on the vine.  Interestingly, the hens have shown zero interest thus far. This is a good thing.

Kind of looks like a bad bruise.

Anyone else out there try these this season?

Blue orchids?

I was at a big box home improvement store yesterday, and after doing my legitimate business I felt myself drawn to the garden center.  I smirked at the “drought tolerant cactus gardens” that had died from lack of water and the ever-popular GMO “cactus strawflower” (GMO = glue modified organism as illustrated in my January 13, 2010 post).  Then I spotted my prey du jour: a blue orchid!

A disclaimer on the tag warns that new blooms will be white:

Oh, and the source of the magic?  Check out the needle track and its gooey exudate:

Just say no to dye!

A Speaker’s Bureau???

I just got back from the ISA meeting (that’s the International Society for Arboriculture) in Portland. 2000+ attendees, great talks, and lots of networking. One of the ideas that came up in late night discussions (always the best time for ideas!) was using this blog as a clearinghouse for speakers. So here’s the plan:

Our speaker’s bureau will be limited to those individuals who present current, relevant, science-based information in their presentations.  I’ll create a new category for the blog called “Speaker’s Bureau” and each person who provides information will get an individual posting there.

We hope that groups who are planning meetings or conferences would use this list to select speakers who can provide high-quality content of interest to gardeners and professionals (arborists, landscape architects, landscape managers, restoration ecologists, etc.)

If you’re interested in being included for this resource, let me know. I’ll discuss the particulars with my GP colleagues and we’ll get this up and running!

Are natives the answer? Revisited

I started to leave a comment on Linda’s Friday post regarding Seattle Public Utilities proposed building codes regarding “Healthy Landscapes” but decided I’d weigh in with a regular post.  Linda honed in on the 75% native requirement but there are lots of things to make one scratch their heads in the proposed codes.

Existing invasive plant species shall be removed and no invasive species planted.
No mention of how invasive plants shall be removed.  Heavy-duty herbicides? Armies of school children forced into slave labor? Slow-moving ground-fire? Goats?

75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.
So where did 75% come from?  Sounds like a number that was pulled out of the air.  How is 75% defined?  75% of plants? 75% of the area?  And how does this foster “Healthy Landscapes”?  If I have a 2 acre landscape and plant an acre and half of salal or Oregon grape I’ve met the requirement of 75% but have I increased species diversity or structural diversity or contributed to a “Healthy Landscape”?

A vegetation plan must be submitted for review.
By whom?  What happens if they (whoever ‘they’ are) don’t like it?

Existing native plant species shall be protected whenever possible.
Sounds reasonable but what about existing non-invasive non-natives?  Could a homeowner be required to cut down a 40-year-old red maple?

And on and on we could go.  Let me state clearly, I’m not against native plants.  Quite the opposite – I grew up in western Washington and have a passion for PNW plants since my high school days.  Since moving to Michigan I’ve written articles and given talks promoting natives here as well. http://www.hrt.msu.edu/assets/PagePDFs/bert-cregg/GoingNative.pdf

Nonetheless, I think many in the native plant movement hurt their cause by parroting the same old lines without ever critically thinking about what they’re saying.  Repeating a lie often enough times does not make it the truth.

Let’s critically look at some of the reasons for planting natives according to the Washington State Native Plant Society:

Native plants are adapted to our climate of wet winters and dry summers.
True. But so are lots of non-natives.  Adaptedness is a function of the environment in which plants have evolved; whether it’s native or exotic.  There are many climates around the world that are similar to the PNW and can produce similarly adapted plants.

Require less water than most non-natives once they are established.
Once again, adaptations such as drought tolerance are a function of the climate under which plants evolved.  There are many exotic species that are more drought hardy than western Washington natives and likely to use less water.

Resist native pests and diseases better.
Sometimes. But unfortunately the days of worrying only about native pests are in the distant past.  Exotic pests are here and they are here to stay.  Dutch elm disease, white pine blister rust, emerald ash borer, chestnut blight, Japanese beetle, the list of exotic pests is long and getting longer.  Native does not mean pest-free.

Improve water quality by needing less fertilizer and no pesticides.
OK, here’s where I get confused.  The reasoning in Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, is that native insects don’t feed on exotic plants, therefore if we plant exotics, native food pyramids will collapse and it will be the end of life as we know it.  So… if native insects won’t feed on exotic plants, why would exotics require more pesticide use?

Save resources and encourage a sense of Stewardship.
Ok, now maybe we’re getting somewhere.  Not sure why stewardship is capitalized here but if they mean a ‘sense of place’ or a ‘connection to the natural environment’ then I can buy it.  Many native activists, including Tallamy, run away from this argument – apparently it doesn’t sound scientific enough – but it’s one of the best we have.  Washington state has some of the most incredible plants anywhere.  They should be celebrated and promoted and planted.  In my mind, the biggest reason for planting natives – along with carefully selected non-natives – is to increase overall biodiversity.  When I mention biodiversity I am speaking broadly; species diversity, structural diversity, age-class diversity, and landscape diversity.  When we look to the future we have no idea what lies ahead. We don’t know what new, exotic diseases or insects are looming on the horizon. Most of us expect climate will change but no one can say with certainty how.  Plants cannot evolve as fast as climate will change or as fast as new pest will be introduced. The only way to deal with this uncertainly is to spread the risk through diversity – this includes natives, exotics, and even interspecific hybrids.

The natives debate continues…

Bert’s usually the one who posts on native plant news, but since he’s not in Seattle he will have missed this one.  So Bert, sit back and enjoy!

I just got an email from Seattle Public Utilities, who are having an open house to discuss “high efficiency landscapes” through their Green Code Provision Boards. One of the changes has to do with invasive species (a good thing). But these are the proposed changes:

Invasive Species and Native Vegetation (Regional Plan)

Who it Applies To:  For all new vegetated landscapes, or those being replaced


• Existing invasive plant species shall be removed and no invasive species planted.

• 75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.

• A vegetation plan must be submitted for review.

• Existing native plant species shall be protected whenever possible.

I really don’t like the second bullet point.  75% natives?  Many of our Western Washington natives are understory plants adapted to the cool, moist coniferous forests that in no way resemble urban developments.   The few species that are able to tolerate hot, sunny, dry conditions won’t make for a very interesting or diverse palette. And we already know that a biologically diverse landscape is better than otherwise.

What’s wrong with using well-chosen nonnative plants that will tolerated urban conditions, support wildlife, and add some aesthetic interest?

Injecting Gels Into The Soil — Good Idea?

It recently came to my attention that the Sierra Club published an article on a new system for reducing watering in lawns.  You can read it here.  Basically what the company, AquaCents, does is inject a polyacrylamide gel into the landscape and then the gel supposedly collects irrigation and/or rain water and releases it for plants to take up as the landscape dries.

I think it’s a good concept, but I’m highly skeptical that this is a good product for two reasons.  The first is that I’ve used polyacrylamide gels to hold water for plants before and have found no benefit.  In fact, most papers out there on the topic show either no benefit or marginal benefit from using these gels in terms of increasing the amount of water available to plants – though I must admit that results are variable.

Please note that I didn’t say I was skeptical that the polymer will hold lots of water – I’m not.  It will hold lots of water.

Which leads us to an important question.  If we know that the gel will hold water, and this company has done testing which shows reduced watering is required in lawns that use this technology, then why am I skeptical?

Based on what I have read and the experiments I’ve done, I think the company’s testing isn’t telling the whole story.

As far as I can tell, what they’re doing to test this product is injecting it into lawns and then allowing a moisture detector in the lawn to trigger sprinklers to go on when soil moisture falls below a certain level.  If you test one lawn with the polymer side by side against another lawn without the polymer, then the lawn with the polymer will use less sprinkler water because the gel holds more water than the surrounding soil – meaning that it stays more moist. So at this point it sure seems like the gel is a good idea — right?

No, because this experiment asked the wrong question.  It looked at how much water was in the lawn, NOT HOW MUCH WATER WAS GETTING TO THE PLANT.  And that’s what we need to know – how much water gathered up in that gel will actually get to the plant.  What I’ve found in my work is that having water in the gel is not the same as getting water to the plant.  The gel seems to hold the water too tightly for the plant to get it.  It’s a little like having an impenetrable safe filled with five million dollars in gold.  Sure, the gold is there, but if you can’t get to it, who cares?

So, why does the grass seem to be growing more roots when the gel is used?  My best guess is that the lawns were overwatered in the first place and the gel just provided a way for homeowners to decrease their watering.  Let’s face the facts, overwatering of lawns is rampant.

But I mentioned that there were two reasons why I didn’t like the gel.  I named the first, so what’s the second?  It’s something that I saw on one of Linda’s sites a few years ago and then looked into a little further.  Polyacrylamide gel, while relatively safe in and of itself, may break down into more toxic substances.  See Linda’s article here.

Finally – and this is just a thought — there are plenty of other absorbent materials out there that might be injected into the ground, including some made of starch – I have tried gels made of starch and have found them to be as effective as those made of polyacrylamide (though I know that’s not saying a lot).  Or…maybe we should just water more judiciously.  Like I said, just a thought.

Hey Kids! Check This Out!

I recently spotted this in the window of a toy shop:

Recommended for ages 10 and up. My youth was apparently misspent with Hot Wheels and model horses (and collisions thereof).  I could have been getting a step up on grad school.

"See genetic material with your
own eyes as you isolate the DNA from a tomato in a test tube."
(This is actually fun and easy and you don’t need a kit to do it.)

"Learn about dominant and recessive genes and play inheritance
games to determine how traits will be expressed."
  Then you can blame the correct parent for your near-sightedness, flat feet, etc.

"Breed your own bacteria colony to experiment with survival of
the fittest."
  Now, we’re talking!!!  I would have loved this.  My mother, however, would have argued that the disgusting storage space under my bed was, in fact, a giant petri dish.