Scenes From A Zoo

The other day I went to a local zoo with my family. I’m not a big zoo lover. I hate to see animals in cages and kept from their natural wanderings and habits, but this zoo serves as a rescue, so I didn’t complain too much. As we were walking around I couldn’t help but notice the following container which I can only suppose once served as a food or water bin for one group of animals or another.

zoo 1

I really liked that quote. I wish I knew where it came from. Then, just a few minutes later, I saw this.

sad zoo tree

Hmmmm….now don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather see trees bound up and tortured than animals. But really, the natural world includes many different living organisms that interact with each other, and with us. Each is deserving of our care and respect. The way this poor tree is planted shows a complete disrespect for its life. Too deep — and it looks like more soil will be applied to fill the bed! This is just sad. Look, if we’re going to have zoos then let’s try to make them into places that celebrate the natural world.

Mark Stennes

This past week the world of trees lost a true friend. Mark Stennes was a tireless worker who selflessly promoted our urban trees and the people who worked with them and was a driving force behind elm research in Minnesota.

Mark Tree

When it came to trees, there are few people who could equal Mark’s passion. He had an insatiable curiosity in the world around us. He lived trees and took every opportunity to discuss them. He discovered the St. Croix elm and helped the University of Minnesota’s elm project identify other elms with potential. Any short list of tree experts in Minnesota had to have Mark’s name on it to be complete.

But as good as Mark was with trees, that wasn’t really where his genius lay. Mark was one of those rare individuals who was able to communicate that love for trees to other people and inspire them to actually do something. He was widely known and respected across the Green Industry in Minnesota. When Mark wanted to get something done, he did it through a tight network of friends that was incredible to behold. He had connections with people everywhere, from the tree people to the turf. Everyone knew that Mark was a person you could count on. A person who would go to bat for you when things got tough. For me, Mark was the guy who worked behind the scenes to make sure that everyone knew the kind of work that we were doing at the University of Minnesota, quietly promoting us so that when push came to shove we would have what we needed to make it all work. He took pride in the successes of his friends and wasn’t shy about spreading praise around. Mark was a person that I could constantly and consistently count on.

The day before he died, Mark called up my good friend Chad Giblin about going out and checking on some elms. And that’s how I’ll remember him; anxious to go and look at another tree so he could take notes and tell us all about it.

Hello Charlotte!

I’m sure you haven’t been wondering where I’ve been for the past five months or so, but just in case you have, I’ve been reshuffling my life and relocating. Where am I now? The family and I have moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where I now work at Central Piedmont Community College. Why? Because we wanted to be closer to family, we wanted a warmer climate, and I wanted to spend more time teaching. That said, I had a great time at the University of Minnesota and have only good things to say about my time there.

The great thing about my new job is that I have the opportunity to teach a diverse student population a broad spectrum of classes. This coming semester I’ll be teaching five classes including Specialty Crops (we’ll be concentrating on hydroponic systems for growing veggies – it’s a great way to learn about what plants need to grow), Plant Propagation (My favorite! Everything from cuttings and seeds to budding and grafting), Greenhouse Management, Applied Plant Science and Plant Materials I. And Hey, if you live near Charlotte, I’d love to see you in one of my classes! CPCC is one of the most affordable schools in the country and the classes are open access – in other words anyone can sign up! Since I don’t have the chance to do as much research as I did in Minnesota, I’ve compensated by having my students conduct experiments in the classes – and we’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve done everything from extracting essential oils using cold fat and steam extractions to rooting cuttings using 2,4 D and spiking the atmosphere with carbon dioxide using soda bottles. I’ll be posting about all of these projects in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it looks like vinegar based BBQ with fried okra for dinner!

Phosphorus and Big Macs

Minnesota, and I were cruising through old pictures and files and getting all sentimental about the cool stuff we used to do.   A lot of it was never published just because after we were done with one thing we were just too damn excited to move on to the next.  Anyway, one of the neatest experiments that we never wrote up was a phosphorus experiment.  Here’s what it looked like to the casual observer.

Now let me explain the neat part to you a little.  Inside those boxes, underneath three of the six plants in each container, are vials set up like this – three vials per plant (the black tubes provide air to the vials).

Each plant had one root placed into each of the three vials – one vial contained 1 ppm phosphorus, one vial contained 10 ppm phosphorus, and one vial contained 30 ppm phosphorus.  The tub itself was also filled with one of these three solutions (1, 10, or 30 ppm phosphorus) as seen below.

At the end of the experiment we weighed the roots filling each vial, as well as weighing all of the roots from each plant.  Here’s what we found for the individual vials.

As you can see, more phosphorus in a vial meant that the plant would devote more energy to growing roots there – but also notice that the 10 ppm solution has the greatest mass of roots overall.  Here’s what we saw when we looked at the total size of all of the roots from plants for the different solutions.

As you can see, the roots from the plants in the 10 ppm solution are the largest (shoots showed the same trend).  So here’s the way I see it (this is the Big Mac part).  I love Big Macs.  If I see a McDonald’s I want to go in there – I gravitate towards McDonald’s to get Big Macs.  But too many Big Macs aren’t good for me.  They might even stunt my growth!  It’s the same for phosphorus.  Roots do grow towards phosphorus (this isn’t technically correct, but it works for my analogy so I’m sticking with it!), but that doesn’t mean that a tremendous amount of phosphorus is actually good for them.  In fact, it might even stunt their growth!  This could be for a variety of reasons, but most likely because the phosphorus would interfere with the uptake of other elements.


Today I want to share something that I’ve been working on recently with Fine Gardening that is really cool!  So you know all of those lights you can buy to get your plants started over the winter?  Did you ever wonder which of those lights really work?  I’m going to leave the final answer for my article, but let me tell you, there’s a world of differences between the lights.  The best seem to be some LED lights that aren’t available yet, but are made by a company called Heliospectra.   Mostly they make high end lights for commercial producers and researchers, but they will be entering the home market soon.  Man, these lights are SWEET!

Interestingly, the other LED lights fail miserably because their light is so columnated (in other words the light doesn’t spread out), as you can kind of see in this picture (there’s another pic on facebook that shows it a bit better):

Most of you are probably using fluorescent lights, and, in terms of bang for your buck, I’d say those are pretty good.  We tested a bunch of different fluorescent, as well as incandescent lights.  Be on the lookout for the article in about a year!

My Thoughts on 14 Foods…

Yesterday on Facebook I posted a link to a list put out by the Rodale Institute which takes a look at 14 things that you should never eat.  Some I thought were reasonable, and some I thought were a little nuts.  All in all though, it was an entertaining experience that made me think.

Here are my thoughts on the 14 foods.  Please feel free to disagree, and also realize that, while I am relatively familiar with the production of fruits, vegetables, and, to a lesser extent, staple crops like wheat, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about meat and fish, and I’m certainly not a dietician.  So for most of these, you should take my opinions with a grain of salt.

Swordfish – I agree with Rodale simply because of overfishing concerns.  I am also concerned about the presence of heavy metals, but I do wonder how often someone would need to eat swordfish (and how much they would need to eat) to really endanger themselves?

Nonorganic strawberries – Well yes, strawberries are sprayed a lot, and if they’re grown organically they’re often sprayed a lot too – just with different things.  I certainly think it’s a good idea to wash anything that you buy from the store – no matter how it’s grown – with warm water before eating it, but I don’t see avoiding conventionally grown strawberries as substantially reducing risk – organic strawberries have their own set of risks (possible contamination and use of organic pesticides).  I do see a reason to buy locally grown strawberries – flavor!.

Diet Soda – I agree, because Diet Soda tastes like….well, I shouldn’t say it here.

McDonalds – I agree, not because of the GMO concerns, but instead because I’m opposed to the way that animals are treated in factory farms.  That said, I love my Big Macs way too much to give them up (Don’t bother calling me a hypocrite — I’ll just agree with you).

Canned tomatoes – I kinda-sorta agree, but mostly because I like fresh tomatoes, or tomatoes from a glass bottle.  I am somewhat concerned about BPA and would like to see more studies done on it, but I do not think that the danger is nearly as clear-cut as presented in this article.  My family and I really don’t eat that much canned produce simply because we’re not all that thrilled by how it tastes.

Bread – I don’t agree.  Certainly some people can have reactions to certain things in bread (like gluten) but the idea that modern wheat is some kind of lurking poison is a bit over the top.

Industrially produced hamburgers – Define industrially produced and I’ll tell you my opinion.  Then tell me exactly how I tell if a burger is industrially produced.  If it means I need to give up Five Guys….

Corn – I don’t agree, but I do love this line from the beginning of the article “Today’s corn plants are more like little pesticide factories with roots.”  It conjures a cool dystopian image in my head.  Look, every plant produces chemicals to defend itself from predators.  It’s true, we gave corn a new one by using genetic engineering, and now we’re able to grow corn by using fewer insecticides, almost all of which are much more potentially damaging to us and the environment than the Bt we’ve put into corn.

White chocolate – Umm – I don’t know what to say about this one.  I like it and I don’t see anything in the write up that convinces me it’s bad.

Artificial Sweeteners – I agree.  I can’t stand the flavor and I’ll admit to having headaches which have coincided with ingesting certain artificial sweeteners.

Sprouts – I think that sprouts are generally safe, but there’s no denying that there have been some instances recently where sprouts were found to be contaminated with one disease or another.

Butter flavored microwave popcorn – Sure, popcorn with real butter tastes better, but I like this stuff too – that said, I am concerned about the factory workers who suffer from popcorn lung as noted in the article.

Food Dyes – I agree, if only because fruity pebbles and the like look so scary!

Chain restaurant ice cream – Um…no — I love ice-cream any way it comes.

What’s in the Worm Juice?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I would be taking a look at the leachate that comes from vermicompost. Here is the worm house, owned by Master Gardener Meleah Maynard, from which this leachate came. This is a picture from when the house was new — it now has multiple floors.

It has been running for a few years now, and the “ingredients” that she puts in, mostly table scraps, are pretty typical of what anyone would put into compost. She reports that it produces about a gallon of leachate every 2-3 weeks. The leachate from this house has the following properties:

  • pH – 8.5: That’s a high pH for soil, but for a fertilizer added every week or two it’s fine.
  • Nitrogen – 1120 ppm: That’s high for a fertilizer.  About twice the concentration I’d use if I were applying a liquid fertilizer to my plants at home. The nitrogen is present mostly as nitrate, which is a good thing.  If the nitrogen were present primarily as ammonium, that might cause problems.
  • Phosphorus – 22 ppm: That’s a good/appropriate concentration of phosphorus for most plants. It’s much less than we apply when we use a typical garden fertilizer. Potassium – 5034 ppm: This is an order of magnitude higher than we’d apply for most plants using a liquid fertilizer.
  • Calcium – 279 ppm: This is a reasonable amount of calcium.
  • Magnesium – 211 ppm: This is reasonable amount of magnesium.
  • Sodium – 634 ppm: I’d like to see less sodium, but this shouldn’t cause a major problem.
  • Other elements present included Iron, Copper, Manganese, Zinc, Molybdenum, and Boron, all at levels less than 1 ppm.

So what’s my conclusion? I think that, based on the nutrients and nothing else (no trials), this could be a great liquid fertilizer if it were used properly. I’d recommend diluting it somewhere between 1:1 and 1:5 worm juice : water before applying it, and I’d only apply it once every week or two. If you want to use it, try it on something that you’re not too concerned about first, just to make sure that it doesn’t do anything too terrible (It shouldn’t, but I believe in caution).

Applying pesticides when you don’t mean to

I’d rather we didn’t use them, but I see their value and I appreciate what they can do for us when they’re used properly.  One of the things that I hate about pesticides though is that, even when they’re used correctly, sometimes they can come back and hurt us in ways that we don’t expect.  You have probably heard that you should not use grass clippings where herbicides have recently been used as a mulch because they could injure them.  This is mostly because of the pesticide 2,4 D and other, similar herbicides for the lawn which can injure other plants if placed in the wrong spot. 

Back in 2011 the herbicide Imprelis was used on many yards, especially in the Midwest, and did a lot of damage to spruce and other trees as Bert has mentioned in previous posts.  We had thought that we were nearing the end of the effects that this herbicide would have, but now I’m not so certain (see Bert’s post from March 25).  Recently questions have been asked about whether this stuff might last longer than we thought in compost.  A few months ago I probably would have said that I doubted that Imprelis would linger long in compost, but, in part because of how long its effects take to show up on some plants, now I’m not so sure, and there are others who share my concerns (in fact, it was these guys who pointed out the possibility of compost problems with Imprelis to me).  I honestly don’t know whether compost that includes trees that were treated with Imprelis (or has Imprelis in it for some other reason) would or wouldn’t be harmful to other plants, but I do know that it’s something I’d be watching out for.

Worm Juice!

There’s still snow on the ground, but I know that spring is finally coming to Minnesota because I FINALLY saw a crocus peeking its head out of the ground this week!

So perhaps you wonder from time to time what garden professor types get excited about.  Well, here’s an example.  Tomorrow I’ll be meeting up with a friend of mine, Meleah Maynard, which is nice, we always have a good time chatting, but I’m especially excited because she’s bringing me some drippings from her vermicomposting.  Hooray, worm juice!  I’ll be taking it to the lab and then running some tests on it to see what it has in it in terms of nutrients.   After I get the results in a couple of weeks I’ll give you the information (maybe even compare it side by side with urine – that would be fun!)

Master Gardener Researchers Rule!

The Garden Professors test new products all the time.  Fertilizers, pesticides, tree wraps,compost tea, etc., they’ve all found their way into our fields and greenhouses at one time or another, but still, we can’t test everything, it’s just not possible. New stuff comes out all the time, and it’s impossible to keep up, so one of the things we love to see is people who take the initiative to test things themselves. Recently we got to see the results from a group of Master Gardeners who tested biochar on growing vegetables.   The results aren’t final yet – there’s still a few years to go – but I love the fact that this is occurring and I can’t wait to see more.