Advancing the science of gardening and other stuff since 2009
Author: John Porter
John Porter an assistant professor and extension educator serving as the Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator in a joint appointment with Nebraska Extension and Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. His specialties are fruit and vegetable production, small space intensive production, plant propagation, and general plant science (botany, physiology, genetics). He has a BS in Botany/Biology from Marshall University and an MS in Horticultural Science from West Virginia University.
A few weeks ago, I saw an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) talking about people who are bioengineering plants at home to develop, among other things, a true blue rose. I love to see this. “Tinkerers” have long been a proud tradition of people who make true impacts and discoveries. I think of the ultimate plant “mad tinkerer” Luther Burbank who established himself as a foremost expert on developing new plants all from his crazy tinkering that developed the potato that you’ll find at nearly every fast food joint and created plants such as the shasta daisy and the wonderberry. I also think of a contemporary plant tinkerer – my friend and fellow GP Joseph Tychonievich. I love seeing all of his new plants and envy his creativity.
I can only hope that more and more people, and younger people especially, have an interest in amateur plant science. We live in a time when science education has reached a fervor, with about every school and youth program focused on STEM education. We even have 4-H clubs that meet in our office that are completely focused on robotics and coding. While this focus on science is great, my issue is that it focuses mainly on the “sexy” disciplines (engineering, chemistry, physics, etc) and little on life sciences like plant biology.
I’m heartened to see many many schools adding gardens to incorporate into the curriculum. Here in my county we’ve helped build and advise over two dozen school gardens. I’ve also seen some new tools to inspire young plant scientists, including an online community of scientist mentors who give guidance to budding plant science students (Planting Science). Who knows, maybe we’ll inspire a new generation of Luther Burbanks. We can only hope.
Rejoice, gardeners and homeowners, for your deliverance from the drudgery of raking leaves has arrived. Or so goes the proclamation from a viral article that popped up on social media this past fall.
The article in question was posted on the Woman’s Day magazine website based on information from the National Wildlife Federation As the article points out, leaving piles of leaves on the lawn are good “habitat” and homeowners should just let the leaves fall where they may for the sake of supporting critters in the lawn. Of course, you can always believe everything you see online, right? Let’s take a look at what research can tell us.
Not so fast. There are a few issues with this new proclamation. Not that I am a great fan of the rites of autumn that dictate that we remove leaves from the lawn. It is one of my least favorite garden tasks, as evidenced by the fact that I wait until every last leaf has fallen before I get the leaf blower out so I’m certain that I don’t have to do it more than once.
Many people rake up leaves in the lawn because of aesthetics — we don’t want our neighbors to see a messy lawn. But there are lots of other issues that leaving leaves on the lawn can cause. Let’s take a look at all the reasons why leaving a layer of leaves on the lawn may not be the best idea.
First, the claim that leaving leaves where the fall on the lawn provides “habitat” for wildlife. What wildlife? The original source suggests small mammals, butterflies, and moths — specifically providing a place for overwintering. While I’m sure that there are some perfectly nice little critters that will make their home in the leaf litter, I have a name for what a lot of those things that find their home in your new “habitat” may be— pests.
Plant debris provides excellent overwintering opportunities for many garden pests. I also suspect that some of the wildlife that would find a comfy abode in the leaf litter would be small rodents, like mice and voles, that would enjoy nothing more than to snack upon some of the woody plants in your landscape. I also found some research that says removing leaf litter from residential areas reduces populations of ticks (article). Definitely something I wouldn’t want to welcome with open arms to my lawn.
Now let’s think about how plants make their food — they use sunlight for the process of photosynthesis. The article in question advocates letting leaves pile up where they fall on the lawn. This means piling up on the grass (or in my case, whatever passes for green). A layer of leaves on top of the grass will inhibit the plants from making their own food. While grass may not be actively growing in the winter, as long as it is green, it can still perform photosynthesis and store the food for spring. Even if you have a species of grass that turns brown in the winter, a pile of leaves would become an issue when things warm up in the spring.
It also turns out that a thick layer of matted leaves on top of the soil can create a barrier that reduces oxygen in the soil — thus creating an anoxic condition that will reduce or damage roots. Not only do the leaves create a barrier, but research has shown that the rapid consumption of oxygen by leaf litter bacteria lead to anaerobic conditions in the leaf litter itself (article).
Give the reduction in sunlight and soil oxygen, grass can have a difficult time thriving in areas of heavy leaf litter. Some other research results I found indicate a layer of leaf litter reduces the amount of herbaceous plants (in woodland) (in a field study). If you think about it, you don’t see many small herbaceous understory plants in forests with lots of trees — it isn’t just the shade from the trees that causes a problem.
I’ll also point out that for dog owners, leaving a layer in the yard can make it much easier to fall prey to what we refer to as “yard bombs.” I’m sure other dog owners have felt this pain.
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that leaves are a valuable resource for lawn and gardener, so don’t think that I’m anti-leaf. I put all of the leaves that fall in my yard to work for me. While leaving the leaves to pile up into layers on the lawn is not a good idea, using a mower to chip them up and leave them in place will provide valuable organic matter and nutrients for the soil. So if you don’t want to rake them up, run over them with the lawnmower so they will break down quickly into the soil (and don’t smother out the grass).
If you do rake up (or vacuum up) the leaves, there are a few things you can do with them. First, the shredded leaves make a good winter mulch for landscape beds (put the plant suppressing power to work controlling weeds). You can also bag them up and store them for use in composting next spring and summer when you have fresh green plants to add to them.
This article originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on November 15 (sans citations).
You can find my other articles online at wvgardenguru.com
A walk through the woods can be one of the most peaceful and calming experiences — a place where you can find quiet for reflection and marvel at the beauty of nature. Little do most people know that some plants, especially one specific tree, wage chemical warfare against other plants to keep away potential neighbors that would compete for nutrients and sunlight. In the Appalachian Mountains, the tree most skilled at chemical warfare is the black walnut.
The black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) is a useful, yet often misunderstood tree. Prized for its excellent wood qualities for lumber and furniture, the nuts it produces are either loved or reviled by those who try them.
The flavor of black walnuts is hard to describe. I would say that they have an almost astringent flavor, mainly due to the high level of tannins in them. They aren’t my favorite, but I don’t mind them either. I’ve learned to accept them, unlike during my childhood when you knew which church lady’s cake to avoid at the potluck because you knew that she put black walnuts in everything she baked.
My appreciation for black walnuts grew the year that I was the official nut judge (no joke) for the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, WV. It was quite an experience — examining and weighing all the entries with a team of high school FFA students who cracked more than a few inappropriate jokes about the situation.
You could tell when someone was picking or cracking black walnuts, thanks to the tannin stains on their hands that just wouldn’t wash off. Black walnuts are a tough nut to crack (literally), so I also remember my grandmother cracking them “the easy way.” She would just pile them up in the driveway and run over them a time or two with her behemoth of an Oldsmobile (you know, the one that had full seats front and back and could hold half the neighborhood).
Black walnut trees have the interesting ability to excrete a chemical called juglone, which makes it nearly impossible for a number of plants to grow anywhere in its root zone. Juglone works by damaging the tiny root hairs on roots that are responsible for taking up a great majority of the water and nutrients the plants use. Research shows that it also interferes with the interaction of the roots with mycorrhizal fungi that aid the plant in taking up nutrients.
This process is not just specific to black walnuts. There are several other plants that do this. The phenomenon, called allelopathy, occurs when an organism excretes something that inhibits the growth of other things around it. You could equate it to the Penicillium fungus excreting a chemical that kills bacteria around it. We harness that chemical to use as penicillin.
Some plants are especially sensitive to the chemical. Many vegetable plants, especially tomatoes, are sensitive. Some plants, mainly those that would grow wild in the woods, are not susceptible. Many grasses also have a hard time growing beneath black walnut trees (tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass being the exception, except during periods of drought).
All parts of the tree produce the juglone chemical, so the effects could spread beyond the perimeter of the tree from fallen leaves and branches. I would also suggest that you make sure any fresh woodchip mulch that you use (specifically that from local tree cutters) is free of black walnut. The juglone may break down after composting the wood chips for six months to a year, but I would still be cautious about its use. The wood will release the chemical, killing susceptible plants for a few years in the area where it is applied. Studies suggest that juglone will break down during the composting process, but I would check to make sure by starting a few tomato seeds on the batch of compost to see what happens.
—Garden Professor John Porter is a county extension agent for West Virginia University and writes the weekly Sunday garden column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail Newspaper. This article was originally published October 2, 2015.
When you talk about killer plants, your mind may conjure images of a man-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” insect-eating Venus flytraps or poisonous plants like deadly nightshade.
While all of those scenarios are interesting in and of themselves, what about plants that attack other plants?
I’m talking, of course, about parasitic plants. These plants thrive on stealing nutrients from other plants, either weakening them or, quite possibly, killing them.
Parasitic plants connect themselves to a host plant and siphon off the sugars that plant produces and the nutrients it pulls from the soil. These plants often bend the definition we have in our heads of plants, since they don’t have to behave like other plants that make their own food.
Probably the most well-known (and beloved) parasitic plant is mistletoe. The plant that gives us the warm fuzzies and romantic feelings around the holidays makes its living by feeding off of the trees in which it lives. They don’t talk about that aspect of the plant in all those Christmas songs. It doesn’t kill the tree, but a heavy infestation can weaken a tree and slow its growth.
While they are few in number, there are some parasitic plants you may run into. Another parasitic plant in our part of the world is the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a white, chlorophyll-free plant that resembles a smoking pipe as it unfurls from the forest floor. Without chlorophyll, it can’t make its own food, so it connects itself to a nearby tree (usually beech) for nutrients.
Another plant, called a beech drop (Epifagus americana), also makes its living in the same manner. A plant called squaw root or bear corn (Conopholis americana), because it resembles an ear of corn growing out of the forest floor, is a parasitic plant that connects with the roots of oak trees.
These plants may cause a little damage to their host plants. This week, though, there seems to be something more sinister afoot. I received two different calls about the same parasitic plant this week, from different parts of West Virginia (one of which came from Ann Berry, associate vice president for marketing and outreach at WVU). It seems that the problem here was with a parasitic plant called dodder (Cuscuta sp.). Despite the name, I assure you that this plant does not dodder around when it comes to feeding off other plants. This plant can severely infect and potentially kill any plant it touches.
Seeds of the plant germinate in the soil, so it starts life just like any other plant. Once germinated, though, the seedling has about 10 days to find a host plant to attach to and begin feeding. But this is not left to chance — it seems that dodder is a pretty good hunter. Scientists have determined that dodder can, in a way, sense chemical signals from nearby plants and grow directly toward them.
Dodder is an odd-looking plant, and many people don’t even know to classify it as a plant. It grows in long strings, often without leaves (or only having inconspicuous ones). Different species can be different colors. The one that is most common here is often a yellow-orange color.
Once the dodder touches the soft tissue of a plant (leaves or stems), it inserts a structure called a haustorium into the plant. Haustoria insert themselves into the plants vascular tissue (veins) and siphons off the water, sugars and nutrients. After the connection is made, the dodder plant detaches its roots from the ground and becomes completely reliant upon the host plant. Luckily it has trouble attacking woody plants, so it mainly goes after herbaceous ones.
One connection is bad enough, but the dodder twines its way around the plant as it grows, resembling what some would call “silly string.” Everywhere the dodder touches the host, it sends in new haustoria to strengthen its connection. If other plants are close enough, the dodder will grow outward through the air to ensnare another host. It can easily grow to encompass many plants, covering them completely and eventually strangling them or starving them out.
My advice to both of the callers this week was to remove as much of the plant as possible, as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the plant can regrow from the connections it makes with the host plant, so you often need to remove whole parts of the plant or the whole plant itself. If it has only made one or two connections, you may be able to control it just by removing the dodder from the plant.
Dodder is hard to see on the ground as it germinates, so it is only usually spotted after it has attached and grown on a plant. If you do happen to catch it before it attaches to a plant, cultivating the soil to break it up and removing as much by hand as possible will help. Unfortunately, there is no spray or control method that will kill the dodder without killing the host.
Dodder is definitely a bizarre plant that many have not seen. Keep an eye out for it this year, since it seems to be cropping up in unexpected places. It just goes to show you that sometimes it’s a plant-eat-plant world out there.
A few weeks ago I made my way to South Dakota for the annual meeting of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (where fellow GP and I made the rounds at the trade show scrutinizing wacky products). It is a fun conference made even more special this year by the fact that WVU President E. Gordon Gee was in attendance as the conference co-keynote speaker and recipient of the Service to American/World Agriculture award. But I digress…..
Two days into the conference something wasn’t quite right. I kept feeling worse and worse, and by Wednesday I was confined to my hotel room (save for a venture out to the conference banquet for dinner). I would not have been functional for the rest of the trip save for the kindness of a co-worker who went through the pharmacy red tape to procure and deliver “the good stuff” to my hotel room.
I thought I had a sinus infection at best (I get them often) and the flu at worst (yes, it was really that bad). But guess what — I’m just really allergic to South Dakota. Two days after my return, I was nearly back to normal (well, my normal, anyway).
Those who know me know that I suffer from the occupational hazard of allergies. Irony dictates that my allergies are only to about two dozen plants and two molds (that occur in mulch/compost). Lucky me!
My best guess is that I had a reaction to the corn pollen of South Dakota. It makes sense — while we do grow some corn here in West Virginia, the Mount Rushmore State boasts an estimated 4.75 million acres of corn. I don’t think I was tested for corn pollen allergies, but since corn is not a major crop here, it may not be part of the common test.
I tell this story not for sympathy (well, OK, maybe a little) but it brings up a good illustration about pollination strategies of plants.
You see, plants like corn rely on chance and wind to spread their genes around. In corn, the pollen drops from the male flowers (the tassel on the top) to the stigma of the female flower (the end of the silk sticking out of the cob). The process relies on lots of pollen being released into the air, since there is a good chance that a lot of it will miss the target. Corn pollen is usually heavy, therefore it doesn’t blow too far from the plant (unless there is lots of wind).
This is why you don’t get a good corn crop if you don’t have a big block of corn in the garden — just one or two rows doesn’t drop enough pollen to pollinate all the flowers. When the silks don’t get pollinated, you’ll end up with incomplete cobs missing kernels. This can also happen if the corn is in bloom during a long period of rain — the rain washes all of the pollen off before pollination can occur.
Most of the major allergen-producing plants are wind pollinators — trees, grasses, ragweed. They all release copious amounts of pollen into the air hoping for it to land in the right place.
Some plants still rely on pollen getting moved from plant to plant or flower to flower, but they remove the chance involved with wind pollination. These plants have a stickier pollen that stays on the flower and waits for something to come along and move it — a bee, a butterfly, a moth, a hummingbird, etc. These plants hold on to their pollen and have the more directed approach of getting a courier to make a direct delivery of their pollen between flowers.
Since these plants don’t leave the pollination to chance, they generally produce less pollen. Some good examples are fruit trees (apples, peaches, pears), sunflowers, squash, goldenrod and roses. Since they don’t release it into the air, they usually aren’t considered major allergens.
Still yet, some plants want to take no chance with their next generation. Self-pollinating plants don’t rely on pollen being spread to different flowers — they take care of business themselves. These plants are perfectly fine without crossbreeding with other plants.
Sometimes, these plants are so dedicated to self-fertilization that they make it difficult for the pollen to leave the flower. Bean flowers have a lower lip that curves upward to protect the reproductive parts inside. Tomato flowers are nearly completely enclosed. You may see bees going from flower to flower, but their search for food is in vain — they can’t get into the flower. Their buzzing does help dislodge the pollen inside the flower, but they don’t have access to spread it around. Producers that grow tomatoes in greenhouses where there is no wind to knock the pollen loose either buy boxes of bumblebees to release in the greenhouse, or use something like a vibrating toothbrush to help the flowers self-pollinate (no joke).
This is why you can plant two different tomatoes just a few feet apart and not have them crossbreed, but you would have to plant squash up to two miles apart (or protect the flowers) to guarantee that you get the same variety if you plan on saving seeds. This is why the most commonly saved seeds, at least in this area, are tomatoes and beans — they are easy to guarantee that you won’t get something other than what you plant.
So if you learn anything from this article, check out how plants pollinate before you save their seeds, and take plenty of allergy meds with you if you go to South Dakota.