Advancing the science of gardening and other stuff since 2009
Author: Linda Chalker-Scott
Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets.
Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019).
In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award.
"The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors
"The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors
Dig up dirt. Treat like dirt. Dirt poor. Replace the word “dirt” with “soil” and you get phrases that make no sense. This is a roundabout way of explaining that “dirt” and “soil” are not the same things, either in idioms or in the garden. Yet many of us effectively turn our soils into dirt through poor garden practices.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to use a single criterion to distinguish between soil and dirt: one is a living ecosystem and the other is not. A thriving soil ecosystem contains sufficient water, oxygen, and nutrients to support bacterial, fungal, plant, and animal life. Regardless of soil type, about half of the volume in a living soil should be pore space and the other half soil particles. Half of the pore space should be filled with water and the other half with air. When we make choices about activities that affect garden and landscape soils, we need to be proactive in preserving both the particle-pore balance as well as connectivity between the soil and the atmosphere.
The only way pore space can be reduced is through soil compaction. So don’t do it.
No driving. If equipment must be brought in, put down a thick layer of wood chips to protect the soil, or at least plywood.
No naked soil. Bare soils are compacted soils. Mulch!
No rototilling. It grinds your living soil into dirt. Disrupt the soil as little as possible when you plant.
No stomping, pressing, or otherwise compacting the soil during planting. Let water and gravity do that work for you.
The only way soil and atmosphere connectivity can be disrupted is by covering the soil with low permeability materials. So don’t do it.
No soil layering. Don’t create abrupt layers of soils with different textures. It interferes with water and gas exchange.
No sheet mulches. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say that and I am tired of saying it. Sheet mulches have less permeability than chunky mulches. That means oxygen and water have more difficulty getting through. Period.
Do use lots of groundcovers, chunky mulches, and hardscape in areas where there’s considerable foot traffic. They all protect the soil and are important parts of a well-designed, sustainable landscape.
If you just can’t get enough about soil science for gardens and landscapes, do check out this new publication by Dr. Jim Downer and myself.
In the fall a gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pruning (with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson). In particular, people worry that pruning too late in the summer or early fall will stimulate plants to send out new growth, which is then damaged by freezing temperatures. Let’s dissect what actually happens when woody plants are pruned during this time.
First, we need to separate temperate trees and shrubs from tropical and subtropical species. For the most part, the latter don’t become winter dormant: pruning them at any time means you will have regrowth as long as there are sufficient resources. If planted in more temperate zones, they will continue to grow until they are killed by freeze damage. Instead, we’ll look at temperate species and how they are adapted to surviving winter conditions.
I wrote a couple of posts last year on cold hardiness (here and here), so I won’t repeat those discussions on how plants survive freezing. Instead, we’ll focus on the process of HOW plants enter winter dormancy and become cold hardy. It’s a two-step process that depends on two different environmental factors: one that never changes from year to year, and one that certainly can.
The first step to dormancy is initiated right after the summer solstice. Plants are exquisitely adapted to changes in the light-to-dark ratio, and days begin shortening after the summer solstice. The changes that occur are largely biochemical, but you can also see some changes in plants themselves. Many trees and shrubs slow their growth during this time so that fewer young leaves and shoots are produced. Instead, resources are put into the existing foliage, or flowers for summer bloomers. Excess resources are routed to woody parts of the plant for storage.
From a practical standpoint, this means that when you prune trees and shrubs where growth has stopped, you will NOT get regrowth. The vegetative buds below the pruning cut are dormant. The tricky thing is that the exact time when the switch is thrown varies by species and is affected by environmental conditions. Careful observation will allow you to estimate when the plants will no longer produce new growth.
The second step begins when night temperatures cool to near freezing, which is not a predictable date. Because many of the biochemical and physiological processes have already begun or are finished, the response to cold night temperatures is rapid and visible. Leaf colors change as the plant begins breaking down leaf materials for mobilization and storage elsewhere in preparation for winter dormancy.
This process, honed over millions of years, is unfortunately not infallible especially under abnormal environmental conditions. Two examples spring to mind:
High intensity street lights. If the normal light-to-dark ratio change is interrupted by significant levels of night light, the first step of dormancy is hijacked. You can see what happens in these previous blog posts here and here.
Unseasonably cold weather. With climate change, we are seeing wild shifts in all sorts of weather patterns, including the date of the first hard freeze. Hard, early freezes are not the same as a light evening frost. You can see what happens here:
Given normal conditions, however, temperate trees and shrubs are well on their way to full winter dormancy by late summer and early fall. Pruning them is not going to induce new growth.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ranted about bad mulch choices and it certainly won’t be the last. But this pictorial cautionary tale is too important to pass up.
We already know that sheet mulches can be death to microbes, plant roots and animals living in the soil underneath. Our newly published research shows that landscape fabric reduces carbon dioxide movement between the soil and atmosphere about 1,000 times more than wood chip mulches do: plastic mulches are even worse. Oxygen movement will be likewise affected. And while gaps and holes in these barriers can lessen the impact, the question remains: why would you use ANY mulch that reduces gas movement? Yet people persist in using fabrics and plastics, usually to “smother” weeds (and that verb should set off alarm bells for anyone thinking about collateral damage to soil life). But weeds are weeds for a reason, and they will eventually colonize the surface of sheet mulches as soil, organic matter, and water collect over time.
So without further ado, here is a case study of what happens when sheet mulch is used for landscape weed control.
These irrigated landscape beds are in Wenatchee, Washington, which has hot, dry summers. As you can see, bark mulch has been used to hide the shame of sheet mulching. And from a distance it looks…okay.
Upon closer inspection, you can see the shroud of death emerging from the bark mulch (which has no means of staying in place, especially on a slope).
And even close you can see the soil that’s blown in, along with the bark and other organic matter. Just add water, and you get weeds!
Weeds, weeds, weeds! Lots of weeds. Sunny weeds!
And shady weeds!
The weeds are thriving – but the trees are not. The crowns are dying…
…and the trunks are suckering.
But you’ll note that the trees in the first photo outside of the beds are thriving.
And it’s all because of that “weed control fabric.” Which is working so well that this landscape had to be treated with herbicide the day I was there – to control the weeds.
Regular blog readers will remember that we moved to my childhood home a few years ago. With an acre or so of landscape I finally have enough room to put in a vegetable garden. My husband built a wonderful raised bed system, complete with critter fencing, and we’ve been enjoying the fresh greens and the first few tomatoes of the season.
We filled these raised beds with native soil. During a porch addition I asked the contractor to stockpile the topsoil near the raised beds. The house was built almost 100 years ago and at that time there were no “designed topsoils” (thank goodness) – soil was simply moved around during construction. Some of this soil had been covered by pavers and the rest had been covered with turf. [You can read more about designed topsoils in this publication under “choosing soil for raised beds.”] There had been no addition of nutrients for at least 7 years so I was confident that this was about as natural a soil as I could expect.
I’ve always advised gardeners to have a soil test done whenever they embark on a new garden or landscape project, so before I added anything to my raised beds I took samples and sent them to the soil testing lab at University of Massachusetts at Amherst (my go-to lab as there are no longer any university labs in Washington State for the public to use).
What I already knew about our soil was that it’s a glacial till (in other words it’s full of rocks left behind by a receding glacier). The area is full of native Garry oak (Quercus garryana), some of which are centuries old. The soil is excessively drained, meaning it’s probably a sandy loam. And that’s about all I knew until my results came back.
Because nothing has been added to this soil for several years, and because I had removed all of the turf grass before filling the beds, I assumed that the organic matter (OM) would be quite low. Most soils that support tree growth have around 3-7% OM. Hah! Ours was over 12%! All I can figure is that centuries of leaf litter has created a rich organic soil.
So here’s lesson number one: Don’t add OM just because you think you need it. Too much OM creates overly rich conditions that can reduce the natural protective chemicals in vegetation. This means pests and diseases are more likely to be problems.
I was pleased to see our P level was low. First soil test I’ve ever seen in my area where P was below the desirable range! Does that mean I’m adding P? No – because there is no evidence of a P deficiency anywhere in the landscape. And my garden plants are growing just fine without it.
Lesson number two: Just because a nutrient is reportedly deficient, look for evidence of that deficiency before you add it. It’s a lot easier to add something than it is to remove it.
Likewise, our other nutrient values are just fine, and I was pleased to see that lead levels were low. Given that this is an older house that had lead paint at one time, and given the fact that the soil being tested was adjacent to the house, I was prepared for lead problems.
However – we do have high aluminum in the soil. Exactly why…I don’t know. Perhaps the soil is naturally high in aluminum? There’s no evidence that aluminum sulfate or another amendment was ever used. In any case, that was an unexpected result that does give us some concern for root crops. I’ll be doing some research to see what vegetables accumulate aluminum.
Finally, note our pH – 4.9! This is completely normal for our area, which is naturally acidic. In addition, the tannic acid accumulation from centuries of oak leaves has undoubtedly pushed the pH even lower. Are we going to adjust it? Again, no. There is no evidence of any plant problems, and even our lawn is green. Why would we adjust the pH if there is no visual evidence to support that?
Which leads to lesson number three: Don’t adjust your soil pH just because you think you should. If your plants are growing well, the pH is fine. Plants and their associated root microbes are pretty well adapted to obtaining the necessary nutrients. If you have problems, don’t assume it’s a pH issue. Correlation does not equal causation! You’ll need to eliminate all other possibilities before attempting to change your soil chemistry. And remember it is impossible to permanently change soil pH over the short term. Permanent pH changes require decades, if not centuries of annual inputs (like our oak leaves).
Will I test my soil again? Probably not. I have the baseline report and since I don’t plan to add anything I don’t expect it to change much. If I had a nutrient toxicity I would retest until the level of that nutrient had decreased to normal levels. But with everything growing well, from lawn to vegetables to shrubs and trees, there really is nothing to be concerned about.
Lesson number four: Unless you have something in your soil to worry about, don’t.
About this time last year I posted photos of the installation of my new pollinator gardens (all perennials). As you can tell from the photos below, all of these plants have not only survived but thrived with their midsummer rootwashing.
The only ones that didn’t make it were the six Lavandula stoechas ‘Bandera Purple’ (see above). They did fine through the summer and well into winter. But with our surprise snowstorm in February (along with a 20-degree temperature drop in one night – from 33 to 14F), all but one of these marginally hardy plants (USDA zones 7-10) gave up the ghost. I won’t make that mistake again. But I will continue to root wash ALL of my perennials before I plant.
And since it’s Independence Day here in the US, I thought I’d continue with the “free your roots” theme and discuss the medieval torture system that passes for recommended B&B tree installation practices. I’m talking about the burlap, the twine, and the wire baskets that are left on the root ball and cunningly hidden underground to do their damage over the years.
There is a great deal of disagreement about what to do with all the foreign material that’s used to keep tree root balls intact during shipment. To be clear, that is the ONLY thing they are intended to do. There is no research that shows leaving them on benefits the tree at all. The reason they are left on is because it’s more economically feasible for the installation company to do it this way. Personally I think that’s a pretty crappy reason, particularly when you are looking at trees that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Most studies that have addressed the issue have been short term: two or three years, rarely longer. Irreversible damage to roots can take years to develop. It’s useful, therefore, to look at the landscape evidence to see what happens with all these barriers to root growth and establishment.
Arborist and landscape designer Lyle Collins recently excavated the remains of trees that had been installed in 1991. The trees had died years ago and certainly hadn’t grown much as evidenced by their trunk size.
But while the trees didn’t survive, the burlap, wire basket, and webbing were all still there almost 30 years later.
The clay rootballs are nearly intact as well. That’s not what you want to see. Roots must establish outside the rootball into the native soil, or they won’t survive.
Eventually I’m convinced long-term research will show the folly of leaving foreign materials on the rootballs of B&B trees. In the meantime, I’ll continue to plant trees in a way that ensures their roots are in contact with the native soil and free from any unnatural barriers to growth.
Way back in 2010 (and then again in 2012) I wrote about a bizarre belief that cornmeal could be used to treat fungal diseases, from lawn spot to athlete’s foot. Rather than rehash what’s already been written, I’ll invite readers to read those posts for background. And of course look at the comments, which are…interesting.The weird thing is that this post from 2010 is the single most popular post on the blog. (Our stats are only for the last two years since we migrated the web site – who knows how many there were before May 2017?)
The consistent popularity for the topic spurred me to publish a university fact sheet on the use of cornmeal and corn gluten meal in home landscapes and gardens. This fact sheet reviews the pertinent literature, and makes recommendations that are pretty much the same as those I made almost 10 years ago. Nothing has changed in the research world to support cornmeal as a fungicide.
But wait, there IS something that’s happened since 2010! Now cornmeal is being touted as an insecticide! In fact, if you go to Google and search for “cornmeal” and “insecticide” you’ll find thousands of hits. As you might expect, there’s no research to support this notion: researchers in Maine, for instance, found no effect of cornmeal on fire ants. However, it is used as a bait to deliver actual insecticidal chemicals.
But facts don’t get in the way of home remedies, such as Lifehacker’s eyebrow-raising advice.
By refining the search to only include university websites (use “site:.edu” to do this), and swapping out “ants” for “insecticide,” you’ll find at least one Master Gardener group happily (and illegally) recommending cornmeal as an ant killer. The popular mode of action is either (1) they can’t digest cornmeal and starve or (2) the cornmeal absorbs water in their gut and they explode.
This reminds me of yet another food product – molasses – recommended for killing ants. Since you’re already here, you might as well check out Molasses Malarkey parts 1, 2, and 3 too.
Might I recommend everyone use their cornmeal and molasses to make bread or cookies or pancakes? There are some delicious recipes on the internet.
Today’s blog post is courtesy of Mary Blockberger of Sechelt, BC. As you’ll see, Mary and I go way back. I thought it was important to our ongoing discussion to see how the industry can use the root-washing technique effectively and economically. Here’s Mary:
“Before I began managing the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden in Sechelt, BC I had a small residential landscaping company. By small, I mean that I was the employee of the month every month of the year! One of our Garden’s mandates is to provide relevant and educational programs for our community. Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has been one of our most popular speakers several times. One of her presentations dealt with the practise of bare-rooting perennials, shrubs, and trees prior to planting, and the tremendous advantages of following this method.
“In November, 2007 I had a chance to try this technique out. My client wanted a ribbon of Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’ planted that would eventually be pleached into an interesting pattern. [Pleaching is a formal tree training technique.] There was a total of 36 trees to be planted; most were container stock as I recall but there may have included a couple of B&Bs as well. Working with another local landscaper, into a wheelbarrow of water went every single tree one at a time. The dirt was clawed away from the root balls by hand with a final spray from the hose. Honestly, it was a cold and miserable job, and I believe a few curses directed at Linda ensued. However, once the roots were cleaned of all soil planting was a breeze. It’s a lot easier moving trees without moving the soil too.
“Flash forward 12 years, and every single tree has flourished. Bare rooting allowed us to identify and correct any problems before planting, and I’m sure this has a lot to do with the trees’ success. It’s a time consuming and at times messy method, but the reward of a healthy row of trees is well worth the effort, IMHO.”
And let me add to Mary’s account that a ZERO replacement rate is going to pencil out to long term economic success. I was able to see these trees earlier this year – that’s my photo at the top of this post.
Anyone who plants or cares for woody plants eventually hears the term “root flare” (or root crown). It’s easy to describe a root flare (it’s the region where stem or trunk morphs into roots). What’s sometimes difficult or even impossible is finding it in improperly planted trees and shrubs.
One of the primary causes of tree and shrub failure is improper planting depth. This is not a problem with bare-root plants, as you can easily see the region of transition. During planting you should make sure that the root flare is at grade, so that the roots are underground and the stem/trunk is above ground. The only mistake you can make with bare-root plants is to plant them upside down.
The problem really started with the advent of containerized and balled-in-burlap (B&B) plants. This technology is less than 100 years old, and before it existed everything was either planted from seed or from bare-root stock. It’s possible to use containers and B&B properly for temporarily housing trees and shrubs, but increasingly automated production methods with unskilled workers and undereducated supervisors means increasing numbers of poorly planted woody plants entering the retail market.
I’ve written earlier posts about how to select plants at the nursery. As you’ll note, finding the root flare can often be impossible without removing container media or B&B burlap. Because so many people are unaware of the problem or unwilling to disturb the root ball, these plants are then installed with the root flare still buried.
Why does it matter if part of the trunk is underground? For some species, it really doesn’t matter. Wetland species, for instance, can tolerate low soil oxygen levels and submerged trunks. But most of us are not planting wetland species, and many ornamentals are not tolerant of this treatment. Roots that are buried too deeply don’t receive enough oxygen to survive, and the plants respond by trying to create a new root system. These adventitious roots are unable to supply enough water to the growing crown, however, meaning shrubs and trees suffer chronic drought stress when the rate of evaporation exceeds the ability of these substandard root systems to supply water.
There are other problems, too. Stem and trunk tissues of non-wetland species are not adapted to being buried. The excessive moisture and lack of oxygen contribute to the attack of opportunistic pests and diseases, both of which can cause irreversible damage and eventual death. You can even see this happening to plants in the nursery.
Finally, consider this landscape evidence of the impact of buried root flares. These magnolias are all planted on the campus at Princeton University. The one of the left is significantly smaller than the other three. A close up of the trunks explains why.
If you have newly planted trees that look more like telephone poles than trees, the best thing you can do is dig them up and plant them correctly.
One of the “advantages” of being in the same office suite as me is hearing (a) that arborist wood chips are about as close to a miracle product as you can get and (b) that landscape fabric is hell on (the) earth. So my office mate Liz, either because she was convinced of the above or just wanted to shut me up, decided to rip out the landscape fabric in her ornamental bed and replace it with wood chips. She even made it a family project, somehow convincing her two young daughters that this was “fun.” Here’s her pictorial essay of the process.
Before the switch
Why on earth does anyone still believe that “weed block” fabric actually does anything remotely related to controlling weeds? It provides a great substrate for all those weed seeds blowing around, which find themselves the recipients of any rainfall or irrigation. They germinate and grow like crazy – because they are WEEDS. It’s what they do.
Worse yet for the soil – all of those pores in the fabric that supposedly allow water and oxygen to move through are soon filled with bits of soil. The resulting mat is anything but permeable. But weeds love it!
First Liz had to score some woodchips, which as you can see pretty much filled her driveway. The girls, however, thought they were a great addition.
Next, all of that fabric had to come out. This is not an easy process, because the surface of the fabric was completely colonized by weeds. A mattock is a great tool for getting this done.
Now, let’s look at the soil underneath the fabric. You can see how dry it is. That’s because even during our rainy springs in the Pacific Northwest all of the rainfall stays on top of the fabric, allowing lush weed growth. The roots of all of the landscape plants get virtually none of this, and in the summer that’s a source of chronic drought stress.
Fortunately, the soil underneath, while dry, looks pretty good. Once the shrubs and perennials are able to take advantage of the increased water and oxygen they will thrive.
Maybe you don’t like the look of arborist wood chips, but it’s certainly better than the weedy mess that used to be there. Plus, the soil benefits from the increased water and oxygen, the beneficial microbes in the wood chips, and the slow feed of nutrients as those chips slowly decompose.
If you are ready to switch from “fabric fail” to “wood-chip win,” you can start with this fact sheet which will guide you through the process.