Academic freedom vs. science-based advice

Those of you that have followed The Garden Professors for some time know that Jeff Gillman and I are relentless in our pursuit of gardening myths to explode. Social media – Facebook in particular – seems to be a natural breeding ground for dumb and/or dangerous home remedies that go viral. Most of these have no basis in actual science and are easy to dismiss. Other recommendations may have some science behind them, but a careful review of the literature often shows that the bulk of research does not support that particular practice or product. These ones are trickier to deal with, and nothing has been trickier for either me or Jeff than compost tea.

Nurseries often carry compost tea products (this one is now defunct)
Nurseries often carry compost tea products (this one is now defunct)

The two of us have posted extensively on this topic in the last six years: just use the search function over in the left hand column of this blog and type in “compost tea”. You’ll find enough reading to keep you busy for a while. I summarized the state of the literature a few years ago in the now-defunct MasterGardener Magazine and to be honest the accumulated literature hasn’t changed much in terms of generating solid science supporting compost tea use. But its popularity seems to be increasing among landscape professionals and gardeners alike.

Informed Gardener page

I get a lot of questions on compost tea from Master Gardeners in particular, who are bound by their positions as university volunteers to use science-based information. One of their major resources is the state university associated with their program – and recently this has become a problem for WSU Master Gardeners. Because on the Washington State University website you can find one professor who cites the lack of credible, consistent science on compost tea usage and another professor who provides workshops and webinars on making and using compost tea. Master Gardeners are understandably confused about what they can recommend and irritated that their university provides conflicting information. Why, they ask, does the university allow this to happen?

GP page

The answer is found in one of the most important values that universities protect: the academic freedom for faculty to speak their minds. Ideally this means that faculty can speak up about topics that are unpopular with university administrators without fear of reprisal, but it also means faculty have a soapbox on pretty much any topic they wish. And that’s whether or not they have any expertise or credibility on that topic. (For a particularly egregious example, one needs look no farther than prestigious MIT who has a research scientist with no expertise in biology or chemistry but who publishes articles in marginal journals linking glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – to just about every known human malady.) Universities tend not step into this fray as it is a slippery slope – who decides what faculty speech should be censured and which should not?

GP group

How can Master Gardeners and others decide what information to believe? Well, that’s actually the mission of this blog and our Facebook page and group – to provide the best current gardening science and to help the public increase their scientific literacy skills. Science is not immutable – it advances as credible, published evidence accumulates. When and if compost tea ever becomes a consistent, effective product, we will be the first ones to share that information.

Moss magic

In my opinion, no coastal Pacific NW garden is complete without moss softening the edges of a rock garden or nestling between paving stones. Now that the rains have returned, mosses are lush green sponges, absorbing sound as well as water. They are the finishing touches to our native landscapes.

Bloedel Reserve moss garden
Bloedel Reserve moss garden

A few months ago, however, mosses looked quite different. With our particularly hot and droughty summer, mosses were brown, dry and brittle just like our lawns. But unlike those dead blades of grass, the mosses were only in a state of environmental dormancy. All it took to revive them was water.

Here’s a patch of moss in our home landscape during a hot dry spell. It’s dry and brown:

Dormant moss
Dormant moss

Here’s the same patch of moss 20 minutes after I watered it:

It's a garden miracle!
It’s a garden miracle!

How can mosses recover so quickly? Well, mosses are one of the most primitive groups of land plants still in existence. They lack a true vascular system, so their “roots” are only anchoring structures – they don’t absorb water. Instead, water and nutrients are taken up over the leaf surface. As soon as water hits the leaves, it’s absorbed and literally throws the switch to turn everything back on. Leaves expand, chloroplasts start to absorb sunlight, and the photosynthetic machine is humming along.

In fact, my undergraduate major advisor was a bryologist (one who studies mosses). Jack Lyford’s lab was stacked ceiling-high with shoe boxes. Each box contained a different species of moss – completely dried out of course. All he had to do was take out a piece and place it in a dish of water. Within minutes it was fully functional and ready for study.

So make room for some moss in your garden. It’s a tough and fascinating little survivor.

Your new word for the day: thigmomorphogenesis

I just finished reviewing 4 manuscripts for three different journals and boy is my brain fried. My private reactions ranged from “I can’t wait until this one is published!” to “If I were to use sheet mulch this manuscript would be my first choice.” Anyway, it was the latter manuscript that got me to thinking about what can go wrong with experimental design, which brings up today’s word: thigmomorphogenesis.

This is a great word for those who enjoy figuring out word meanings by deciphering the (usually) Greek or Latin roots. (This exercise also helps you figure out how to pronounce it.) We have “thigmo-” which means touch, “-morpho-” which means appearance, and “-genesis” which means beginning. String them all together and you get the phenomenon seen when plants respond to mechanical stimulation by changing their growth pattern and hence the way they look.

Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.
Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.

You can easily see examples of thigmomorphogenesis in everyday life. Look at a line of hedge plants where the plants on the end are more susceptible to wind movement and brushing by people, animals or vehicles. They are always shorter, aren’t they? Plants subjected to chronic thigmomorphogenic forces are generally shorter than their neighbors and thicker in girth. (For a longer discussion about how thigmorphogenesis works, you can read my online column.)

How does all of this relate to experimental design? Well, think about what happens if you are testing a product that requires applying it to the leaves of plants once a week. Your treatment plants are touched every week. How can you know that any changes in your experimental plants aren’t due to being touched? The way you eliminate this source of variability is by treating all of the plants the same way. When you are applying the product to the treatment leaves, you apply water (or whatever the solvent is for the product in question) to the control leaves. That way thigmomorphogenesis remains just an interesting tongue-twister and not a fatal design flaw in an experiment.

Little ball of horrors

One of the great things about doing a multi-author science blog is that there will be topics about which colleagues will disagree. One of those topics revolves around the best way to prepare woody rooted plants (trees and shrubs) before planting them. This is an area in arboricultural science that is evolving. A search through our blog archives will find many of these posts and for convenience’s sake I’ve linked one from each of us here.

From Jeff (2009)
From Bert (2014)
From Linda (2013)

Rather than belabor the points that Jeff, Bert and I have already made in our posts, I think I can sum up our major difference here: I like to bare-root trees and shrubs completely before planting (so I can correctively prune all flawed roots) while Bert and Jeff prefer a less invasive approach. What we do agree upon, however, is the deplorable condition of the roots of many trees and shrubs that end up in the nursery. Because I do practice bare-rooting trees, I thought I’d use today’s post as a rogue’s gallery of trees that should never have made it to the retail nursery. (All of these trees were ones that I bare-rooted and root-pruned myself before planting – and all are thriving.)

Ginkgo "knee" root
Ginkgo “knee” root
Interlocking redbud roots
Interlocking redbud roots
Junky Japanese maple
Junky Japanese maple
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, only root-washing could find the root crown of this tree.
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, root-washing revealed the root crown of this tree (which the “at grade” part of the tree) 10″ below the top of the bag

Another unnecessary tree failure

The end of August brought an unseasonable rain- and windstorm to the Puget Sound region. We had some spectacular tree failures which I missed seeing as I was out of town. But one of our Facebook group members, Grace Hensley, was on the ball and took some great photos of a fallen purple-leafed plum. The first thing you see is the complete lack of a stabilizing root system.

"Rootless" purple leafed plum
“Rootless” purple leafed plum

Now look at the base of the trunk, which is actually a massive circling root that has girdled the trunk over time.

A big wooden donut
A big wooden doughnut

By now you must be able to see the orange twine extending from the base of the tree to the soil. Yes, those are the remains of the balled-and-burlapped clay root ball that was planted many years ago. Commercial landscapers will assure you that tree roots can grow through the burlap and establish. And this is sometimes true, as in this case.

But what doesn’t happen when the whole B&B mass is plopped into the ground is that circling woody roots aren’t discovered and corrected. Over the decades what started as a small circling root grew bigger and bigger, slowly squeezing the trunk and preventing it from developing girth at that point. It’s kind of like a blood pressure cuff being pressurized but never released.

Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root
Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root. The broken part here used to be in middle of the wooden doughnut.

In time, the constricted point becomes so unstable that the tree breaks. Look are how small the trunk that’s still in the ground is compared to the trunk of the tree itself. Windstorms are often the final push these failing trees need.

How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?
How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?

Commercial landscapers say it’s too costly to remove the twine and burlap and clay surrounding the roots, not to mention doing any of the corrective root pruning that might be needed. It’s easier to just plant the whole thing and cross your fingers that the tree lives past the warranty date. This is what happens when you consider a tree as just another design element rather than a living organism.

As a homeowner, however, you can insist that your trees are planted correctly (if you have someone else do the work). Or you can do it yourself. The bare-root method (sometimes called root washing) is an emerging science and it requires thoughtfulness, but it’s certainly better than the conventional approach in terms of long term tree health.

A new excuse for bad pruning

I spent last week in Orlando at the ISA annual meeting (that’s the International Society for Arboriculture). It’s a great venue for networking with colleagues and hearing about the latest tree research. And once in a while I’ll have a WTF moment. (That stands for Why Trees Fail in case you’re wondering.)

My WTF experience this year revolved around some new terminology and techniques. I learned there are now “environmental arborists” who practice “retrenchment pruning.” In the last few days I’ve tried mightily to find some standard definitions from reputable sources. I don’t know what an environmental arborist is, since it’s not a certification (like an ISA certified arborist) nor is it a university degree program (like urban forestry or environmental horticulture). It seems to be a self-anointed title.

This is what a mature oak should look like.
This is what a mature urban oak should look like.

But the real WTF issue is retrenchment pruning. I looked in vain for published research through my usual data bases and found nothing – other than two articles in Arboricultural Journal (which is not the same as ISA’s journal – Arboriculture and Urban Forestry). Neither of the articles presented experimental evidence to justify this radical approach to pruning trees. Instead, they are more philosophical in nature, with a smattering of ecological theory.

Fortunately, retrenchment pruning methods are easily found on the internet, along with horrific pictures illustrating the results. As described on various websites, retrenchment pruning imitates the natural process of aging. Practitioners remove live branches or partial trunks to reduce the size of the tree and prevent future failure. These aren’t clean cuts, either: they’re “coronet cuts” or “natural fractures.” The rationale described in one of the Arboricultural Journal articles is that these jagged broken branches and trunks “promote specialist habitats and enhance colonisation rates of niche species.” In other words, this technique creates large wounds that are easily colonized by various insects and microbes.

An example of natural fracture pruning (
An example of natural fracture pruning (

So apparently we’re expected to ignore the well-established field of woody plant physiology (which happens to be my specialty) and related practical bodies of knowledge (e.g., formal and informal pruning techniques of said woody plants) and start hacking away at mature trees. In doing so, we’re removing live tissue and creating large wounds. This has the effect of both reducing photosynthetic potential of the tree as well as opening it up to possible pest or disease invasion. But nowhere are these possibilities discussed as part of the “natural aging process.” Nor was there mention about how to manage the epicormics shoots that result from improper pruning. And they do need to be managed.

These are epicormic shoots resulting from topping this tree.
These are epicormic shoots resulting from topping this tree.

I saw some very angry arborists at the ISA meeting who were incensed at the idea that we should deliberately malprune trees. But others seemed quite excited with this new philosophy. To paraphrase one of my plant physiology colleagues, “Give a bad arboricultural practice a catchy name and it magically becomes legitimate.”

The cardboard controversy

I’m not a fan of using corrugated cardboard as a mulch, which like other sheet mulches creates problems for the underlying soil. Long-time readers of this blog may remember several previous posts (1, 2, 3 and 4) on this topic and I won’t belabor the points made in those posts. Instead, today I’m doing to focus on cardboard itself.

Cardboard mulch under wood chips
Cardboard mulch under wood chips

First, cardboard is a generic term that can refer to many types of manufactured paper. The box you see delivered to your front door is more properly called corrugated board or containerboard. It consists of two layers of linerboard sandwiching a layer of accordion-like fluting material. The linerboard is made from sheets of pulp that may be coated to improve smoothness (more about this later). The finished linerboard is laminated using adhesives to both sides of the fluting material.

Corrugated boxes are built to be tough.
Corrugated boxes are built tough

These boxes are made to withstand rough handling and to protect the contents from the external environment. It’s tough stuff: while you might be able to bend a piece of corrugated board fairly easily, it’s more difficult to tear it in half. The more heavy duty the box, the more difficult it is to bend or tear its walls.

So let’s now consider using this tough material in your garden as a mulch. It may be coated as mentioned earlier to improve smoothness. That’s going to prevent it from absorbing moisture. The coating also reduces the ability for gases to move between the soil and the atmosphere. In fact, smoothness is measured using an air leak method – the smoothest materials have the least air leakage.

Photo credit vizpix at Flickr
Photo credit: vizpix at Flickr

A garden or landscape mulched with cardboard (or heaven forbid several layers of cardboard as part of the science-free lasagna mulch method) is now covered with a tough, relatively gas- and water-impermeable material that will take some time to break down. It’s hardly a mulch that’s going to nurture soil life.

But cardboard mulch fans swear that they find more earthworms under cardboard than anywhere else in their garden. This is almost always the first response I get from gardeners who don’t believe that cardboard causes problems. And this is where it’s important to consider earthworm behavior.

Photo credit: Kurt B. on Flicker
Photo credit: Kurt B. on Flickr

We’ve all observed that earthworms crawl to the soil surface during heavy rains; this is due in part to water filling their burrows and reducing oxygen availability (Chuang and Chen demonstrated this nicely in 2008). Likewise, the reduction in oxygen movement from the atmosphere into cardboard-covered soil would cause worms to crawl upwards in an effort to find oxygen at the soil surface.

So don’t assume your lasagna mulching draws earthworms to your garden. It’s more likely that you’re smothering their habitat.