Our New Year’s Resolution – to keep you informed and entertained every week.

Happy New Year!

The Garden Professor’s collective resolution is to have at least one new blog post a week for 2018. So I’m kicking things off with a little fact checking on the claims made for a product that’s “a complete ecosystem in a bottle.” The company touts its strong connection to science (“our products revolve around biology”). There is a long list of ingredients and claims – way too much for one post. We’ll start with the first four this week.

All this can be yours if the price is right!

Ingredient claim #1: “Chitin/chitin degrading Bacillus: Chitin is a natural polymer that is found in crustaceans, such as crabs, lobsters, shrimp and oysters as well as other organisms, such as insects, worms and fungi. When added to the soil ecosystem, chitin (also referred to as chitosan) promotes the growth of chitin-degrading bacteria. These bacteria, in turn, create a hostile environment for pathogenic fungi and parasitic nematodes. Chitin also acts directly on plants to promote tissue repair and disease resistance.”

Fact check #1: A couple of technical points: oysters don’t have chitin. And they’re not crustaceans. They are MOLLUSKS. They have shells with CALCIUM. And chitosan is not the same thing as chitin. It’s an industrially produced material that comes from chitin.

Not a crustacean.

Chitin is indeed found in arthropods, which include crustaceans and insects. Now, most of us don’t have crabs, lobsters and shrimp roaming our landscape, but we do have insects. Lots of them. They produce a lot of chitin when they molt and when they die. Do you really think we need to add more chitin for Bacillus to consumer? I sure haven’t seen any science supporting that practice.

What about the Bacillus species that degrade chitin? Well, if you’ve got insects in your landscape, you can bet you’ve got microbes that break down chitin as well. Otherwise you’d be up to your garden boots in chitin carcasses. So why do we need to add more bacteria?

Imagine billions of these in your garden…

Finally, there’s no evidence that chitin applied to plants in the landscape has any effect whatsoever. You might get responses in the lab, and chitosan (not chitin) might have some direct application. But like many other elicitors, you have to get it inside the plant to have a cellular effect. And plants are particularly adept at keeping things like decomposing bug bits outside of their tissues.

Ingredient claim #2: “Compost tea: The disease suppressive characteristics of compost have long been known and therefore the liquid extracts from compost, known as compost teas are being use to battle plant disease while stimulating plant growth. Beneficial organisms including bacteria (primarily from the genera Bacillus, Pseudomonas, and Penicillium) along with some yeast and fungi form a physical barrier against disease causing agents and provide a competitive environment in which the pathogenic species lose out. In addition, compost teas stimulate plant growth, translating into a healthier plant, which is more resistant to attack from disease. Compost teas have shown effectiveness in the control of late blight, grey mold, downy and powdery mildew, fusarium wilt, and apple scab among many others.”

The visuals are more interesting than the product.

Fact check #2. Just because compost has disease suppressing characteristics doesn’t mean that water leaching through it will have the same. We’ve been hearing for years that compost tea suppresses disease. Where’s the definitive research? It’s a topic I’ve been following for nearly two decades and there’s still nothing that’s consistently effective. (Another technical point here: it’s illegal to make pesticidal claims of a product that’s not registered for that use. Company lawyers may want to review that.)

There are many species of bacteria, including the ones mentioned, that form protective and beneficial biofilms on plant tissues such as fine roots. You can find these bacteria in compost and other sources of organic material – that’s their food source. You won’t find many of them in compost tea.

I’d love to see evidence of anything stimulating plant growth other than plant growth regulators (or hormones as they’re sometimes called).

Aren’t marketers getting tired of compost teas yet? I’m getting tired of hearing about them. I reviewed the science about them 10 years ago and haven’t seen anything to warrant an update.

Ingredient claim #3: “Essential oils: or essences they are called, are highly concentrated substances extracted from various parts of aromatic plants and trees. Essential oils are combined with other carrier oils and teas for stabilization. Essential oils are used against plant pests and disease by interfering with their reproduction and feeding habits while protecting beneficial predatory organisms.”

We like them, ergo they work.

Fact check #3: Essential oils have no documented benefit when applied outdoors. They can be effective in closed spaces, like homes and greenhouses, but they dissipate quickly outside. What I really want to see, however, is the mechanism by which oils can identify – and actually protect! – beneficial insects while killing pests. (Hey, lawyers…we’ve got another pesticidal claim here…)

Ingredient claim #4: “Streptomyces griseoviridis: Is a naturally occurring soil bacteria. The microbe deprives pathogenic fungi of living space and nourishment by colonizing roots in advance of fungi. In addition the microbe secretes various enzymes and metabolites which inhibit pathogenic growth. Streptomyces griseoviridis has been shown to promote the growth and yield of all plants. Streptomyces griseoviridis is used for the prevention of root and stem rot, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Helminthosporium, Sclerotinia, among others.”

All those stickers keep the bad guys from colonizing.

Fact check #4: While this is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, it’s not clear where it naturally occurs. EPA information states it was first isolated in Finland from peat bogs. Is this something we should be introducing to our own soils? Its effectiveness in disease control and plant performance is sporadic and confined primarily to greenhouse application on crop plants. The diseases listed are common in greenhouses, but not necessarily in gardens and landscapes (presumably because there are natural controls outdoors in healthy soils). There is certainly nothing to support its use in gardens and landscapes, especially considering that many native, beneficial bacterial species can colonize plant roots and act as a protective biofilm.

Stay tuned for next time!

Love notes of genetics and physiology for Valentine’s Day

A St. Valentine meme compliments of my "friend" the self-styled Rev. Apostle, and Bishop to the Stars, Joel L. Watts.
A St. Valentine meme compliments of my “friend” the self-styled Rev. Apostle, and Bishop to the Stars, Joel L. Watts.

Ahhh….’Tis the time of year when we celebrate romantic love in homage to a 3rd Century priest who came up a head short for performing unsanctioned Christian weddings.  (It is also of note that St. Valentine, or Valentinius as his friends called him, is the patron saint of bee keepers but, strangely, not of birds, flowers, or trees).

In celebration, many suitors, partners, spouses, fling-seekers, and woo-wishers will flock to florists, grocery floral counters, and even gas stations to purchase flowers, namely roses, that have likewise been beheaded.

Those roses, with all of their tightly wound petals, look nothing wild-type roses. Modern roses are the product of many centuries of breeding that started independently in China and the Mediterranean region.

So if the wild-type rose has a single row of five petals, how do breeders get all of those extra petals?  They can just come from nowhere, you know.

The simple answer is that tissue that turns into stamens in the wild-type flower are converted to petal tissue.  While early (and even contemporary) plant breeders may not understand the mechanism responsible for the doubling (gene expression), research is showing that the same gene is responsible for the doubling in both the Chinese and Mediterranean set of species/subspecies.

In a nutshell, what happens is that the different regions of the flower – sepals, petals, stamens, carpel – develop in response to the expression of a set of genes.  It isn’t just the genes acting alone, though; it is their interaction in the tissues that makes the difference.  These genes are grouped by the floral part they affect and are grouped as A-Function, B-Function, C-Function, and E-Function.

If you want to learn a whole lot more about it than I can ‘splain (it has been a few years since my last plant physiology class), this paper thoroughly explains the gene expression and evolution of the flower.  Their figure depicting the flower model is informative, yet simple.  I’ve included it (and its accompanying caption) below.

The ABCE model of floral organ identity. Sepals are produced where A function acts alone, petals where A and B functions overlap, stamens where B and C functions combine, and carpels where C function acts alone. In the eudicot genetic model Arabidopsis thaliana, APETALA1 (AP1) and APETALA2 (AP2) are the A-function genes, APETALA3 (AP3) and PISTILLATA (PI) together specify B function, C function is specified by AGAMOUS (AG), and multiple SEPALLATA genes provide E function
The ABCE model of floral organ identity. Sepals are produced where A function acts alone, petals where A and B functions overlap, stamens where B and C functions combine, and carpels where C function acts alone. In the eudicot genetic model Arabidopsis thaliana, APETALA1 (AP1) and APETALA2 (AP2) are the A-function genes, APETALA3 (AP3) and PISTILLATA (PI) together specify B function, C function is specified by AGAMOUS (AG), and multiple SEPALLATA genes provide E function.  http://www.pnas.org/content/107/52/22570

 

In the paper “Tinkering with the C-Function: A Molecular Frame for the Selection of Double Flowers in Cultivated Roses” researchers show that in lines from both regions of the world produced double flowers as a result in a reduction of expression of the C-Function gene AGAMOUS (RhAG) leads to double flowers.  In Arabidopsis (every plant lab bench jockey’s favorite model plant), this reduction shifts expression of the A-Function genes toward the center of the plant, turning stamens into petals and carpels into sepals.

Now, one question I get from time to time is “why don’t these roses smell like the old-fashioned roses?”  One answer is that as we breed for looks, we are breeding out genes responsible for scent oil production.  So Shakespeare was actually wrong when he said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  That isn’t true these days.

So, I wish you a perfectly lovely Valentine’s Day, no matter how you celebrate. Just remember to whisper sweet nothings of floral gene expressions in your sweetheart’s ear.  And remember to stop and smell the roses – if it is a variety that has a decent scent.

Allelopathy Helps Black Walnuts Compete

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).

Publication with lists of plants tolerant and damaged by juglone

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.

You can find John’s writing at wvgardenguru.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

“Lazy” corn and gravitropism

Inspired by Linda’s post about thigmomorphogenesis, I decided today I would add the word gravitropism to your vocabulary. It simply means growth in response to gravity. Shoots of plants grow up, because they are negatively gravitropic, they grow against the pull of gravity, while roots are positively gravitropic and grow down towards the pull of gravity.

And why is that so important? Well… this is what happens when gravitropism is missing.

cornlazyplant

To the left is normal old corn. The plant to the right was not sat on by a raccoon or anything, it simply has a mutation in a gene called lazy plant1. I’m not kidding. That’s the official, scientific name for this gene. Geneticists have fun with their names, though fruit fly geneticists are for sure the kings of silly gene names. This gene got that name because, as you can see, without a functioning copy of that gene, the corn plant no longer can detect the pull of gravity and so flops down in a “lazy” manner.

This corn is just odd, of course, with no real value (though it was fun to grow) but similar mutations are what give us some of the “weeping” or trailing forms of popular ornamental trees and shrubs.

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.

Puya report!

For all five of you that might have paid attention to my posts on the genus Puya (which does in fact rhyme with booyah…thank you my west-coastie friends):

Here’s the update that you’ve been waiting for!

Puya is a horrifically spiny, painful, and hateful genus in the Bromeliad family. Native to the Andes, the fish-hook-like spines snare passing mammals; the rotting flesh provides nutrients to the exceptionally lean soil of the arid steppes on which it sort of grows/becomes grumpier.

Puya flowers once an eon, in a spectacular [but ill-earned] display that turned me to mush, based on a photo in an Annie’s Annuals catalog (see my “eternal gardening optimist” post). Autumn of 2012, I ordered and received one healthy Puya berteroniana in a 4” pot. Heckling commenced.  Overwinters in a 40 F greenhouse, where it was watered once or twice. Summers have been spent on our deck. Osmocote has hopefully provided required nutrients. Expected to kill her within months, as it is SO VERY not native to the verdant and humid Blue Ridge mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Happy and amazed to say Pootie [what was I going to name her? Bert??] is in her 3rd year – continuing to grow, and, AND, captured her very first mammal!

Pooyah!

Okay… so it’s a fluffy stuffed possum, and the dogs dropped it from the deck above. But snagged! You know Pootie got a thrill…