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.

Thoughts on reproducibility and reliability in science

You’ve probably heard about a project that attempted the replicate 98 psychological studies and found that only a third of them were reproducible, the other two thirds produced different results – sometimes very different, more often only somewhat so.

Though psychology was the subject of this study, you shouldn’t assume the results were unique to that particular field. The are plenty of reports of similar failings and the so-called ‘Decline effect’ in other scientific disciplines.

So why is that? There are a lot of reasons. Research can be poorly designed, based on flawed assumptions, and sometimes an unlucky flukes can create false positives. It is also the sad fact that science is done by humans, and humans are complex things with a lot of motives besides the pure quest of knowledge.

I think the general public often fears that scientists are swayed by money from corporations and/or special interest groups, but my experience in academia is quite different. I’ve never heard anyone concerned they might loose a corporate grant. I have heard lots of people, more-or-less continuously, worrying that if their experiment doesn’t work out they won’t be able to get their PhD, land a job, or get tenure. There is enormous pressure to find something significant, to find an effect, and it matters not at all the political ramifications of that effect. So if you are worried about Monsanto buying off scientists to say GMO are safe to eat, don’t be. Convincing data that GMOs are somehow unsafe to eat would be of enormous significance, completely rewriting what we know about genetics, and would come with huge professional rewards. In my opinion, you should be more concerned that some new study showing that X, Y or Z makes plants grow bigger or yield more is actually the result of fervent, wishful thinking on the part of a grad student desperate for publishable data.

So what’s the solution? There has been a lot of talk in the academic community about making it possible to publish negative results and provide funding to regularly attempt to replicate previous studies. I hope these changes go into effect, as they could make an enormous improvement in the reliability of new findings.

In the mean time, you, as a concerned gardener, should take information supported by only a single, isolated study with a big grain of salt, particularly if it seems to contradict findings from other research. If you go to scholar.google.com and start searching around, make sure you read as much of the research on the topic as you can, so you can differentiate between the intriguing new research that may well be proved wrong and reliable findings that have been sustained by several independent researchers. And always remember that while the scientific process is far from perfect, it is still the best we’ve got.

It’s the Next Best Thing Since Draft Beer: New Plants and Their Proper Evaluation

'Graham Thomas' rose
‘Graham Thomas’ rose

With many new nursery catalogs arriving in my mailbox at work for 2016 introductions, I thought I would focus this blog on “new” plants. With all the publicity and marketing that goes on for new plant introductions, you would think that they are the next best thing since draft beer or even bread! I am a bit cynical and question whether these new plants really live up to their performance expectations and ornamental attributes. With so many new hydrangeas, coneflowers, coralbells, spireas, etc. released each year, you may ask why am I so cynical? Why would I not jump on the bandwagon and promote all of these new plants like so many garden centers are doing across America? Let me explain.

A decade ago, I conducted research trials evaluating 20 new or recently introduced cultivars of “hardy” shrub roses, many of which are not even on the market anymore. I chose three locations in the state of Wisconsin, each having their own unique soil types, pH, soil drainage and fertility, rain/snowfall and cold hardiness zones. I replicated each of the 20 cultivars ten times at each location and arranged them into blocks with each cultivar represented in each of the ten blocks. The roses were randomly selected for each block and planted, mulched, watered with an application of a slow-release fertilizer. Plants were watered for the first year only as needed. To properly analyze plants for various traits, I allowed the roses to establish for a year with evaluation initiated the following spring. The only care the roses received the remaining years were application of a slow-release fertilizer, weeding and pruning of dead wood following winter. I was trying to replicate conditions that are common in most landscape settings. I did not spray any insecticides or fungicides to any of the roses, regardless of how bad they may have looked due to pests.

After the first winter, I evaluated the roses for winter injury, which they all experienced. The roses were all on their own root systems so if they died back significantly, the new growth would come from the same root system and produce flowers that spring. To some extent, they all grew, though voles killed some of the roses. After the roses starting growing, I evaluated them monthly at all three locations for insects and diseases as well as flowering (amount, size, duration of bloom, etc.). I also measured the plant’s height and spread. A few roses had good fall color. The first year of the trial, the roses all bloomed prolifically. So, one would think that all 20 cultivars are ideal. Not so fast, or “but wait, there’s more” as the television salesman would say to viewers in TV land about a new product. The “real” evaluation started in year two.

In year two, amount of dieback and winter survivability was recorded. To my surprise, the roses in the zone 3 location (boy, that’s cold) had better winter survival than the roses in my zone 4 and 5 location! This is due to consistent and significant snowfall in the most northern location compared to sporadic snowfall and lower amounts in the other two locations. I also evaluated the roses during the summer and fall for flowering, pests, and hip production. Contrary to the catalogs, many of the roses had hips, but some of them never colored up before the cold temperatures arrived at the three locations. Flower production was cited as being continuous all summer by their introducers, however, this was not true for some of the cultivars evaluated. Disease resistance was the most alarming quality I evaluated with many of the so-called “disease resistant” roses being the exact opposite. I explain all these variables to demonstrate what is involved in proper plant evaluation. For a complete report of my rose research trial, see: Jull, L.G. 2004. Hardy Shrub Rose Research Trials. Combined Proceedings of the International Plant Propagators Society vol. 54:429-434.

Knockout® rose is very disease resistant with non-stop blooms, but not hardy in zones 3-5 without significant winter protection Photo credit: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/knockout-rose-400x600.jpg
Knockout® rose is very disease resistant with non-stop blooms, but not hardy in zones 3-5 without significant winter protection Photo credit: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/knockout-rose-400×600.jpg

Now, you may ask, “Why are these new plants, including roses, promoted by these large nurseries as being the best plant around when in effect, they are not?” Many new introductions are from nurseries that trial their plants in their location only. So a plant that performs well in the state of California might not perform the same in Michigan and vice versa. There isn’t the scientific rigor applied to these new plant evaluations that would occur by non-biased, university researchers who have no stake in selling or promoting plants to the public. This is where the beauty of applied, scientific, university-based studies can play a huge role.

Also, these new plants should be evaluated over numerous years, at various locations/soil types, climates, with appropriate replications of each new plant in a random arrangement (not all planted together). This type of quality research is done by a few large nurseries but it is seldom done this extensively by others anymore as demand for new plants is never satisfied and the cost of trialing over several years and locations is too costly.

Unfortunately with increased costs and significant budget/program cuts, most university research is now geared toward larger, basic science studies that have high indirect costs built into the grants. These funds, usually 50% or more of the grant total, go directly to the university to cover overhead. The researchers do not see or can use overhead funds. Ornamental plant evaluation research is now considered either non-fundable by granting agencies, not “scientific or scholarly” enough by their own departmental colleagues or provide significant overhead funds back to the university.

Some researchers rely on their various nursery and landscape associations for small amounts of research support, while others try to piece meal together small amounts of research funds. With the increasing costs of land (yes, we do have to pay for research space at university research stations), plants (not all are freely given to the researchers), labor, supplies, etc., it is becoming critically important to seek alternative funding sources as most federal and state granting agencies do not fund ornamental plant evaluation research. Many of the new initiatives for federal grants seek to fund food crop based research, especially in organic and sustainable food production. Applied ornamental horticulture plant evaluation research at universities has plummeted with most new plant evaluations conducted by the large nurseries that introduce these plants.

There is another source for evaluation of these new plants. Various arboreta and botanical gardens around the U.S. are conducting evaluation trials. I am a fan of these studies as these gardens and evaluators are also not in the business of selling plants and can provide some analysis, though it is usually only at one location. Richard Hawke, Chicago Botanic Gardens Plant Evaluator and Horticulturist, has done an excellent job of evaluating many species of herbaceous perennials and a few woody plants. He publishes Plant Evaluation Notes: (http://www.chicagobotanic.org/research/ornamental_plant_research/plant_evaluation), a series of wonderful publications that help both the amateur and professional gardener to choose appropriate plants for the Upper Midwest. There are other botanical gardens and arboreta that do the same, with evaluations based on their local climatic conditions. I often rely on Mr. Hawke’s recommendations when choosing herbaceous perennials in my Wisconsin garden and have yet to be disappointed.

Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Evaluation Notes Source: chicagobotanic.org
Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Evaluation Notes
Source: chicagobotanic.org

So the next time a new plant comes across your way, think twice before buying it. There is the philosophy “Buyer Beware”, and I do recommend people to buy plants, but instead of buying 10 of one cultivar, try one or two of the new plant and make a judgment call the following year or two after you planted it. This is especially important for landscapers who design and plant large amounts of plants. You might be surprised to see the “best thing since draft beer” plant being anything but that. As some of us know, there is nothing better than draft beer (or whatever beverage you really like).

Laura Jull, Ph.D. aka The Lorax

Scientific Beekeeping

Apis mellifera
Honey bee (Apis mellifera), Courtesy of Charles Sharp at Wikimedia Commons

When I first moved to the country in the late nineties, one of the first things I wanted to do (after establishing several vegetable gardens to indulge my tomato obsession) was to become a beekeeper.

So I took a six week course sponsored by West Virginia University, read the full documentation available from the University of Maryland and Penn State as well as back issues of beekeeping magazines, and checked with some hobby beekeepers in the area.

Unfortunately, at that time, honeybees were being devastated by an invasive species … the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), and the amount of effort needed to keep colonies free from them discouraged me, and the message I was getting from experienced hobby beekeepers was one of “be prepared”, and “I’m, regretfully, giving it up because of the effort involved.”

Basically … too much work … not something I was willing to commit to.

But I never lost my fascination with them (and other bees and wasps, for that matter.)

Then in 2006, I started hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it was while researching it, that I found the site of Randy Oliver, a biologist who also made his living beekeeping.

The site is Scientific Beekeeping.

From his About tab.

I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology. In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings.

In 1993, the varroa mite arrived in California, and after it wiped out my operation for the second time in 1999, I decided to “hit the books” and use my scientific background to learn to fight back.

The site is not a beginner’s “how to”, but a way to share what he has learned with others:

What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper.

(If you’ve been following my blog posts here, then you’ll probably recognize the pattern of places that rise quickly in my judgment, as ones I like)

The site has become my “go to” source for all things related to honeybees, and I recommend it to others who want to stay abreast of the subject.

Scientific Beekeeping

FrankenFoodFacts

Sunset papaya cultivar
Public Domain Photo of GMO Papaya via Wikimedia Commons

 

The subject of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, first came to my attention sometime in the fall of 2009, not long after I started following the Garden Professors Blog.

I stumbled across a site called Biofortified, run (at the time) by a couple of grad students in the field, who were trying to accomplish the same thing that the GPs were, combatting myths and misconceptions about a subject, with research based information.

I spent about 2 years lurking there, because much of the information at the time was over my head, and seemed to be targeted to fellow scientists to help with getting the information out.

So I’m incredibly pleased to introduce you to the blog of Dr. Layla Katiraee, a scientist in a related field, but with little to no experience at all with the topic of GMOs, so spent time learning about it and sharing what she learned with the public.

She is now also a contributor to Biofortified.

One of the best things I like about the blog, is her continual checking with “the spouse” to see how her posts might be viewed from someone outside the field.

Here’s a great example:

So, the spouse has often complained that I don’t have a post with an overview of what transgenesis means and the transgenic (GMO) crops themselves. They’re scattered throughout the history of this blog, but not in a single place.

What does this mean? To explain, I have to go to the beginning: the working units within any cell are proteins. Proteins are made up by linking together amino acids in a given sequence. The exact amino acid sequence is defined in the cell’s DNA; the DNA blueprint for a specific protein is known as a gene for that protein. In general, one gene encodes for one protein (of course, there are exceptions). Since there are thousands of proteins, there are thousands of genes. We’re still figuring out what different genes/proteins accomplish.

Another great post on how the science of safety testing works …

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to safety. In our example, we have to select an aspect of water safety that we want to examine: health impact, water transportation, water treatment, proper water storage, etc. For our example, we’re going to select “health impact”.

Then, we have to come up with a null hypothesis. Spouse, I know that it’s counter-intuitive and the double negatives in these statements suck, but unfortunately, it’s a key aspect of this whole article. The baseline for much of research is that there’s no impact or no difference. It’s the researcher’s responsibility to disprove that hypothesis, ie. to show that there is a difference or that there is an impact. So for our exercise, our hypothesis will be “Drinking water does not cause cancer”.

So follow her blog, FrankenFoodFacts, or follow her articles elsewhere on Biofortified, or her Twitter feed, and gain some better understanding about the science behind GMOs.

Out of the bottle and into the bag

Last week I was having lunch with my mom at our favorite nearby nursery/café. After failing to resist the grilled cheese sandwich (3 cheeses! And buttery panini bread!), we walked off lunch in the garden supply part of the nursery. Normally I’m on my best behavior when I’m shopping with my mom (i.e. I don’t take photos of things I’m going to take to task on the blog). But like the 3-cheese grilled sandwich I was unable to resist the bags of biodynamic compost.

Biodynamic compost is now available at garden centers
Biodynamic compost is now available at garden centers

Long-time readers of the blog may remember my earlier column and post on biodynamics. Since I wrote the original column over 10 years ago I’ve watched biodynamic marketing move from boutique wines to coffee, tea, tomato sauce…and now to garden products. Really expensive garden products, as in $19.99 for one cubic foot of compost.

An "untapped source of power and majesty" makes this compost different.
An “untapped source of power and majesty” makes this compost different.

What makes this bag of compost worth $19.99? One has to assume it’s the biodynamic preparations used to treat the compost. They’re referred to in the label under “concentrations of yarrow” and so on. Do these preparations make a difference? The label suggests it might be to restore the soil’s vitality. Is there validity to this claim?

It's doubtful that all of these ingredients are locally available. And why are so many materials needed?
It’s doubtful that all of these ingredients are locally available. And why are so many materials needed?

In 2013 I published a review of the scientific literature on biodynamics, specifically looking at whether biodynamic preparations have a measurable impact on anything they’re applied to. In a nutshell, the answer is no. (Though this article is behind a paywall, I can send a pdf to you by email if you’d like to read it.)

Don’t let packaging and magical words sway you. Compost made with local materials like bark or agricultural wastes and certified by the US Composting Council is reasonably priced and sustainable.

 

Show me the data!

One of my favorite bumper stickers from days gone by said simply “Stop Continental Drift”. Good luck with that.

stop_continental_drift_530

Today’s topic deals with another type of drift – a phenomenon one of my professors referred at ‘Bibliographic drift’.   This type of drift occurs when authors cite a paper without bothering to look up the original source.  Then a second author cites original source based on the first author’s paper; then a third author cites it based on the second paper and so on and so forth.  This is why grad students learn that second citing is a cardinal sin.

 

It’s an easy trap to fall into even in the age of access to electronic journals.  It can happen in all sorts of ways, especially if the point the author trying to support is something that is intuitively appealing and not likely to be questioned.  For example, I was recently reading through The Practical Science of Planting Trees by Gary Watson and E.B. Himelick.  It’s a good book with lots of great info and photos but under the section on digging the planting hole there is a subsection “wider is better”.  This is something we all ‘know’ but there is no data with any scientific rigor to support it; at least not that I’ve ever been able to find and I’ve looked repeatedly.  So I was intrigued to see Watson and Himelick cite four papers to support the notion that wider is better. Cool. So I went through the bibliography to look up the citations.

Can you dig it? My former research technician Dana Ellison installs a tree in Detroit.
Can you dig it? My former research technician Dana Ellison installs a tree in Detroit.

First up, Arnold and Welsh 1995. Effects of planting hole configuration and soil type on transplant establishment of container-grown live oak. J. of Arboriculture 24:213-218. This paper doesn’t even discus planting hole width, at least not directly.  The authors looked at various planting hole configurations (round, square, star-shaped) but made a point to keep the planting hole volume the same. Zero points for wider is better.

 

Next, Corley 1984. Soil amendments at planting J. Environ. Hort. 2:27-30. One of the experiments in this paper compared root and shoot growth of four shrub species transplanted from #1 containers into holes that were with 1.75x or 3.5x the width of the root-ball. The author measured root and shoot growth after two years and the results were a mixed bag.  They found the wider hole was better about half the time, the other half of the time it didn’t make a difference.  One point for wider is better (sort of).

Next, Montegue et al. 2007.  Influence of irrigation volume and mulch on establishment of select shrub species Arboriculture & Urban Forestry.  33:202–209.  The title of the paper says it all; the authors compared water relations and growth in response to mulch and irrigation but planting hole size wasn’t included as a variable. (Spoiler alert: mulch improved growth and water relations). Zero points.

Last and most interesting, Watson et al. 1992. The effect of backfill soil texture and planting hole shape on root regeneration of transplanted green ash. J. of Arboriculture 18:130-135. In this study the authors looked at new root growth and shoot and diameter growth for three years after transplanting green ash trees into planting holes that were 1.2x, 2x, or 3x the width of the root ball. And they found… nothing. Well, not nothing but they didn’t find any effects of planting hole size on root density, shoot growth or caliper growth. To help visualize the response I’ve summarized their growth data three years after transplanting below. One point for it doesn’t matter.

Cumulative growth response of green ash trees to planting hole width 3 years after transplanting. adapted from Watson wt al. 1992
Cumulative growth response of green ash trees to planting hole width 3 years after transplanting. adapted from Watson wt al. 1992

 

As a final note I include a photo from the Waston et al. paper 1992.  The photo is fuzzy but the caption should be clear.

watson et al 1992

So where does that leave us? Digging a wider hole doesn’t hurt, except maybe your back. And I think that’s part of the appeal of this advice:  If it’s more work it must be better. Dig a hole 2 times, 3 times, 10 times the width of the root-ball if you want. Just don’t say “Research shows wider is better…” because it’s ambiguous at best.