Important, must-read announcement regarding pesticide use

There’s a new report out from the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) which blasts a common piece of gardening advice: use least toxic pesticides only as a last resort.  Popular as it may be, this advice is not scientifically grounded and can actually cause more harm than good.  The WSSA is joined in this announcement by the American Phytopathological Society (APS) and the Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section of the Entomological Society of
America (P-IE ESA).

This is a must-read for anyone who is a responsible educator regarding pesticide use, which includes Master Gardeners and other horticulture paraprofessionals.  You’ll want to use the webpage link above to read the entire announcement, but here’s a paragraph to get you thinking:

“There is no benefit or scientific basis to simplistic messages like “use least toxic pesticides as a last resort” for the large number of pesticide users who apply pesticides according to the label and practice good stewardship. Nor are these messages beneficial for those who neither seek training nor adequately read the label believing instead that it is safe, practical, and effective to simply choose a product considered a “least toxic pesticide” and apply it only as a “last resort.” These messages hinder pesticide safety and stewardship education and practices that are in the best interest of the pesticide user, our food supply, public health and ecosystem preservation.”

Fall for Ornamental Grasses

I’ve written about ornamental grasses previously – they really are one of the toughest, most useful yet under-appreciated groups of garden plants.  Most provide at least three seasons of interest, but fall is when they really shake their pom-poms.

On a recent conference trip to western Michigan with pal and plantsman Paul Westervelt, we stopped by the trials at Walter’s Gardens of Zeeland – one of the largest perennial propagators (wholesale) in the country.

It was a beautiful, breezy day in their extensive gardens, and the grasses were positively alive with light and motion (and kittens – seven or eight, I think). What a fantastic afternoon.

 Here are a few recent introductions that knocked our socks off.  All are hardy to at least USDA Zone 5, heat tolerant to Zone 8 or 9, and the non-natives have been screened for any invasive tendencies. All are patented.

Panicum virgatum ‘Dust Devil’

 There are many great cultivars of our native switchgrass out there; but few come in under 6’ or 7’ – problematic for the small garden. Dust Devil is comparatively  petite – 3 to 4 feet tall, blue-green foliage, and resists the rain beat-down that often happens to the rangy cultivars. Selected by Michigander Gary Trucks.


Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Burgundy Bunny’

 Paul and I were especially impressed by this sport of ‘Little Bunny’.  I’ve grown tons of ‘Little Bunny’ which is eminently useful for a pouf of “grassiness” at the front of the border.  ‘Burgundy Bunny’ brings terrific color that only gets better in the fall, in the same small package.  From Walla Walla Nursery and introduced by Plant Haven.

Paul models Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head’

Nothing petite about this monster Fountain Grass.  Wow. 5’ tall and as wide, with gigantic foxtail plumes. As with most Pennisetum species, the show starts mid-summer and continues through fall.  Selected by the perennially prolific Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennials.


Schizycharium scoparium Blue Heaven™ (‘MinnBlueA’)


Selected by grass maven Dr. Mary Meyer from her trials at the University of Minnesota.  Mary has found a nice Little Bluestem that has outstanding foliage color (gets even better as the season progresses) and a very upright habit that fights the flop.  Native across much of North America and perfect for awful sites, Little Bluestem laughs at clay, heat, and drought, once established.  

 Andropogon gerardii ‘Indian Warrior’

Little Bluestem’s big brother of the tall grass prairie.  Another upright flop-fighter, this Big Bluestem is from Brent Horvath/Intrinsic. I’ve enjoyed Andropogon in my garden (got it from Paul) – the colors are amazing- but by summer’s end, they’ve flopped all over their neighbors. Can’t wait to give ‘Indian Warrior’ a try.

Lots more info on these and other grasses and perennials at Walters Gardens’ consumer portal


Kittens in the grasses.  Ahn.


Finally: when in Grand Rapids, stop by HopCat for a tremendous selection of Michigan craft beers and hard ciders and the suitably-name Crack Fries (yes!!!). 

Grow Something Rude and Smelly!

Tired of
Tradescantia? Sick of Stachys? Exhausted from Echinacea?
Stick THIS in your border!

Dracunculus vulgaris
  at the Hahn Horticulture Garden, Virginia Tech. Hardy to USDA Zone 5b.

Closely related (as one might imagine) to
Amorphophallus. Lovely silver-splashed foliage, velvety crimson spathe, and big honkin’ spadix in early summer.

Easy to grow; part shade and good drainage seem to work well. After a few years, you’ll have several offsets to share with your dearest friends/worst enemies.

At the peak of bloom, the fragrance is reminiscent of lily or tuberose (if they were arranged on a patty of rotting hamburger).

Garden Interns Brittaney and Anna think it’s JUST FABULOUS!

Available from that purveyor of all plants phallic, 
Plant Delights.
(They have lots of other stuff, too.)

Truth in advertising, finally.

*drum roll*

Ladies and gentlemen, the latest effort in pinto bean breeding from Seminis Vegetable Seeds:

"beans, beans, good for your heart..."


Windbreaker is an upright, short-vine pinto bean that has produced consistently good yields, especially for the Red River Valley production area. Windbreaker ripens quickly and uniformly with reduced seed weathering. Try Windbreaker in narrow rows for direct harvest.
Relative Days to Maturity: 94-98
Plant Type: Indeterminate, short vine
Color: Brown flecks on buff
Seeds/LB: 1,076
Disease Resistance: BCMV, R (R)

Happy Friday

Oooof, what a week. End of the semester, quizzes, labs, hosting of faculty position candidate, Hort Club Plant Sale, and 2 graduate student defenses in 8 days (3 in 15 days – am up to my pits in theses 😉

Sorry to say, I’m not feeling particularly profound or informative (like that ever happens), but I do have gardening fever! We’re so close to our last-frost date I’m ready to barge ahead with putting out warm-season veg, tropicals and annuals.

Happy end-of-the-semester to my fellow GPs – hope you have time this weekend to dig in the dirt.

And to all our readers, thank you for sticking with us throughout this crazy spring despite slightly erratic postings.

Now get out there and GARDEN!

Rules, guidelines, and to-do lists

Elizabeth: You have to take me to shore! According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren…

Captain Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I ‘must’ do nothing.

And secondly, you must be a pirate for the Pirate’s Code to apply, and you’re not.

And thirdly, the code is more what you call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner!

—  Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl

There are ways, and then there are ways.

I’m always torn on this topic when it comes to pirate…I mean, gardening. How much I consider “rules” is minimal.  There are few absolutes.  Guidelines? Yes. Lots.

I know, absolutes and rules make decision-making easier and life simpler. Do this, now. Don’t do that, you’ll kill it.

Novices (at anything) especially appreciate rules.

As a not-so-seasoned beekeeper, the wildly diverse range of opinions and conflicting information on any one point is making me nuts.  Plus, all direction seem to come with the unspoken sentiment “…or they’ll DIE”.  March comes…”feed a 1:1 syrup to ensure a strong brood before nectar flow." Just as popular: “do NOT feed syrup in the spring, the bees have to exert too much effort to evaporate the water out and the hive will be too humid (and then you-know-what happens).  Aargh

To-do lists: great suggestions or fun-crushing obstacles to gardening enjoyment?

As the seasons change, you can’t pick up a gardening magazine or read a local paper column without some mention of Things You Would Be Doing In Your Garden Right Now If You Were Worth A Damn. Some lists even use the term "chores."  Chores are splitting wood and cleaning the toilet. Gardening, though requiring physical activity, is not a chore. Back to lists: a very fine regional gardening newsletter I just received had no fewer than 32 items on their March-April "To-Do List".  Thirty-two.

Three to-do directives I’ve seen in the last month and my judgement thereof:

“Browse plant and seed catalogs and get your orders in.”  Duh. Rule.

"Don’t prune Buddleia and other sub-shrubs until the buds are breaking. If you prune it in the fall, it will DIE."  Guideline.  I’ve done both, with no fatalities (has anyone actually killed a  butterfly bush by accident?).

“Wait until after last frost to set out tender annuals and warm-season vegetables.” I think our last frost was sometime back in February. Every man for himself on this one. I’m shooting for tomatoes in May.

Some lists skew more towards hard labor while others are not so time-consuming – such as “cut some daffodils and bring them inside to enjoy!” Marvelous! I may actually get around to that!  But wait – there’s a caveat – “because daffodil sap is ‘toxic’, don’t mix any other species of cut flowers in with them."

[or they’ll DIE]

Madison Wisconsin takes care of bees-ness

The bee blogosphere (hiveosphere?) and listservs were abuzz the past two
days with news that Madison, Wisconsin, has taken an active role in
encouraging beekeeping within the city limits.   The version of the
story I found a link to was in the Madison Commons.

Apparently beekeeping was prohibited in town (though the prohibition was
rarely enforced, except in the case of complaints).  The ordinance was
changed to allow urban beekeepers to keep hives.

There are specific regulations, such as 25′ distance to the nearest
neighbor as well as a  requirement to supply a fresh water source near
the bees (very important – especially in urban settings). 

Flight barriers – fences, shrubbery, or  sheds are also required.  This
is a simple bit of beekeeping etiquette if you have close neighbors.
Bees will fly straight in and out of the hive entrance, usually just a
foot or two off the ground.  They’ll maintain this altitude until 
forced to go up or down.  Constructing, planting, or placing the hives
in front of an existing barrier they must fly over ensures they will
maintain a higher altitude coming and going and not zip across your
neighbor’s lawn at kid-eyeball height. 

I’m currently learning stuff like this and much, much more in the
brand-new Virginia Master Beekeeper Program, taught by the most
excellent Bee Professor on the planet, Dr. Rick Fell. Honeybee
physiology and sociology is absolutely astounding.  I’ve been beekeeping
for four years now, and am just finding out with this class how much I
didn’t know.  I was also unaware that incidences of beehive thievery are
at an all-time high, hence the out-of-site suggestion.

I’ll probably continue to pop out with the occasional post on bees,
because I just can’t curb my enthusiasm.  "Cleansing flights" might be a
good topic…

   Slide from Dr. Richard Fell’s immense bastion of knowledge.

Snow – should it stay or should it go?

It’s snowing here in Seattle – always a fun event, especially when we’re expecting up to 10 or more inches. I know…many of you laugh at our “big” snow, but the hilliness of Seattle makes driving in snow an adventure. (In fact, I’m supposed to be flying out tomorrow for a Connecticut presentation, and my flight’s already been cancelled and rebooked. Sigh.)

But what about the plants? This time of year people often ask whether they should leave the snow on their trees and shrubs. I covered this in December 2010 (and in a podcast in December 2011), but now I’ve come up with easily memorized advice:

If it’s light, leave it – if it’s heavy, heave it.

Light snow helps insulate trees and shrubs from winter dehydration, but heavy snow can permanently bend or worse, break, tree and shrub branches. Use a broom or rake to knock heavy snow off branches.

Bending is bad…

…but breaking is worse.

Name This Course

Undergraduate enrollment in the Virginia Tech Horticulture program has fluctuated over the years.  The late 70’s saw huge numbers of students interested in all things green and growing – nearly 300. There was a gentle decline through the 80’s and in the 90’s number held around 150. A sharper decline took place over the past 8 years, with enrollment bottoming out at 85 students in 2009. Things have picked up a bit since – we’re currently at 100 give or take a few.  But we really, really need to bump it back up to 150+ or we risk getting combined/rolled into a broader plant science program.

Fewer than half of our students start out as Hort majors their freshman year; the larger portion are transfer students, either from community college programs or internal transfers from within the university. 

A couple of our lower-level courses are what we refer to as “gateway” classes that lead to these internal transfers to our department.  Indoor Plants is a biggie –  anyone can take it as a free elective, and many students get hooked on hort as they learn some basics of identification, care, and propagation.  Floral Design is wildly popular and fills up instantly; credits earned counts toward a university-wide “core” requirement for “creativity and aesthetics.”  Something these classes have in common is the hands-on aspect, plus the student gets to take something back to the dorm or apartment, be it a terrarium or floral arrangement. 

I am in the process of developing a new course which will hopefully serve as a third “gateway” class – an introduction to gardening.

Food and flowers, digging in the dirt, all that great stuff.  I want it to be fun and exciting, not filled with do’s and don’ts.  The kind of class that will spark an interest or set off a light bulb. Or perhaps inspire them to transfer to Horticulture. This generation of undergrads (mostly young people from 18 to 22) is tough to impress. They’re glued to their smartphones, and if I’m not mistaken, attention spans aren’t quite what they used to be.  But I believe I can frame the fabulously broad and deep topic of gardening into something personal, immediate, and enjoyable. 

What I need to further this mission is a NAME for the course.  It can’t be too obscure; someone flipping through the course listings should be able to decipher class content from the title (best name ever for a university class: Magical Mushrooms and Mysterious Molds taught by plant pathologist/legend Dr. George Hudler at Cornell University). 

My working name for the course has been “Successful Gardening.”  Yawn.  "Sustainable Gardening" is also a possibility, but every department in Agriculture/Life Sciences (and beyond) is slapping "Sustainable [whatever] onto new courses. Though that may be the ticket for the immediate future.

Please, dear reader, put on your creative thinking cap and help me come up with something better!

A selection of GP posts from 2011 (part 2)

So much good stuff to read back through. The Garden Professors really bring the straight poop on so many topics!


Post:  Podcasts are here! by Linda.

Complete with a pleasant musical intro and background, Linda’s info-packed and professionally-produced podcast “The Informed Gardener” made the rest of us look under-achieving. Take some time this winter and work back through them, if you haven’t had a chance.


Post: Sunday Bloody Sunday by Jeff.

I’m one of those “let me tell you what stupid thing I did yesterday” people, and I really appreciate it when other folks ‘fess up to messing up in an effort to keep you from doing the same. Jeff used a 20% vinegar solution to kill some garden weeds, and ends up killing a little froggy in the process.  He even posts a photo of the wee corpse.  So is “natural” always better?  This post really makes the point of “apparently not”.  


Lots of great posts – Linda’s post and photos of the Bartlett Tree Expert’s research arboretum was fascinating.  I keep meaning to check it out when passing through Charlotte NC. As happens here on occasion, a commenter took exception, this time to photos and descriptions of the research trials; suggesting she was endorsing Bartlett’s entire corporate philosophy/menu of services etc. Lots of back-and-forth ensued. Drama on the GP!

Bert went to a LOT of trouble to get our reader’s input in selecting an upcoming post-transplant tree experiment – Be a Part of History post. Bert notes “Of course, as with any major research project, the first step in the rigorous scientific process is to come up with catchy acronym for the study.  I propose ‘the SOcial MEdia DEsigneD TRansplant ExpErimental Study’ or SOME-DED-TREES for short.”    I have since stolen this idea for my own research (I KNEW something was missing). Good ideas flowed forth from our commenters. 

Bert then set up a survey in October “Vote Early and Often”, the results of which are posted as “The People Have Spoken.


Also in October was the hilarious “Amazing Water Slices” post by Linda.  This was an easy one for her, because, the hilarity was (unintentionally) supplied by quotes and photos from the actual sales information on this purported “best new garden product of 2011”.


I’ll just file this under “live and learn” in regards to blogging.  I believe I failed in stating the importance (“So we’ll just guess from now on…”) of the decision by the USDA/NASS to eliminate several Agriculture survey programs that provide annual reports on the economic impacts of various crops/commodities/sectors. If you really think a fiscal report that states the importance of a particular crop is just B.S. government interference (though most of eliminated crops/sectors are small-farm related), please re-read the “why I care” part.   However…if you WERE concerned and just didn’t say so in the post comments, you’ll be relieved to know several programs were reinstated within 30 days (a big hubbub was apparently raised) including three dear to my heart, the Floriculture report, the Bee and Honey report, and the annual Hops Production report. Note to self: do not mention The Government ever again in a blog post.


Bert’s “Another victory for the politics of destruction” post was clear, concise, non-partisan, and well done.  Unfortunately, he mentioned The Government. Nutshell: a grower-initiated, Christmas tree marketing check-off effort was framed as “Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax” to the point the program was pulled.  I had thought about posting on this very topic, but Bert beat me to it and as someone who actually works with Christmas Tree Growers, he was much more knowledgeable.  Plus he got to enjoy the anti-you-name-it comments (which he responded to very graciously)

Final thoughts regarding 2011…this blog is an old-fashioned, goodness-of-our-heart effort to bring you topics we think are important, provide some entertainment with factoids buried within, untwist our knickers, and generally try to be thought-provoking and/or helpful. Linda has done a terrific job hosting it and riding herd on the rest of us.

Does every post ooze wisdom and revelation? No. But lots of them do, complete with NO annoying advertising.  I noticed a trend reading back through 2011 – many of our “regular” commenters ceased commenting (though several still do – thank you!). The number of posts in 2011 with one or zero comments was greater than in 2010. It’s a challenge to take the time and effort to post something, and then…*crickets.*  I do understand how interest in a particular blog waxes and wanes. There are about one million gardening blogs (only slightly fewer than foodie blogs) vying for your attention; some of you may just be blogged out.  

Hate "Weird Plant Wednesdays"? Want more arguments on root washing? Can’t get enough mulch, compost tea, or Christmas trees? Need more feedback on your feedback? Please take this opportunity to tell us what you think at Linda’s survey. And thank you for your patronage.