Stuck in the middle with you

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

 

More than once in the past couple months I’ve come close to pulling the plug on FaceBook.  What started as a fun and easy way to keep up with family and friends back home and stalk old girlfriends has devolved into an infinite do-loop of whininess, acrimony and vitriol over GMO’s, organic food, vaccines, and President Obama.  Of course, I brought a lot of this on myself based on the virtual company I choose to keep.  While my allegiances generally align with groups such as GMOLOL, GMOskepti-forum, and the Genetic Literacy Project, more and more I find myself just as appalled by their tactics and rhetoric as I am by those of the anti-GMO side.  I have many thoughtful and intelligent friends that think GMO’s should be labeled or even banned and I’m fairly certain none of them want poor African children to go blind.

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Quick aside here: Raise your hand if you have ever changed your mind on an important issue based on an internet meme.

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The problem in this type of discourse is that everything has become an all or nothing game.  If you concede even the slightest point to the other side, you have become a wishy-washy capitulator.  But the underlying problem is the answer in science is often “It depends.” In the GP blog and elsewhere, much has been made of the Pew Research poll that showed the biggest opinion gap between the scientists and the public was over GMO safety.  Had I been polled, I would have agreed that GMO’s are generally safe.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are concerns. Heavy agricultural use of glyphosate is leading to the development of Round-up resistant weeds. Likewise, the potential of GMO crops out-crossing with native plants cannot be discounted.  Scientists working on GMO’s, of course, are aware of these issues and are constantly working on steps to manage and minimize these risks, but they could still come back someday to bite us in the butt – the risks, not the scientists.

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Another problem with controversies on the interwebs is that issues get over-simplified.  The endless argument over organic food is just stupid.   Saying organic production is better than conventional farming (or vice versa) is like saying Ford is better than Chevrolet:  You can’t compare without knowing which model: Pick-ups? Sedans? SUV’s?  Or  what’s being compared: Gas mileage? Crash safety? Resale value?  The same is true with organic vs conventional: What crop? Celery? Apples? Carrots? Lettuce? And what measure? Pesticide residue? Carbon footprint? Food safety?  The debate is an interminable game of whack-a-mole. I suspect anyone with access to ‘Web of Science’ and an afternoon to kill could come up with a couple dozen studies to support either side.  My personal view is I’ll pay a modest premium for organic produce if it clearly looks better, or in the case of small fruits that I can sample before I buy, tastes better than the conventional counterpart.

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The other issue in the social media wars is that we need to admit and accept the limits of our knowledge.  The Pew poll and other surveys indicate that most scientists agree that climate is changing due to human activity.  Again, I’m with the majority of scientists on this.  But only a small portion of those scientists are actually trained in climatology and understand and appreciate the nuances of the Global Circulation Model or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. What I know with certainty is that CO2 and other greenhouses gasses have risen consistently and dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.  How will that impact climate in 100 years?  I have no clue beyond what the climate scientists tell me.  Do I have any reason to doubt their projections of steady increased temperatures? None beyond the fact the GCM, like all models, is only as reliable as the data and assumptions it is built on.  Does this make me a right-wing climate change denier?  Hardly.  But I am self-aware enough to know what I don’t know.

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Bottom-line, even on issues where a vast majority of scientists agree, there are still unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty and always will be.  In the meantime, we still have to make policy decision with the information at hand.  Talking about these issues intelligently and respectfully will get us further than derision and mockery.

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In the meantime, if you open up FaceBook and I’m not there, you’ll know I’ve finally had my fill.

Spec errors mount

For years I subscribed to Consumer Reports. I appreciated their objective approach to product testing and lack of advertising. In their own words, their policy is to “maintain our independence and impartiality… [so that] CU has no agenda other than the interests of consumers.” But recently they’ve veered off the science-based trail – at least the one running through our gardens. Their approach to plant and soil sciences is more pseudo than science. And last year, after 30+ years of loyal membership, I quit my subscription when Consumer Reports began partnering with Dr. Oz (see here for instance ).

So until today I’ve been blissfully unaware of whatever CR has published on gardening and garden products. Then this post appeared on our Garden Professors blog group page ). I’ve included some of the article below along with my italicized comments in brackets.

“Lawn care without the chemicals: rid your yard of weeds and pests with these mostly organic solutions”
“…Here are 10 common weeds and pests that plague homeowners nationwide, along with chemical-free measures [“chemical-free?” Well, we shall see.] that should be effective in bringing them under control. For more information, go to the websites of Beyond Pesticides and the Great Healthy Yard Project. [Neither of these two sites is remotely scientific or objective.]

“Dandelion – what is it? A perennial weed whose common yellow flowers turn to windblown seed. Telltale signs. Though a handful of dandelions is no big deal, a lawn that’s ablaze in yellow has underlying problems that need to be addressed. How to treat. Like many broadleaf weeds, dandelions prefer compacted soil, so going over the lawn with a core aerator (available for rent at home centers) might eradicate them. [Like many broadleaf weeds, dandelions will grow anywhere. That’s why they’re called weeds.] It also helps to correct soil imbalances, especially low calcium.” [I’m curious how CR determined a “soil imbalance.” And did they test their hypothesis experimentally?]

Dandelions obviously suffering in a calcium rich soil

“Barberry – what is it? An invasive shrub with green leaves and yellow flowers, often found in yards near wooded areas. Telltale signs. Left unchecked, the shrub’s dense thickets will start to choke off native trees and plants. How to treat. Cut back the stems and paint their tips with horticultural vinegar or clove oil (repeated -applications may be needed). Burning the tips with a weed torch might also work.” [Yes! Chemical free vinegar and clove oil! By the way, clove oil has NO demonstrated efficacy for this application. And I’m sorry, but “burning the tips” of barberry is just going to stimulate lots of new growth below the damage. Just out of curiosity, how many people have problems with barberry in their lawn?]

I think you’d notice this in your lawn…

“Crabgrass – what is it? An annual weed with a spreading growth habit. It’s common in the Northeast, in lawns with poor soil conditions. Telltale signs. Lots of bald spots, especially after the first freeze, when crabgrass dies off. How to treat. Have your soil tested. Lime or sulfur may be needed to adjust the pH. Aeration is also recommended. Corn-gluten meal, applied in early spring, can be an effective natural pre-emergent herbicide. [Corn gluten meal, applied in early spring in climates where it rains, is an effective fertilizer for crab grass.]

Crabgrass with increasing levels of corn gluten meal.
Courtesy of Tom Cook, Oregon State University.

“Kudzu – what is it? An aggressive climbing vine that’s common in parts of the Southeast and the Midwest. Telltale signs. The thick vine forms a canopy over trees and shrubs, killing them by blocking out sunlight. How to treat. Pull out the vine and, if possible, its taproot. Be sure to bag and destroy the plant or its vines will regerminate. If the root is too thick, paint the stump with horticultural vinegar or clove oil repeatedly, or burn it with a weed torch.” [Ditto the comments for barberry.]

Have fun painting stumps. (Wikimedia)

“Canadian Thistle – what is it? An aggressive creeping perennial weed that’s found throughout the U.S. Telltale signs. Look for outbreaks in vegetable gardens, particularly those with peas and beans. [I have no idea where this little nugget of nonsense came from. It’s a weed! It will grow ANYWHERE! It doesn’t need peas and beans!] How to treat. Repeated hand weeding and tilling of the soil will weaken its extensive root system. [Because tilling the soil is such a great way of suppressing weed seed germination. And it’s really good for your lawn, too.] Planting competitive crops, such as alfalfa and forage grasses, will keep it from returning.” [Yes, do replace your lawn with alfalfa and forage grasses.]

Your new, improved lawn (Wikimedia)

“Fig Buttercup – what is it? A perennial weed with yellow flowers and shiny, dark green leaves. It’s common in many parts of the East, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. Telltale signs. The weed will start to crowd out other spring-flowering plants. It can also spread rapidly over a lawn, forming a solid blanket in place of your turfgrass. How to treat. Remove small infestations by hand, taking up the entire plant and tubers. For larger outbreaks, apply lemongrass oil or horticultural vinegar once per week when the weeds first emerge. It might take up to six weeks to eradicate.” [Now in addition to pouring vinegar on your lawn, we’ll try lemongrass oil instead of clove oil. Another unsubstantiated application – maybe lemongrass because buttercups are yellow? Makes about as much sense as anything else. It smells nice though.]

Color coordinated weed control

“Phragmites – what is it? An invasive grass species found nationwide, especially in coastal wetlands [where so many of us have lawns]. Telltale signs. Dense weeds can crowd out other plant species without providing value to wildlife. How to treat. Cut back the stalks and cover the area with clear plastic tarps, a process known as solarizing. Then replant the area with native grasses.” [Solarizing pretty much nukes everything that’s covered – not just the weeds. In fact, the rhizomes of this weed are so pernicious I’m not sure that solarization would work. Am still waiting for CR to test their hypothesis in an objective and scientific manner.]

Phragmites rhizome (Wikimedia)

So, Consumer Reports, I’d love to come back to you. But until you start applying your own standard of objective rigor to everything you cover, I’ll have to pass.

A scary Halloween story

Those of you that have followed the blog for a while know that poor tree planting is one of my pet peeves. It drives me crazy to watch tree installers use backhoes to gouge out gigantic holes and then drop in the intact root ball, clay, burlap, twine and all. But this dig-and-dump method (or “cost effective practice” according to installers) of installing trees often dooms them (the trees, not the installers) to a slow and ugly death. So in honor of Halloween, let me share my latest horror story.

Twice a day I drive down this street in NE Seattle. I’ve long admired the row of dead street trees left to remind us all of our own mortality. A few of these Liriodendron have somehow survived though “survival” seems a generous term. They’re more like zombies, slowly losing body parts but somehow still functioning until someone puts them out of their misery.

Dead #1 Dead #2 Dead #3

One lone tree seemed to defy all odds. Until our latest windstorm, which revealed the cause of all this arboricultural agony.

Downed tree Rootball side Rootball

That’s right, there’s the clay-covered rootball, still intact. Only one root has managed to escape into the native soil. There may be others on the opposite side, but by now (several years after installation) there should have been sufficient root establishment to prevent failure.

Several of us have written about bare-rooting trees before, and while there’s still not consensus on the practice I think we would all agree that the tree planting in this case was not acceptable. There are better ways, and yes they take more time (or “not cost effective” according to installers), but planting trees right mean fewer replacements later.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The  Seattle Times recently had a front page story on what Seattle’s new waterfront might look like. Back in 2009, the city began work on this project, hiring “rock-star landscape architect James Corner, designer of the celebrated High Line in New York City” to develop the big picture. (Note: I’ve been to the High Line and have posted on it before – it’s fantastic.) As you can see from the linked article from the Times, many of Corner’s architectural renditions for the greenway are presented, including this one:

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COURTESY OF JAMES CORNER FIELD OPERATIONS AND CITY OF SEATTLE
An architectural rendering shows what a Pioneer Square beach at the foot of Washington Street could look like.

For those of you not familiar with Seattle’s waterfront, it’s built right next to Puget Sound, a huge inland sea connected at its mouth to the Pacific Ocean. So it was with much surprise that I saw what appear to be Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) along the cobbled beach. Douglas firs are not particularly salt tolerant, nor would they be very happy with the tidal action or seasonal storms that will flood the beach on a regular basis. Even if these were not Douglas firs (native to Seattle) but some other salt-tolerant species (mangroves?), it’s doubtful they would look as picturesque as the drawing shows. Neither would the rest of the trees in the area, whose root zones would normally extend far into saline soils under the beach and sound.

Am I being picky? No, I don’t think so. Landscape architects should know better than to use plantings as decorations for their designs, like candy sprinkles on cupcakes. Plants aren’t just design elements. Choosing plants that are appropriate to a site is a science as well as an art.

I can’t believe that in the five years that Seattle’s been working on this project that horticultural science hasn’t been a major component of landscape planning.

Plant sentience – “It is happening…again”

Those of you who were Twin Peaks fans will recognize the title quote. And while my topic is not quite as scary as being stalked by Bob, the fact that plant sentience continues to rear its irritating head in legitimate scientific venues makes me want to curl up in a ball and whimper. Here’s what made me cringe: “Sound Garden: Can Plants Actually Talk and Hear?”

I posted on this topic a few years ago, and I’d invite you to read it and the accompanying comments. I’m still not a fan of anthropomorphizing plants, and I still think word choices matter, especially when you are trying to educate people about science.

It’s disappointing that some scientists are deliberately using anthropomorphic language when discussing plant physiology. The cynical side of me says it’s a great way to get press coverage.

April 2013 041 We’re watching you…

Bert, I’ll see your SOME-DED-TREES with POOR-DEAD-TREES

Bert’s done some nice posts on his SOcialME DesignED TREE transplant Study (or SOME DED TREES). I’m going to add to the discussion with a new addition to my Preventing Optimization Of Roots DecrEAseD TREE Survival (or POOR DEAD TREES) series.

It took a while, but the prediction I made in 2010 has come true. You’ll have to look at the link to see the whole story, but the bottom line is that this tree lasted only 7 years before succumbing to poor planting practices.

Here is the tree when it was planted in 2007. Note the lack of root flare (planted too deep) but the very obvious presence of orange nylon twine around the roots and the trunk.

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Here it is again in 2010. Note the dieback at the top and overall chlorosis.

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And here it was yesterday.

Bush tree 2014Yes, it’s dead – dead and gone. I’m not sure exactly when it was removed, but it lasted less than 7 years. Conifers have lifespans of decades or centuries. There was no excuse for this poor installation, though I keep getting the argument from landscape installers that it costs too much to do it right (i.e., to remove the twine and burlap, if not the clay itself). Keep in mind that warranties only last for a year, so the property owner gets to eat the replacement cost caused by crappy installation practices.

We GP’s may continue to disagree about how much rootballs should be disturbed when planting, but I know that none of us would agree that planting B&B trees intact is a good idea.

Spring = really?

You've got to be kidding...
Bebe the Wonder Dog says “You’ve got to be kidding…”

I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet, but I am not feeling SPRING. Here in the Blue Ridge of Virginia (Zone 6), March is averaging 10 F below average. Snow and ice is piled up on the north side of buildings. My Herbaceous Landscape Plants class is not impressed by the inch-tall Mertensia and the fact that the only thing we can call a cool-season annual (pansies/violas) is brown mush. All the delightful Zone 7 things I’ve been pushing on people for several years here – er, whoops. This is as far north as I’ve ever lived (please don’t mock me Bert). I’m tired of bales of laundry. Flannel sheets, corduroy, fleece…I am NOT good with winter. I admit I am at my best with only one layer on. And if one more person says “at least we’ll have fewer ticks”…
*snap*