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:

waterfront2
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.

Pine%202007.jpg   Orange%20twine.jpg

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

Dying%20pine.jpg

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*

Re-using containers? A cautionary tale.

I attempted to clean up our little home greenhouse over the holiday break. There’s no good place to recycle pots around here, and I hate throwing them away…so I suffer from container build-up. Figured I’d sort through the haphazard pile in the corner of the greenhouse, wash and re-stack the useable ones, and finally ditch the busted ones.

As I started separating the first stack, I noted a tiny flash of red. It is well-known and oft-reported among my gardening and grower buddies that the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) really enjoys a nice stack of grubby pots. But I hadn’t seen one in quite a while, and not at our current location.

Boy, did I hit the jackpot.

blackwidow1

I’m not afraid of spiders. At all. Quite fond of them, actually – they are immensely useful and fascinating critters. And only a very few pose any kind of danger.
In the case of the Black Widow, a bite injects a neurotoxic venom (latrotoxin). The bites and ensuing symptoms are allegedly quite painful, though rarely fatal. In this instance, I chose not to sacrifice my comfort for our collective edification, i.e. “How Bad Can it Hurt?” (see Blister Beetle post).

So, I squished her. But felt pretty bad about it.
As I worked through the stacks, I found another.

spidy2

Shook her to the floor and did some more tap-dancing. Perhaps it was time to stop taking pictures and put some gloves on.

By the time I got through the entire pile, I’d found and mushed thirteen of them, sized small through pretty darn large. The landscape fabric on the greenhouse floor was peppered with little beige, black, and red blobs (you don’t need to see that photo).

There were none in the stacks of shiny new nursery pots I’d ordered for our blueberry transplants. But if there was some growing media or plant debris still stuck inside, there was a high probability of finding a spider.

Moral of this story? Think twice about leaving a bunch of dirty plant containers piled up. A simple hosing out before I’d stacked them would have probably prevented such a large infestation.

There’s also a significant chance that I will forget all about the need for caution the next time I’m potting up stuff. Which may lead to an even more educational and entertaining blog post, where I describe “Adventures In Lactrodectism.” Because I’m sure I missed a couple, or they’re hiding in the gravel. As the old saying goes,

“Seeing a spider isn’t a problem. It’s a problem when it disappears.”

This gives “cutting the grass” a new meaning.

No, no, no.
NO.

Miscanthus sinensis, shaved into submission.
Miscanthus sinensis along the sidewalk in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia. Sheared into submission.

Textbook “right plant, wrong place.” Miscanthus sinensis is tough, drought tolerant, creates a nice screen, and if the late-blooming cultivars such as ‘Gracillimus’ and ‘Morning Light’ are selected, has little chance of seeding all over. After a few years in place, most cultivars are as wide (or wider) than they are tall. The lovely mounding/flowing habit is why this is the number one ornamental grass sold.

Mounded, rounded habit of Miscanthus as used at the Sarah P. Duke Garden (Durham N.C.).
Mounded, rounded habit of Miscanthus as used at the Sarah P. Duke Garden (Durham N.C.).

A better option – a very upright grass such as Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ Regardless, this stuff needs to come out. Depending how long it’s been in the ground, a backhoe with probably be required. Or, they can continue carving it into a pillar.

This is just wrong.
This is just wrong.

Buying locally-grown plants

Of course we want to buy locally-grown plants! There are a gazillion sound reasons to do so.  In a paper that may be from near here, or not, I perused the gardening column over Sunday coffee, written by (a human) (name withheld to protect the very, very nice and usually accurate author). But in this particular article, the writer ventured deep into huh? territory.

And that territory is my area of expertise: nursery and greenhouse production and marketing. My favorite talk to give to gardening groups is “From Grower to Garden Center.” As the Garden Professor Least Likely To Get Riled Up, it pains me a bit to even bring this up when someone’s willing to crank out a column week after week. Heck, I haven’t been able to write anything lately, accurate or otherwise. The bulk of the article was correct and positive, plus promoted a great local grower (of which we have very, very few), BUT there were a few statements made that I thought might make good points for clarification (teaching moments) and maybe generate some discussion.

“Just like locally grown food, a locally grown plant is going to be much easier on the environment. Transportation and fuel costs are lower, and carbon footprint emissions are decreased. Plus, without a need for the special packaging to ensure a safe journey across the country, less packaging ends up in a landfill.”

I’ve unloaded plenty of trucks – the only things that use any “special packaging” are poinsettias and sometimes florist mums – sleeves and or boxes. “Cross-country” is rarely the case, even for big box stores – they work with regional growers (albeit large ones) for annuals and perennials.  However, the writer’s point is well taken in that even here in the “far east,” some independent garden centers and big box stores get shrubs and trees from the west coast (Monrovia must give them a heck of deal).  One of our two local garden centers carries Japanese maples from Monrovia; this retailer is located less than 10 minutes from a nursery that specializes in Japanese Maples.  Go figure.

“Beyond the environmental impact, when you buy a locally grown plant you usually are buying a healthier plant. It will already be accustomed to our native soils and growing conditions.”

“Usually” is a good qualifier here. Regarding health, I’ve seen amazing quality from far, far away, and real crap from a couple local growers. Local does not automatically equate to pest and pathogen free, well-rooted, non-stretched, or any other criteria for quality.  The second sentence, however, has haunted me for a week. Nursery and greenhouse plants are grown in soilless media – peat or peat alternatives; pine bark; fir bark; etc.  How can that particular plant be accustomed to “our native soil”?  To put a finer point on it, what, exactly, IS our “native soil”? Our own 19 acres has yellow clay, red clay, forest duff, sandy loam, loamy sand (I made that one up), and everything in-between.

Regarding growing conditions, your spring-purchased plant has most likely been in a controlled environment of some degree, whether a greenhouse or coldframe. If I went shopping at any retail greenhouse or garden center (which I probably will do this weekend), I would probably purchase some plants right out of the greenhouse. Of which they are accustomed.

“And, with less travel time, the plant is less likely to be stressed by excessive handling and is less likely to be over watered or over fertilized.”

On the truck, off the truck. Place on retail bench. This is how a plant would be handled whether it was grown by a local wholesale nursery 10 miles away or 1000. How excessive is that? And why would travel time cause over-watering or over-fertilizing? If anything, the inverse is true.

“New gardeners can be assured that they are buying a variety that grows well in our climate, as local growers supply what grows here. The plant will be put out for sale when it’s actually time to plant, not when a buyer across the country wants to sell it to you.”

Grows well? What grows here?  I’m not even sure where to begin with that bit of information.  Isn’t that part up to the gardener, new or otherwise?

And wherever you may live, I guarantee there were plenty of tender annuals, tomato transplants, and other jump-the-gun goodies available for sale from your local grower or garden center 45 days before your last frost date. What IS true – a good grower/retailer or garden center staffer won’t let you leave without a gentle (or not-so-gentle) reminder to keep ’em in until after last frost.  To which I always nod, agree, and then commence with trying to produce the earliest tomato in the tri-county area. Because I’m an expert.
*snort*

 

The End (hopefully) of Molasses Malarkey

I’ve been discussing the purported insecticidal properties of molasses in my last couple of posts. I’m hoping this will be the final nail in the coffin (or stopper in the bottle):

Here’s the end of the original blog piece linked above:

“Microbial bloom and Fire Ants
“These two things seem unrelated. Microbes and specifically bacteria consume simple sugars (which is why your momma made you brush your teeth). When soil born microbes are exposed to simple sugars, their numbers can double in just 30 minutes. As microbes go through their life cycle, they add organic matter and micro nutrients to the soil, improving the soil and making nutrients more available to your plants. Regularly applying molasses to your soil and plants greatly improves the quality of the soil over time. Soils with high microbial activity are easier to dig in and stay moist longer.”

I’m actually going to leave this paragraph alone, since it’s relatively accurate (except for the sentence about applying molasses to your plants, which I dealt with in my first post). Let’s move on:

“So, about the Fire Ants…since it seems that the big universities can’t make money studying the effects of molasses on Fire Ants…they don’t do any research on the subject. But, it has been proven that molasses makes Fire Ants pack up their mound and migrate to your neighbor’s yard. It may be that the bloom of microbes, irritates the little stinkers. It could be that they are running from a specific microbe. It could be that they just hate sugar (they eat mostly protein which is why you can turn a greasy over baked pan upside down over a Fire Ant mound and they will clean it for you). What ever the reason, applying molasses to your yard makes them leave.”

This entire paragraph is nonsense, beginning with equating grease with protein (it’s a fat) and ending with the supposed lack of research on fire ants. There’s a LOT of research on fire ants; pest studies are very well funded. Out of the 1500+ articles I pulled up on fire ants in the Agricola database, only one includes molasses. And that’s in a 1986 study comparing different kinds of baits (“Comparison of baits for monitoring foraging activity of the red imported fire ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)”), where molasses was found to be more attractive to fire ants than peanut oil. How this translates to “molasses makes Fire Ants pack up their mound and migrate to your neighbor’s yard” I’m not quite sure.

“If you’re crunched for time and money, molasses is the answer to a lot of your gardening problems. The benefits are undeniable, your yard will smell great and you get to feel good about letting your kids and pets play in the yard. Whether you choose dry molasses (applied to soy chaff) or the liquid (which is cheaper to use), molasses is the single best thing you can do for your soil and plants.”

The typical snake-oil pitch! (For a completely unrelated but accurate and amusing example of an old-time snake-oil pitch, check this link. You’ll see the similarities).

“It was brought to my attention that I forgot to add this info. (It is hard to remember everything when you are trying to rule the world!) During moquito weather mix:

  • 3 tbsp molasses
  • 1 tbsp Liquid Garlic (a deterent and has some fungicidal properties)
  • 1 tbsp liquid organic fertilizer of your choice (seaweed, fish emulsion, etc) into 1 gallon of water

Spray with abandon, every week if necessary but it may last up to 2 weeks if we don’t get much rain. This also works like a charm on lace bugs on azaleas and lantana.”

Spray with abandon???? This has to be one of the most reckless pieces of advice I’ve ever read. Whether it’s a fertilizer or (more importantly) a pesticide, it should *never* be applied lavishly. (Though this is such a dilute solution that it probably isn’t much different than water.)

This topic has made me crave the molasses popcorn balls my grandmother used to make. Anyone have a recipe for those?