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?

The Return of Molasses Malarkey

Last time I posted I began discussing this link about horticultural molasses. Let’s continue with the dissection:

“When molasses is sprayed directly on plants, it is absorbed straight into the plant. Once absorbed, the sugar content of the plant goes up. If you need proof, go pour a Coke on a spot in your lawn, in a week you will see exactly what I mean. Simple sugars are how plants store energy for rainy days and winter hibernation. So, why is this important to you as a gardener? Aside from basically giving your plants a power boost, you are stopping bugs. “What?” you ask. Yes, it stops bugs. Insects are very simple creatures. They can only feed within a narrow window of sugar content. When the sugar content of plants is raised, insects can’t feed on them. They take one bite and move on.

“The second way molasses controls insects, is by being directly ingested by the insect. What most people don’t know is that only Sugar Ants and bees can process the simplest sugars. Insects have no way of expelling the gas that builds up from fermenting sugar and the vegetation in their gut (draw your own mental pictures please). Plus, they have exoskeletons and can’t get bloated. Their delicate internal organs are crushed from the inside out. All a bug needs to do, is walk through or try to feed on a molasses covered plant. Insects are constantly cleaning themselves. They will try to lick the molasses off their feet and swallow it. If they take a bite of a molasses coated plant, they will swallow it.”

Some specific observations and comments:

1) “If you need proof, go pour a Coke on a spot in your lawn, in a week you will see exactly what I mean.” I just don’t think I can do this comment justice, so I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what you might see and how it relates to a 1% molasses solution sprayed onto leaves.

2) “Simple sugars are how plants store energy for rainy days and winter hibernation.” Actually, no. Simple sugars are difficult to store as they contain a lot of water and they can be quite reactive. Plants transform simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) into polysaccharides for storage.

3) “Insects are very simple creatures. They can only feed within a narrow window of sugar content. When the sugar content of plants is raised, insects can’t feed on them. They take one bite and move on.” Obviously the author has never seen Men In Black.

Give me sugar…in water

4) “What most people don’t know is that only Sugar Ants and bees can process the simplest sugars.” Please explain this to the cockroach I once saw in a sugar bowl.

5) “Insects have no way of expelling the gas that builds up from fermenting sugar and the vegetation in their gut. Their delicate internal organs are crushed from the inside out.” Did you know that termites are significant producers of methane gas – a byproduct of fermentation? And they release it the old-fashioned way.

From NASA’s website on methane production

More next week!

Molasses malarkey

Yesterday I received this link from a Facebook friend who said “when I read this I thought of you.”  More likely she was thinking of (enjoying?) the mental agony I suffered as I waded through this morass of misinformation. (By the way – those of you who are educators of some sort – this would make a great “how many things are wrong?” question for your students.)

There’s SO much to discuss in this post that I think I’ll split it up into separate posts.  Here’s the first paragraph:

“Cheap, easy and does it all!

“Not your kitchen molasses! That has had the sulfur removed and you need it in there. Horticulture Molasses does things for your plants like nothing else can and it’s the cheapest gardening product per square foot…a gallon can cover a half-acre! Put it in a sprayer, turn some music on and start spraying every inch of your yard, no need to be careful. You simply can’t over do it. Molasses raises the sugar content of plants and kills insects,causes a massive bloom of microbes in the soil and drives out Fire Ants, what more do you need?”

I’d not heard of “horticulture molasses” before, but there are so many new products sneaking into garden centers that I’m not too surprised. Let’s look at some specifics here.

  1. “Kitchen molasses has had the sulfur removed.”  This isn’t quite accurate.  Molasses doesn’t contain sulfur naturally; sulfur dioxide is sometimes added as a preservative during the processing of sugar beets or sugar cane and ends up in molasses.
  2. “Put it in a sprayer…and start spraying every inch of your yard, no need to be careful. You simply can’t overdo it.”  This is some of the most irresponsible advice I’ve ever seen. If this is such a powerful insecticide (as you’ll see later in the post), then OF COURSE you can overdo it.
  3. “Molasses raises the sugar content of plants.”  This bold statement has no basis in reality. Exactly how it is supposed to get inside the plants?  Not through the protective cuticle.  Through the stomata?  Possibly.  But how much sugar could be taken up this way? There are 256 tablespoons in a gallon.  Three tablespoons means that molasses is about 1% of the total volume in a gallon of this mixture (you’ll have to look at the bottom of the linked post to see the recipe).  And since molasses is only about 50% sugar, then a gallon of mixture is about 0.5% sugar. We’re talking about homeopathic levels of sugar here.
  4. “Molasses…kills insects, causes a massive bloom of microbes in the soil and drives out Fire Ants.” The microbe information is more or less correct (maybe not “massive” given the concentration of molasses used).  Microbes love carbohydrates.  The insecticidal claims are nonsense.  And since the next paragraph of the original post addresses this in more detail, I’ll hold off my dissection until my next post.

What’s a view without trees?

A while back I wrote about a Seattle-area neighbor dispute over a tree partially blocking their view.  Sadly, the tree lost out in this case, which was decided a few weeks ago.

Now a second tree vs. view dispute was reported this week.  You’ll have to read the story to see how many things are inaccurate/indefensible/infuriating about the “trimming” of this 90 foot western red cedar (a native species).  My personal favorite: “the tree violated neighborhood bylaws ensuring no house’s view would be blocked.”

I wonder how they got the tree to agree to the bylaws in the first place?


A western red cedar (Thuja plicata), maybe 60 feet tall.  People in my neighborhood like their big trees.

How to give a better talk

This past week I gave a talk at our state wide nursery and landscape trade show.  After my talk I stuck around and attended a couple of sessions, most of which were pretty good.  One talk, however, set my teeth on edge.  The presenter was a grounds manager for a local college that has embarked on a program of all-organic landscape care, including use of compost tea.  Personally I don’t know much about compost tea aside from the fact that mention of the term causes Linda to go apoplectic.  But I try to keep an open mind about such things so I grabbed a seat near the back of the room to see if I could glean a useful nugget or two.  After 20 minutes I thought I was going to need to have someone physically restrain me from wrestling the speaking to the ground and pounding the remote from his hand like a smoking gun.  He wasn’t a scientist and made no claims of such, nevertheless there is one  fundamental concept of the English language that every presenter at a professional meeting like this must never, ever,ever, ever,ever,ever,ever,ever, forget.  It is this: Words like better, larger, more, taller, healthier, and so on are comparatives.  And any time we use a comparative it is followed by ‘than something’ otherwise it is meaningless.  As I noted in one my earliest post on the blog, advertisers use comparatives without actually comparing them to anything all the time.  “Scalp and Shoulders shampoo gives your hair more shine.”  More shine than what? Not washing it at all? Rinsing with this morning’s leftover coffee?  So every time this guy blathered on about how compost tea made the landscape healthier or the organic program made the lawn greener, I was like Alice in the Dilbert cartoon; “Must… control… fist… of… death…”  I will freely admit to having biases against potions that sound like something concocted by the Macbeth’s witches, but as discussed in my post on PGR’s I can be persuaded by credible data.  In this case there were none forthcoming.  While many in the large crowd listened intently and took copious notes, the speaker waxed on about improved organic matter, reduced disease pressure, and improved growth and vigor.  His evidence?  He had a microscope slide of a drop of compost tea and which showed living bacteria. That was it.  Hate to break it to you guy, but most 4th graders have looked at the same in a drop of pond water.   During the question and answer session I finally spoke up.  I admitted my biases and skepticism up front and asked straightforwardedly, “Do you have any evidence that the compost tea did anything?”  The speaker, who was earnest and likable enough confessed, “No, not really.”  I applaud his goal of trying reduce chemical inputs compared to past practices.  I respect him for his willingness to give a 2 hour talk in front of 150 people.  But without any data or clear point of comparison eventually you become a huckster trying to shill a product.

Won’t you help the poinsettias?

Those creative Utah Sate University Extension folks are at it again.  Jerry Goodspeed’s hilarious Gnome Management video was a big hit among the gardening crowd a couple of years ago. 

His current effort is a bit more…film noir. 

"Mission accomplished" if you’ve been shamed into watering that poor poinsettia languishing in the dining room.  A little fertilizer wouldn’t hurt, either.

An Interesting Video

Every once in a while someone sends us  a news story or a video to look at critically.  A couple of days ago Michael got in contact with us through Facebook and asked us to take a look at a video he saw recently and let him know what we thought of it.  This video was posted on Russ Bianchi’s website (he goes by the name Uncle Russ).  He includes a short note with the video which says “ALL Genetically Modified Organisms, Ingredients, Crops, Livestock, Food, Drugs, Cosmetics, Beverages, Packaging, Flavors, Fragrances, Colors! Soaps and Detergents are UNSFAE AT0ANY EXPSURE LEVEL and are proven to cause cancers, disease and premature DEATH”.  Wow.  All that from a video?  Must be a heck of a video.

 

Here’s the video.

 

As far as I can tell, The party responsible for this video is Media Roots which is defined as “a citizen journalism project that reports the news from outside of party lines while providing a collaborative forum for conscious citizens, artists and activists to unite.” Too bad they didn’t include scientists who know something about genetically modified crops.  According to Youtube this video has been viewed over 250,000 times.

I can’t tell you exactly what the other garden professors think of it (it may not be printable), but from my end, much of this video is absolute hogwash.

But, having said that much of this video is hogwash, I must give credit where credit is due.  The first part of the film which explains how genes are moved from one organism to another was, in my opinion, pretty well done.  Sure, there were parts of it that a serious molecular biologist would complain about, but for the average person I thought it was a nice explanation.  In fact, after seeing this first part of the film I was expecting to see some really serious and thoughtful critiques of genetically modified organisms – because there absolutely are some good critiques of genetically modified organisms out there.  Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.  Let me go through the major problems that this video raised one by one and explain why they’re faulty arguments (I won’t go through all the problems, just the major ones):

  1. Genetically Modified crops show lower yields – Yes, this is sometimes true, genetically modified crops aren’t genetically modified to produce more, just to resist certain pests that might reduce yields (or resist certain herbicides that help control pests).   So the maximum yield for genetically modified and non-modified crops are usually pretty similar if the farmer growing the non-genetically modified crop controls pests with pesticides, or doesn’t see the pest for some reason.
  2. Genetically Modified crops have poisons in them – Yes, this is sometimes true.  Genetically modified crops may have genes from Bacillus thuringiensis in them (In the video this name was misspelled and the species was capitalized – which is a big deal to a scientist).  What the video didn’t mention is that this is an organic pesticide that has been used for years with, as far as we can tell, no adverse effects to humans.  The report about people being hurt in the Philippines is a complete red herring.  This supposedly occurred in 2003 and all of the data that we have points to a problem besides GMO corn pollen – in fact, the data points to a flu outbreak.   This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that GMO corn pollen hasn’t been implicated in a similar incident since then.
  3. Genetically Modified Insulin is bad! – This one does have a grain of truth.  GMO insulin is cheap and available, which is why it is used.  In the vast majority of patients there appears to be no difference between it and naturally acquired insulin.  But it does seem as though some people do have a negative reaction.  It terms of deaths, I can’t find much that is trustworthy to corroborate what was said on the video.

I have been chastised previously for being pro-pesticide, pro-GMO, pro-Monsanto, etc.  I don’t blame people for saying this because, let’s face it, I do end up defending these things sometimes because their opponents often use bad science.  But saying that I’m for these things is going a little far.  There is good science and information out there that calls into question the value of certain pesticides, GMOs, and even Monsanto.  Look up the new genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass that may be coming out soon.  Look up atrazine.  Look up how Monsanto protects its patents.  These are things I’m opposed to.  Another thing I’m opposed to is saying that something is bad without having a good understanding of it.  If you’re going to make a video that 250,000 people watch then do your homework and get as much of it right as you can.

Buried alive – the roots version

Bert’s post yesterday inspired me to share one of my own timelines that I followed for 7 years.  As many of you know, I am a proponent of bare-rooting container and B&B shrubs and trees.  One of the benefits is that you can prune away malformed roots, but another is that you can ensure the roots come into contact with the native soil as soon as possible.  It’s interesting to see what happens over time with the more typical “pop and drop” method.

I saw this rhododendron being planted in 2002.  If you look closely, you can see that it was originally balled and burlapped – the burlap is up around the multiple trunks.  Then the burlapped bag was put inside a contained filled with media.  You can see that, too.  So a hole was dug that exactly mirrored the plastic container and the whole works was lifted out and plugged in.

Visualize a giant jawbreaker with different colored layers.  At the center, we have the roots surrounded by clay.  This is encased in burlap and twine.  Then there’s a layer of container media. And finally we have the native soil.  Rather than making it easy for this rhododendron to get established, we now have several barriers for new roots to overcome.

The primary problem here is all of the different textures of stuff in this planting hole: clay, soilless media, and native soil.  Water doesn’t move easily through different soil types (remember Jeff’s demo on drainage?) and if water doesn’t move, neither will the roots. And as you follow this time line, it becomes quite apparent that the roots never established into the native soil.  Look in particular at the size of the leaves (they are markedly smaller as time goes on – a great indicator of chronic drought stress).  The line in the masonry wall makes it easy to see changes in height – or lack thereof.


Installed in 2002 (year 0)
Early 2004 (Year 2)
Late 2005 (Year 3)

Early 2007 (Year 5)
Note the leaf necrosis from chronic drought stress.  Having a ground cover competing for water does not help.  And neither does pruning off dead parts of leaves.
Now unfortunately I was not able to make it back again until 2009.  And here is what I found: