The Garden Professors rise again

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted to our blog.

I feel bad about that. But there’s always something else competing for my time, and the blog slipped away from the top of my “to do” list.

No more.

Today the federal government has clamped down on the ability of its scientists to communicate with the public. This is real – and it is frightening.

There’s not much I can do about that edict in my position as a state Extension specialist. But as a state Extension specialist I have a responsibility to translate and transmit information to the public relevant to my discipline. So here’s my offer.

If you are, or if you know, a federal scientist who has information relevant to my discipline (applied plant and soil sciences) that you want the public to see, send it to me. I will post it here, and in our social media, keeping the source anonymous.

Science will NOT be suppressed. Yes, that sounds dramatic, but I don’t think any of my colleagues foresaw what is happening with the new administration. It’s time to act.

Thanks to "The scientist, Photos and The o'jays on Pinterest"
Thanks to “The scientist, Photos and The o’jays on Pinterest”

Watch a silly product morph into a lawsuit

A few years ago someone emailed me information on another garden miracle – this time a product called Mighty Wash. I found my notes on this product as I wondered what I should post about today. The sales information at the time advertised Mighty Wash as “frequency water” (which we’ll get to in a minute). Here’s part of the original advertisement:

Mostly water - plus "pink sauce" according to lawsuit documents
Mostly water – plus “pink sauce” according to lawsuit documents

“Mighty Wash is a new revolutionary way to solve your spider mite problem in all stages of development from eggs to adults…Mighty Wash is a ready to use “Frequency Imprinted” foliar spray. It is imprinted with special frequencies which target fleshy bodied insects. The use of frequency is nothing new to our world, and as you probably know all things have a frequency. What makes our products special is the fact that our proprietary frequencies are holding and stable for at least 2 years and running.

“One attribute of our Mighty wash is that it paralyzes the insect on contact not allowing it to flood out eggs and begin the resistance process! Essentially there is no resilience that can be gained from or product unlike so many others, and without the use of any chemicals. Mighty Wash does have very low levels of our naturally derived botanical oils, along with frequency make it the cleanest solution to your spider mite problem.”

Mites "flooding out eggs" [Photo source Wikipedia}
Mites “flooding out eggs” [Photo source Wikipedia]
When I looked for the manufacturer’s current information (an LLC called NPK), I couldn’t find reference to “frequency water” and its miraculous properties. After a bit of internet digging, I discovered that Mighty Wash was the subject of a bitter trademark dispute.  For me, the best thing about this dispute is the deposition, which states exactly what the original makers of Mighty Wash claim their products do:

“Yeti invented and manufactures three plant washes using a confidential and proprietary formula and process that includes electronic frequency imprinting.”

They accused the defendant of making knock off products “not manufactured using Yeti’s proprietary formula and process” resulting in products “substantially less effective than Yeti’s Products.”

Leaving the legal battle for a minute, let’s see try to figure out how this product is manufactured. “Frequency Water” is water that’s been exposed to vibrational energy or to minute quantities of dissolved substances. That’s the “electronic frequency imprinting” which is referred to in the legal complaint; it’s also called “water memory” and is the foundation for explaining how homeopathic dilutions work.

Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water [[Photo from Wikipedia]
Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water and presumably the memory of the substance [Photo source Wikipedia]
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that there’s no reliable, published science behind any of this. What is surprising is the amount of money these companies make on selling water in a spray bottle. Mighty Wash and related washes (PM Wash, Power Wash, and Ultimate Wash [which is “Mighty Wash without food coloring”]) must generate healthy sales for two companies to squabble over the trademark of a product that is basically…water.

And the Irony Prize goes to the charges of fraud and false advertising leveled at NPK by Yeti Enterprises.

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.

Moss magic

In my opinion, no coastal Pacific NW garden is complete without moss softening the edges of a rock garden or nestling between paving stones. Now that the rains have returned, mosses are lush green sponges, absorbing sound as well as water. They are the finishing touches to our native landscapes.

Bloedel Reserve moss garden
Bloedel Reserve moss garden

A few months ago, however, mosses looked quite different. With our particularly hot and droughty summer, mosses were brown, dry and brittle just like our lawns. But unlike those dead blades of grass, the mosses were only in a state of environmental dormancy. All it took to revive them was water.

Here’s a patch of moss in our home landscape during a hot dry spell. It’s dry and brown:

Dormant moss
Dormant moss

Here’s the same patch of moss 20 minutes after I watered it:

It's a garden miracle!
It’s a garden miracle!

How can mosses recover so quickly? Well, mosses are one of the most primitive groups of land plants still in existence. They lack a true vascular system, so their “roots” are only anchoring structures – they don’t absorb water. Instead, water and nutrients are taken up over the leaf surface. As soon as water hits the leaves, it’s absorbed and literally throws the switch to turn everything back on. Leaves expand, chloroplasts start to absorb sunlight, and the photosynthetic machine is humming along.

In fact, my undergraduate major advisor was a bryologist (one who studies mosses). Jack Lyford’s lab was stacked ceiling-high with shoe boxes. Each box contained a different species of moss – completely dried out of course. All he had to do was take out a piece and place it in a dish of water. Within minutes it was fully functional and ready for study.

So make room for some moss in your garden. It’s a tough and fascinating little survivor.

Your new word for the day: thigmomorphogenesis

I just finished reviewing 4 manuscripts for three different journals and boy is my brain fried. My private reactions ranged from “I can’t wait until this one is published!” to “If I were to use sheet mulch this manuscript would be my first choice.” Anyway, it was the latter manuscript that got me to thinking about what can go wrong with experimental design, which brings up today’s word: thigmomorphogenesis.

This is a great word for those who enjoy figuring out word meanings by deciphering the (usually) Greek or Latin roots. (This exercise also helps you figure out how to pronounce it.) We have “thigmo-” which means touch, “-morpho-” which means appearance, and “-genesis” which means beginning. String them all together and you get the phenomenon seen when plants respond to mechanical stimulation by changing their growth pattern and hence the way they look.

Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.
Wind direction from the right creates an asymmetric hedge.

You can easily see examples of thigmomorphogenesis in everyday life. Look at a line of hedge plants where the plants on the end are more susceptible to wind movement and brushing by people, animals or vehicles. They are always shorter, aren’t they? Plants subjected to chronic thigmomorphogenic forces are generally shorter than their neighbors and thicker in girth. (For a longer discussion about how thigmorphogenesis works, you can read my online column.)

How does all of this relate to experimental design? Well, think about what happens if you are testing a product that requires applying it to the leaves of plants once a week. Your treatment plants are touched every week. How can you know that any changes in your experimental plants aren’t due to being touched? The way you eliminate this source of variability is by treating all of the plants the same way. When you are applying the product to the treatment leaves, you apply water (or whatever the solvent is for the product in question) to the control leaves. That way thigmomorphogenesis remains just an interesting tongue-twister and not a fatal design flaw in an experiment.

Little ball of horrors

One of the great things about doing a multi-author science blog is that there will be topics about which colleagues will disagree. One of those topics revolves around the best way to prepare woody rooted plants (trees and shrubs) before planting them. This is an area in arboricultural science that is evolving. A search through our blog archives will find many of these posts and for convenience’s sake I’ve linked one from each of us here.

From Jeff (2009)
From Bert (2014)
From Linda (2013)

Rather than belabor the points that Jeff, Bert and I have already made in our posts, I think I can sum up our major difference here: I like to bare-root trees and shrubs completely before planting (so I can correctively prune all flawed roots) while Bert and Jeff prefer a less invasive approach. What we do agree upon, however, is the deplorable condition of the roots of many trees and shrubs that end up in the nursery. Because I do practice bare-rooting trees, I thought I’d use today’s post as a rogue’s gallery of trees that should never have made it to the retail nursery. (All of these trees were ones that I bare-rooted and root-pruned myself before planting – and all are thriving.)

Ginkgo "knee" root
Ginkgo “knee” root
Interlocking redbud roots
Interlocking redbud roots
Junky Japanese maple
Junky Japanese maple
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, only root-washing could find the root crown of this tree.
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, root-washing revealed the root crown of this tree (which the “at grade” part of the tree) 10″ below the top of the bag

Another unnecessary tree failure

The end of August brought an unseasonable rain- and windstorm to the Puget Sound region. We had some spectacular tree failures which I missed seeing as I was out of town. But one of our Facebook group members, Grace Hensley, was on the ball and took some great photos of a fallen purple-leafed plum. The first thing you see is the complete lack of a stabilizing root system.

"Rootless" purple leafed plum
“Rootless” purple leafed plum

Now look at the base of the trunk, which is actually a massive circling root that has girdled the trunk over time.

A big wooden donut
A big wooden doughnut

By now you must be able to see the orange twine extending from the base of the tree to the soil. Yes, those are the remains of the balled-and-burlapped clay root ball that was planted many years ago. Commercial landscapers will assure you that tree roots can grow through the burlap and establish. And this is sometimes true, as in this case.

But what doesn’t happen when the whole B&B mass is plopped into the ground is that circling woody roots aren’t discovered and corrected. Over the decades what started as a small circling root grew bigger and bigger, slowly squeezing the trunk and preventing it from developing girth at that point. It’s kind of like a blood pressure cuff being pressurized but never released.

Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root
Trunk growth was prevented by the girdling root. The broken part here used to be in middle of the wooden doughnut.

In time, the constricted point becomes so unstable that the tree breaks. Look are how small the trunk that’s still in the ground is compared to the trunk of the tree itself. Windstorms are often the final push these failing trees need.

How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?
How long before this neighboring tree fails, too?

Commercial landscapers say it’s too costly to remove the twine and burlap and clay surrounding the roots, not to mention doing any of the corrective root pruning that might be needed. It’s easier to just plant the whole thing and cross your fingers that the tree lives past the warranty date. This is what happens when you consider a tree as just another design element rather than a living organism.

As a homeowner, however, you can insist that your trees are planted correctly (if you have someone else do the work). Or you can do it yourself. The bare-root method (sometimes called root washing) is an emerging science and it requires thoughtfulness, but it’s certainly better than the conventional approach in terms of long term tree health.