Costs and benefits of pre-plant root manipulation

Spring has sprung here in Michigan; time to get cracking on lots of projects. One of our new projects is an investigation of pre-plant techniques for dealing with root systems on container grown trees. As many of you know, Linda Chalker-Scott is advocate of bare-rooting trees before planting to correct potential root defects before planting. As some of you may know, I’m skeptical of this approach. It’s not that I think root systems are perfect – far from it. But we lack sufficient information to know whether the costs of bare-rooting (time/effort, stress on the trees) warrant the benefits. We also have little information on how species vary in responding to bare-rooting. From the experience of foresters and bare-root liner nurseries we know that some species are highly sensitive to storage and handling when they’re bare-rooted. When I worked for International Paper, we had little difficulty transplanting sycamores bare-root; whereas we often encountered severe dieback or mortality with sweetgum. Likewise, shade tree nurseries often encounter difficulty establishing oaks, baldcypress, and hackberry from bare-root liners. In fact, J. Frank Schmidt and Sons nursery, one of the largest producers of shade tree liners has discontinued production of bare-root hackberry lines and only produces them as container stock.

As I said, I’m skeptical that putting a tree through the trauma of bare-rooting is worth the potential benefit. But I’m also open-minded and willing to conduct an objective trial to see what’s what. As an aside, I was skeptical about root-shaving before we conducted our own trial and was impressed by the results. For our current study we planted 96 container-grown shade trees last week at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center. Trees includes three cultivars: ‘Bloodgood’ London planetrees, columnar tulip poplar and ‘October glory’ red maple. We assigned the trees at random to one of four treatments: Control (no root treatment), Shave (outer roots removed before planting) and two bare-root treatments – Bare root – Wash (trees were bare-rooted by washing the roots with water) and Bare root – Airspade (trees were bare-rooted using an airspade). The planting crew consisted of my technician, Dana Ellison; my new Master’s student, Riley Rouse; my undergrad assistants, Becky Pobst and Alex Love; and Linda, who was on-hand to provide quality control on the bare-rooting operations.

For her M.S. project, Riley will be tracking performance of the trees over the next two years. Her measurements will include tree survival and growth as well as measures of physiological responses such as plant water potential and photosynthetic gas exchange. Next fall, after two growing seasons, we will dig a subset of the trees with a tree spade and inspect the root systems to determine the effect of treatments on root system development. In the meantime, here are some photos from last week’s festivities.

 

Right tool for the job. MSU Beaumont Nursery provided a big assist by augering the planting holes.
Tulip poplar roots before shaving
Tulip poplar after shaving
Alex cleans up a planetree with the airspade
Dana’s excited to be washing roots.
Riley washing up a maple – don’t worry the cicling roots come off next…
Light and easy. Becky after airspading a tulip poplar
Wait’ll purchasing sees this… A wading pool is perfect for pre-soaking roots before washing and for storing until planting.
Easy to smile when it’s a Control tree…
Getting a little kinky… Root at the end of the felco’s bending back on itself – corrected after the photo-op.
Looking a little wilty. TheBare-root maples required the greatest root removal and correction
Trial plantation at the end of the planting
Can’t pull off something like this without an awesome crew!

Master Gardeners at a crossroads

{Warning. Today’s post is a rant. So I’ve illustrated it with pretty flowers in soothing colors to make it more palatable.)

Hydrangea

Anyone who gardens in the United States will be familiar with Master Gardeners. The Master Gardener program was started by Washington State University in 1971, when Extension agents in the largest urban counties found themselves overwhelmed with questions from the gardening public. These agents proposed training volunteers to help with educational outreach efforts, and with support from the university the first Master Gardener program was born. The history and function of Master Gardeners is further detailed in a couple of articles I co-authored (Chalker-Scott and Collman 2006 and Chalker-Scott and Tinnemore 2009): the more recent article also raises concerns about the decline of programmatic support in Washington state and elsewhere. If you’re a Master Gardener, the repercussions of this should alarm you.

Iris

What makes a successful Master Gardener? According to Sharon Collman, the last surviving founding agent of the WSU program, it begins with this:

  • A commitment to basic and advanced training program;
  • An open-minded approach to continuing education of themselves as well as others;
  • A willingness to provide science-based, unbiased information regardless of personal beliefs. (From Chalker-Scott and Collman, 2006)
    Pink fawn lily

    To be successful, volunteers need high-quality education consistently provided by university discipline experts. And that’s where the model is starting to fail in Washington state. Extension specialists who used to provide training to Master Gardeners in plant pathology, entomology, lawn and turf management, soil sciences, and other important fields have not been replaced by the university when they resign or retire.  More and more training is left to the devices of individual counties, whose Extension funding from WSU has been gutted over the decades. The previous university-centric approach to Master Gardener training has devolved into volunteer-driven county programs with little educational oversight.

Morning glory

While counties should be commended for keeping programming alive in the face of crippling budget cuts, the lack of meaningful curricular oversight by the university means that volunteers often don’t get the most current and relevant information pertaining to the science of gardening. Worse, they may be taken in by popular products and practices with no basis in science. Other volunteers may let their personal beliefs interfere with their pledge to provide objective, science-based information on topics including pesticides, GMOs, and other controversial topics. This undermines the credibility of the county program and ultimately the university who claims these volunteers.

Oregon oxalis

If you are a Master Gardener in Washington state or anywhere else in the U.S., it’s really incumbent upon YOU to insist that your land-grant university live up to its public outreach mission. You DESERVE access to Extension faculty specialists whose primary focus is to educate the gardening public.  The university takes credit for your volunteer hours when they make reports to the state legislature. Make them earn it.

Rose

Don’t waste your time contacting the university – you’ll get nothing but platitudes there. The place for change to start is with your elected state representatives.

Arbor Day of Horrors

Happy Arbor Day!  What, you aren’t celebrating?  As a recent transplant to the state of Nebraska, I was amazed to learn that the Cornhusker State is the birthplace of the day we set aside to celebrate trees.  (Since most people associate the state with corn, football fanatics, and steak).  And since Arbor Day is near and dear to Nebraska, it is the only state that celebrates it as a civic holiday (most state offices were closed – no drivers license for you!).

The holiday got its start in 1872 when J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, Nebraska (just 40 miles south of Omaha) organized the planting of one million trees in the state of Nebraska on April 10.  Morton had been a newspaper editor, acting governor of the state, and after he founded Arbor Day was the 3rd US Secretary of Agriculture, having been appointed by President Grover Cleveland.

He built a mansion in Nebraska City that was later remodeled by his son Joy Morton (who had lots of money since he founded a little company called Morton Salt – maybe that’s where the anecdotal info of using salt to kill tree stumps/weeds started!).  These days the mansion is part of the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.  The Arbor Day Farm is also part of the park, where locals and tourists alike stop for apple orchards, a tree playground, and wine tasting.

The modest Arbor Lodge, as captured when we were being tourists in our new state.

But if you haven’t planned a trip to Nebraska City for Arbor Day and you want to celebrate it at home by planting your own tree….well, there are some definite right and wrong ways to do things.  So I thought we’d invite people to share their tree horror stories.

What have you seen that just makes you go huh?  Do you have stories or pictures that are worthy of the carnage over at Crimes Against Horticulture?

Like the always frightening Mount Treesuvius?  (down with Tree Volcanoes!)

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature
Mount Treesuvius – as captured by the Nebraska Forest Service

Or how about the girdling root stanglehold of slow death?

Image result for tree girdling roots

Or this truck-meets-tree first date fiasco that was sent in to our Extension gardening show Backyard Farmer this week?  (My diagnosis: prepare for last rights).

Photo via Backyard Farmer

Have you seen poorly planted, improperly pruned, damaged, or scary trees? Share your stories, pictures, and laments in the comments or on our Facebook page.

 

Cryptic cladophylls – stems hiding in plain sight

One of my favorite topics back when I taught Botany 101 was plant oddities. A recent question on our Garden Professors’ discussion group on Facebook reminded me about cladophylls, like the one pictured below.

Terminal stem of Schlumbergera

Cladophyll literally means “branch leaf.” Anatomically it’s a branch (it has nodes from which new stems, leaves, flowers, and even roots can arise), but it functions as a leaf. It’s the main site of photosynthesis in plants such as holiday cacti (Schlumbergera species). Like other cacti, they have reduced leaves and if you look closely at the photo, you can see the leaves as tiny hairs arising from the nodes at the end of the stem and along the sides.

But unlike cacti, these plants aren’t found in deserts, and their leaves are soft threads rather than the vicious sharp spines you’ll find in typical cacti. Instead, these are generally epiphytes in coastal mountains where humidity is relatively high. But root water is limited for epiphytes and these waxy cladophylls probably are adaptations against water loss. Their reduced leaves are immune to drought stress, unlike those of other succulents which appear only when water is plentiful.

Euphorb leaves will drop when water is unavailable

As you might expect from their red, tubular flowers, holiday cacti are pollinated by hummingbirds in their native environment. Gardeners who have a sufficiently mild climate to grow these outdoors might be lucky enough to see them visited.

Schlumbergera flower

Howdy and Previous Post Revisited 1.0

Greetings all, and good to be back in the saddle for the Garden Professors.  It’s been a while since I’ve filled you in on my own personal gardening struggles (lots) and triumphs (few) as well as topics I think you’d be interested in.  I’ve always appreciated the kind comments and good questions our readers pose, in response to my off-kilter posts and horrific punctuation.

I’m sure there is one BURNING question that long-time readers have:

“So how’s your Puya doing?”

“Fine, thank you!”

Well, mostly.

Long story short, I bought/committed to a Puya berteroniana in 2012.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about: http://gardenprofessors.com/puya-report/

I’m sure many readers have been at the receiving end of a cactus spine or Agave poke; the genus Puya makes Agaves look like stuffed animals.  Fish hooks line the margins of each leaf, and cascade over the side of the pot. Therein lies the problem…

Still alive, and doing pretty well, but Pootie the Puya really needs re-potting to realize her full potential (the blooms are outrageous, and the point of all this, as I mention here: http://gardenprofessors.com/the-eternal-gardening-optimist/)

I’ve attempted to “go in” a couple of times, but even leather grilling gloves get snagged. Need really strong tongs (two sets?).  I’m probably going to have to just bust the pot.  She didn’t make it out to the deck this summer due to the awkward pot situation. Suggestions welcome, especially from anyone who has wrestled with one of these (and lived)!

“Mulch Murder” Misinformation

This weekend I received a link to a Maryland gardening column with the intriguing title “Murder by Mulch.” My correspondent was concerned that her planned use of arborist wood chip mulch was going to cause problems. I assured her that it would not – but then spent some time looking at the column and putting it through CRAP analysis (credibility, relevance, accuracy, and purpose). It’s a skill that I encourage everyone – not just gardeners – to develop. (You’ll need to read the linked column to understand the context of my comments below.)

So we’ll start with credibility. The column is not a peer-reviewed resource, but then again neither is this blog. The author is a retired Extension specialist with research publications in compost science. That would seem to fit well with the topic. We’ll give it the benefit of doubt for now.

Use of arborist wood chips in a home landscape

How about relevance? Is this information relevant to the use of mulches in home landscapes? Absolutely.

Is this accurate information? At this point the column starts to fall apart. Let’s start with the photo (you’ll need to go to the linked column to see it). This tree didn’t die because of mulch, but because it had girdling roots – the result of planting trees improperly. Furthermore, there is no mechanism I can think of in which mulch would “strangle” a tree.

Another victim of girdling roots

Next, there is no distinction made among different types of mulch. Bark is not the same as wood chips, and coarse materials function differently than fine mulches. Bark mulches don’t absorb water like wood chips do, and fine mulches inhibit air and water movement into the soil (coarse mulches don’t cause this problem).

Wood chip mulches are an excellent choice for weed control and woody plant establishment

Finally, there is the statement that repeated application of bark will raise soil pH and increase manganese levels. There is no research I could find to support either one of these claims.

The purpose of this column was to educate – but it has failed to do so for the reasons outlined above. Where did the CRAP analysis fall apart?

We need to go back to looking at the author’s credentials. It’s not apparent from his publication record that he’s researched mulches at all. His work was primarily on composts, with the most recent article published in 1998. Nor has he published articles relevant to management of woody plants.

Wood chip research

Urban horticulture and arboriculture are relatively new fields of study that are rapidly evolving. Information once accepted as factual decades ago may no longer hold true, as newer research changes our understanding of the way that plants and soils work in managed landscapes.

Wrong is wrong

And there it is….Our own Linda Chalker-Scott has been accused of being incompetent and is being investigated by Washington State University. If found incompetent she will be removed from her academic position – in other words she will be fired.

I have had the opportunity to read the investigative report…. And it’s damning.

I mean, you know, if you call 29 pages of rumors, accusations, and the author repeatedly pointing out that Linda isn’t doing a job that she wasn’t hired to do damning.

You can read the report too – it’s over on Facebook.  It’s a closed group so you need to get there through this link

https://www.facebook.com/groups/SupportLCS/

Just ask to join.

So regarding this letter — I call BS (meaning Bad Stuff).

I have two major problems with it. First, the report is packed with unsubstantiated “facts” intended to create bias against Linda, and second, it’s an attack on you.

That’s right. This attack on Linda is a direct attack on you. At this point in time there is no University based extension professional doing a better job of transferring science-based information to the general public.

Period.

Linda’s appointment is 100% extension. That means that 100% of her time should be devoted to transferring research based information to you, the public. Well guess how she spends her time? She’s giving you what you, the taxpayer, are paying for. The investigators are saying she should do more experimental work – something she is not paid to do.

Why?

Do faculty with 100% research appointments do a lot of work to deliver the work of other researchers to the public like extension professionals? If you’re hired to do a job, you do that job. To do otherwise would be dereliction of duty.

This is absolutely ridiculous.

But let’s be honest, Linda is a polarizing figure (if I had a dime for every time that was said or implied in the text I’d be a rich man). Yep. You’ve got that right. She’s strong willed and stubborn and it comes across in her talks and her writings, and that is part of the reason she’s so compelling. And I say, if she is faithfully doing the job she was hired to do, who cares?

If she were a researcher bringing in a million dollars a year no one would care how obstinate she was.  The truth is that, in her field, Linda is doing better than the researcher who brings in a million. Shoot, there are lots of researchers who bring in a million, tell me how many extension people have won the number of writing awards that she has won, talked to the number of people she has spoken to, or had their work read by as many people as she has had her work read by? As an Extension faculty member who targets the home gardener and arborist Linda is a rock star equivalent to Paul McCartney.

Unfortunately the area that she has chosen to work in, Extension, isn’t seen as sexy and so she is being marginalized.

Lovely.

But that’s just my first problem. And, I dunno, maybe I’m being silly. After all, everyone knows that doing the job we’re hired to do is overrated. Dang, if Linda had had just a tiny bit of foresight and acquired a million dollar grant working on the cell walls of soybean cortex tissue and then published a couple of papers on it we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Linda, you silly goose!

Don’t laugh, it’s true.

How sad is that?

Not as sad as the amazing quantity of unsubstantiated material that appeared to be present simply to create a bias against Dr. Chalker-Scott in this report. For example, on page 18 we had the opportunity to read about how an Extension Director was displeased with how Dr. Chalker-Scott disagreed with a soil scientist and should respect his opinions. No attempt appears to have been made to contact the soil scientist or to be specific about the disagreement to establish whether Dr. Chalker-Scott might have a reason to disagree.

Apparently simply disagreeing with an expert is a sin in and of itself.

Indeed, throughout this entire report hear-say seems to be the order of the day. Repeatedly we hear that Dr. Chalker-Scott gets the facts wrong, but we never hear the facts she is wrong about (except in the most general way).

This is ludicrous.

But let me end with the most inane thing in the report. Something that is truly staggering. On page 17 it is reported that an employee who was eavesdropping on Dr. Chalker-Scott through the wall “could not help but notice Dr. Chalker-Scott spent a lot of time complaining about WSU to people on the phone.”

Really?

That’s in an official report?

I have no words.

Jeff Gillman