In the fall a gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pruning (with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson). In particular, people worry that pruning too late in the summer or early fall will stimulate plants to send out new growth, which is then damaged by freezing temperatures. Let’s dissect what actually happens when woody plants are pruned during this time.
First, we need to separate temperate trees and shrubs from tropical and subtropical species. For the most part, the latter don’t become winter dormant: pruning them at any time means you will have regrowth as long as there are sufficient resources. If planted in more temperate zones, they will continue to grow until they are killed by freeze damage. Instead, we’ll look at temperate species and how they are adapted to surviving winter conditions.
I wrote a couple of posts last year on cold hardiness (here and here), so I won’t repeat those discussions on how plants survive freezing. Instead, we’ll focus on the process of HOW plants enter winter dormancy and become cold hardy. It’s a two-step process that depends on two different environmental factors: one that never changes from year to year, and one that certainly can.
The first step to dormancy is initiated right after the summer solstice. Plants are exquisitely adapted to changes in the light-to-dark ratio, and days begin shortening after the summer solstice. The changes that occur are largely biochemical, but you can also see some changes in plants themselves. Many trees and shrubs slow their growth during this time so that fewer young leaves and shoots are produced. Instead, resources are put into the existing foliage, or flowers for summer bloomers. Excess resources are routed to woody parts of the plant for storage.
From a practical standpoint, this means that when you prune trees and shrubs where growth has stopped, you will NOT get regrowth. The vegetative buds below the pruning cut are dormant. The tricky thing is that the exact time when the switch is thrown varies by species and is affected by environmental conditions. Careful observation will allow you to estimate when the plants will no longer produce new growth.
The second step begins when night temperatures cool to near freezing, which is not a predictable date. Because many of the biochemical and physiological processes have already begun or are finished, the response to cold night temperatures is rapid and visible. Leaf colors change as the plant begins breaking down leaf materials for mobilization and storage elsewhere in preparation for winter dormancy.
This process, honed over millions of years, is unfortunately not infallible especially under abnormal environmental conditions. Two examples spring to mind:
High intensity street lights. If the normal light-to-dark ratio change is interrupted by significant levels of night light, the first step of dormancy is hijacked. You can see what happens in these previous blog posts here and here.
Unseasonably cold weather. With climate change, we are seeing wild shifts in all sorts of weather patterns, including the date of the first hard freeze. Hard, early freezes are not the same as a light evening frost. You can see what happens here:
Given normal conditions, however, temperate trees and shrubs are well on their way to full winter dormancy by late summer and early fall. Pruning them is not going to induce new growth.
Arborists, Professional Credentials, and Designating Bodies
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines arboriculture as “the cultivation of trees and shrubs especially for ornamental purposes” (2019a) and arborists as the specialists that care for those trees (2019b). In the US there are two primary certifications for arborists. Arborists can become a Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA) through the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) (ASCA, 2019a) and/or become an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist (ISA, 2019a). The ISA also offers a range of associated certifications, including ISA Certified Arborist Utility Specialist, Arborist Municipal Specialist, Tree Worker Climber Specialist, Tree Worker Aerial Lift Specialist, Board Certified Master Arborist, and ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification. For the sake brevity, the focus of this post will be on the flagship programs from each organization, ASCA’s Registered Consulting Arborist and the ISA Certified Arborist credentials.
Relevance for Gardeners
Many gardeners who have trees are likely familiar with arborists, or at least with a local “tree guy”. While trees are beautiful, they can also suffer from disease, nutrient deficiencies, and other plant health issues. In addition, trees often require maintenance and pruning to ensure safety, avoid damage to houses or other property from falling branches, or to allow more light through the tree canopy to reach the ground and garden. Maintenance and pruning of trees requires experience and expertise to ensure that trees aren’t damaged in the process, and that pruning is done safely. When their services are needed, hiring an arborist with professional credentials can be an excellent way to ensure that trees are properly cared for and that nobody is hurt in the process.
In my personal experience, certified arborists in my community charge more per hour. However, the extra cost in exchange for ensuring the 60 year old pin oak that is the same age as my house lives on for another 60 years is worth it.
Other Considerations in Choosing an Arborist
Whether an arborist is certified or not, it is a good idea to check that the arborist is insured. That is because if they or one of their crew is injured on your property, you as the property owner may be liable for any injuries that occur while tending to the trees on your property.
Also, as with hiring any professional for home repairs or improvements, it’s important to check their references or get recommendations from colleagues and friends. You should also check whether your local government has any regulations on tree management within city limits. If so, be sure that who you hire has experience with following those regulations, and has all of the business registrations and approval from the local government.
It is also important what your needs are. If you need a large specimen tree pruned and the potential for tree injury or death would be devastating, then hiring someone with documented expertise is important. If you’re instead just trying to get the half-dead tree in the back yard chopped down and there’s no risk of falling a tree onto a power line or structure, then documented expertise might be less important (though insurance might be, see above).
In addition, if you are getting a large tree taken down, consider the value of the wood in your tree. Large hardwood trees may have significant value. Some tree guys will offer to take it down for free in exchange for the wood. While this may sound like a good deal, I know people who were shorted thousands of dollars from such transactions when considering the value of the wood and the per hour cost of an arborist.
Type of Credential: Professional Certificate
Both the RCA and ISA Certified Arborist credentials are considered professional certificates. This means that these are optional credentials. Arborists are not required by law to be certified. This means that an arborist can operate without certification. Arborists that are certified have had their credentials reviewed, and meet or abide by the criteria described below.
Education and Professional Experience Requirements
Registered Consulting Arborists must be a current ASCA member, and be a graduate of the ASCA’s Consulting Academy (ASCA, 2019b). No additional education or work experience is required.
ISA Certified Arborist must have three or more years of experience in arboriculture and/or a degree in the field of arboriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture, or forestry from an accredited institution of higher education (ISA, 2019b).
Registered Consulting Arborists must pass an open-book exam as part of the ASCA’s Consulting Academy, which also includes other assignments before, during, and after the academy (ASCA, 2019c).
ISA Certified Arborists must pass a qualifying exam (ISA, 2018).
Code of Ethics
The ISA Certified Arborist program has a code of ethics that all certified arborists must abide by (ISA, 2019c). The RCA program does not have a code of ethics.
Registered Consulting Arborists must complete 420 continuing education units (CEUs) to be eligible for the RCA credential (ASCA, 2019b). Their website does not specify if additional CEUs are required in order to maintain the RCA credential.
ISA Certified Arborists are required to complete 30 CEUs in a three-year period in order to maintain their certification (ISA, 2019d).
ASCA. 2019a. The RCA. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/RCA (accessed 25 September 2019).
ASCA. 2019b. Eligibility/Fees. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/EligibilityFeesRCAs (accessed 25 September 2019).
ASCA. 2019c. ASCA’s Consulting Academy. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/ConsultingAcademy (accessed 25 September 2019).
ISA. 2018. ISA Certified Arborist Application Guide. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Portals/0/Assets/PDF/Certification-Applications/cert-Application-Certified-Arborist.pdf.
ISA. 2019a. Types of Credentials. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Which-Credential-is-Right-for-You (accessed 25 September 2019).
ISA. 2019b. ISA Certified Arborist. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Types-of-Credentials/ISA-Certified-Arborist (accessed 25 September 2019).
ISA. 2019c. Code of Ethics. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/ISA-Ethics-and-Integrity/Code-of-Ethics (accessed 25 September 2019).
ISA. 2019d. Maintaining Credentials. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Maintaining-Credentials (accessed 25 September 2019).
Merriam-Webster. 2019a. Definition of Arboriculture. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arboriculture (accessed 25 September 2019).
Merriam-Webster. 2019b. Definition of Arborist. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arborist (accessed 25 September 2019).
Gardeners are assaulted with marketing campaigns nowhere better than in the fertilizer aisle of a garden center. There are so many choices and the labels suggest that fertilizing garden plants is a complicated process that requires specialized products.
Laws require that fertilizers list the proportion of the most important macronutrients on the front of the bag. Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium abbreviated N, P, K, respectively, will always be shown with the ratio of their concentrations such as 5-10-15. This indicates the bag contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 15% potassium. The bag will also specify the weight of fertilizer contained in it, usually in pounds here in the United States. Of course, labeling requirements vary in other countries. Since fertilizers are not drugs or pesticides the labeling requirements are relatively lax and thus are open to extensive marketing. With fertilizers, as long as the contents are labeled and the proportion of N P and K are somewhere on the bag, any other claim can seemingly be made.
For years fertilizers have been designed specifically for certain plants. You can commonly purchase citrus food, camellia and azalea food, vegetable fertilizer, and of course turfgrass fertilizers which have been widely marketed for decades. Some fertilizer blends are based on research. Turfgrasses have a high requirement for both Nitrogen and Potassium and you often see elevated percentages of these in turfgrass fertilizers. Palms also require more potassium than Phosphorus and products have been developed that are “palm special” fertilizers. Despite all the research, manufacturers still throw in some phosphorus even though phosphorus is abundant in the United states in most soils. It is not clear to me what makes citrus food different from any other fertilizer, although claims that it is best for citrus can usually be found on the product. We grow more citrus in Ventura County, particularly lemons than anywhere in California, but none of the growers apply “citrus food”.
Some fertilizers are marketed for acid loving plants. Acid forming fertilizers have the ability to temporarily reduce pH in media or soil to which they are applied. This is because they have a high amount of ammonium or urea as the nitrogen source. Microbes in soil oxidize the nitrogen to nitrate and release hydrogen ions that make the soil more acid. Continual use of acid forming fertilizers can drop soil pH to dangerously low levels and make nutrients unavailable to many plants. This is especially the case in high rainfall climates where mineral nutrients are easily leached from soil. Another product often used to lower pH is aluminum sulfate. Often marketed as “hydrangea food” it helps to promote blue flowers in this plant. Special care should be given here as aluminum can easily be applied to toxic levels.
For as long as fertilizers have been sold they have been marketed as products that make plants grow better. When the importance of mycorrhizae were discovered, manufacturers found a new marketing angle that could be used to sell fertilizers. Now countless manufacturers include mycorrhizal inoculants as part of their fertilizer blend. Not only are we able to feed the plant but we can also feed the soil with beneficial micro-organisms. This all sounds great but often the inoculant, if present in the bag, is not viable. In many cases garden soils already have plenty of mycorrhizal fungi in them so they really are not needed in fertilizer products. Other fertilizers include growth stimulants such as humic acid, fulvic acid or humates. Research does not support their efficacy in horticulture.
Fertilizer manufacturers feel that it is important that we gardeners use things that are “all natural”. I don’t know what is natural to you but for me it is natural to challenge claims that have no scientific basis. The very practice of fertilizing plants is NOT NATURAL! But the products are often purported to be. Sometimes natural is synonymous with organic. There are an amazing number of organic fertilizers, so much so that it becomes bewildering as to which one to choose. Organic fertilizers may or may not be ‘certified’ by an agency such as OMRI as meeting some standard. Generally speaking organic fertilizers are made from some carbon based source. They can be sourced as manures or as plant or animal based meals or products. The N-P-K ratios vary widely.
I am always careful to avoid manure-based organic fertilizer products as they can be unnecessarily salty. While many organic fertilizers may be rather “slow release” as they need to mineralize from organic to soluble forms, this is often not the case with manure based products which can easily burn plants if over-applied. Some organic fertilizers are made from rock like substances such as leonardite which are very slow releasers of nitrogen. These products are mined and are similar to coal but have fertilizer value. In trials I have conducted on containerized plants some of these products were top performers.
Another common type of organic fertilizer are the biosolids products such as Milorganite. These are processed sewage sludge products that are de-watered and made into fertilizer. They are very effective nitrogen sources. Some biosolids fertilizers have also been sources of metals, such as zinc, lead and cadmium. Metal contents are closely monitored by manufacturers but since these products come through municipal systems, zinc, copper and other metals such as lead are often elevated. Slow release and organic fertilizers are useful if they are applied with understanding of the mineral needs of the plants they are applied to.
Most plants grow fine without fertilization and the main fertilizer element that plants respond to is nitrogen. So despite all the marketing claims seen on fertilizer bags, a fertilizer with an adequate source of nitrogen will likely benefit plants in need of that element. Specialized fertilizers that promote flowers or roots are not substantiated by research. Elements other than nitrogen are usually not required and ratios of N P and K are not tuned for more blooms or more roots. Adding phosphorus to your fertilizer does not promote flowering unless your soil is deficient in phosphorus (a rare condition). Gardens in high rainfall areas will likely need more potassium and nitrogen, but Phosphorus is hardly ever limiting to plant growth. Most plants do not need or require special fertilizers but will respond to fertilizers that contain an element they and soils they are growing in are lacking.
For gardens that have a loam soil texture, little fertilizer will be needed. Soil types often determine fertilizer needs for plants. Sandy soils likely need the most fertilizer because they do not hold nutrients well. They are also the most likely soils to lead to pollution because fertilizer elements will leach easily. Plants growing in sandy soils are also at greatest risk from injury of overfertilization. Plants growing in clay soils are least likely to require fertilization because clays hold and retain cations so well. An informed way to fertilize your garden is to obtain a soils test and base your fertilizer program on the results you obtain. For more on technical details of fertilizing see John Porter’s column in this blog archive.
When you think you need to fertilize garden plants follow these suggestions:
-Base your fertilizer program on a soils test
-Fertilize sandy soils more frequently than clay soils but with smaller amounts
-Most gardens require some nitrogen but not Phosphorus or Potassium so look for NPK ratios with X-0-0 as these products will only supply nitrogen.
-Some plants such as palms and turfgrass benefit from potassium so use a product with X-0-X
-Do not fertilize at planting time, wait until plants establish
-Always apply water after applying soluble fertilizers so they are dissolved
-If using Organic fertilizers chose one with a higher N content
-Never over-fertilize. Landscape fertilization can impair natural waterways resulting in algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life.
The Annual Meeting and Professional Improvement Conference of the National Association of County Extension Agents is that one time of year where extension agriculture professionals gather to share ideas, give talks, network, and let their hair down. The name of the organization is a bit outmoded: many states no longer call their extension personnel agents, but rather educators, experts, professionals, area specialists, and the like. Most aspects of agriculture are included: from the traditional cows and plows of animal science and agronomy to horticulture and sustainable agriculture (I’m the outgoing national chair of that committee). There’s also sharing on agriculture issues like seminars on engaging audiences about genetic engineering, teaching and technology like utilizing social media and interactive apps, and leadership skills.
It is the one time every year or so that Linda Chalker-Scott, grand founder of the Garden Professors, and I get to hang out. If we’re lucky we’ll meet up in some sessions, chat in the hallways, or grab a drink. But one of our favorite conference activities is taking a turn around the trade show floor. This is where companies and organizations are vying for the attention of extension educators to show them their newest equipment and products….we are, after all, the people that share growing and production information with a great number of potential clients across the country.
Since the organization runs on money, almost no company that comes calling with the money for a trade show spot is turned away. This means that the products may or may not stand up to the rigors of scientific accuracy. In years past we’ve found snake oil aplenty, like magical humic acid that is supposed to be this natural elixir of life for plant growth. The only problem is that humates don’t exist in nature and there’s little documentation of any effect on plant growth. The product that was supposed to be this magic potion was created from fossil fuels and no actual peer-reviewed research was offered by the company – hardly convincing. There were magic plastic rings that supposedly acted as protective mulch around mature trees and could slowly release water, except that mature trees don’t really need protective mulch and the amount of water would be negligible to a tree that size. So will we be smiling or scowling when we’ve made our way through the trade show.
Right off we set our sites on a company starting with “Bio”, which can be a good indicator of questionable rationale. That lit up the first indicator on our woo-ometer. Beneficial bacteria you apply to plants/soil: woo-ometer level two. So LCS and I engaged the representative. Asking about the product and what it does. We learned about their different products that could help increase the rate of decomposition of crop residues in farm fields, of turfgrass improvement, increased crop production, and treatment of manure pits on dairy and hog farms (which, if you’ve ever experienced one, you’d know would benefit from any help they can get in terms of smell).
Most of the products like this give vague descriptions of the beneficial bacteria it contains. They’re akin to compost teas that can have any number of good, bad, and downright ugly bacteria and fungi in them. Since you don’t know what’s in these products, any claims on soils or plants are suspect at best. However…our rep went on to tell us that the company created blends of bacteria from specific strains that had been researched for their effects on decomposition, soil nutrient availability, and plant growth. There was a brochure with the specific bacteria listed, along with studies the company had conducted.
We asked about peer-reviewed research, which is our standard for evidence here at the GP, and while he had no results to share he assured us that university-led research is currently in the works. And as we’ve stated in regards to applying of beneficial bacteria to soil – while there’s little evidence showing the effectiveness of applying non-specific bacteria to plants, using directed applications of specific bacteria which have been tested for specific functions are supported by research. So our woo-meter didn’t fully light up. We reset it and continued the hunt.
We scoured the rest of the trade show and found one other soil additive that lit up the first lights of our woo-meter, but the rep must have been out for lunch so without anyone to talk to we couldn’t confirm woo or no-woo.
However…..we did find something spectacular! The local employees of the USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) had an interactive demonstration of soil, specifically showing the benefits of reducing or eliminating tillage. The NRCS works with many farmers to incorporate conservation practices on farms, including no-till production, by providing technical assistance, farm plans, and even grants, cost-share, and easement programs. Many farmers have benefitted from their grant for season extension high tunnels (which are seen as a soil conservation technique, since they shelter soil). We were so enamored with the demonstration, we asked them to do it again…so we could record it. So, for your viewing pleasure check out the video below where you can see how well no-till soil holds its structure while tilled soil falls apart. This effect is from the exudates from all the beneficial microbes in the soil that act like glue to promote good soil structure. We’ll let the video speak for itself……
So not only does the trade show get a smile instead of a scowl from us, but also two thumbs up! Either there has been some weeding out of the trade show sponsors, maybe the snake oil salesmen didn’t get the traction they were hoping for at the conference, or hopefully some of these companies have failed to reach an audience with their pseudoscience.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ranted about bad mulch choices and it certainly won’t be the last. But this pictorial cautionary tale is too important to pass up.
We already know that sheet mulches can be death to microbes, plant roots and animals living in the soil underneath. Our newly published research shows that landscape fabric reduces carbon dioxide movement between the soil and atmosphere about 1,000 times more than wood chip mulches do: plastic mulches are even worse. Oxygen movement will be likewise affected. And while gaps and holes in these barriers can lessen the impact, the question remains: why would you use ANY mulch that reduces gas movement? Yet people persist in using fabrics and plastics, usually to “smother” weeds (and that verb should set off alarm bells for anyone thinking about collateral damage to soil life). But weeds are weeds for a reason, and they will eventually colonize the surface of sheet mulches as soil, organic matter, and water collect over time.
So without further ado, here is a case study of what happens when sheet mulch is used for landscape weed control.
These irrigated landscape beds are in Wenatchee, Washington, which has hot, dry summers. As you can see, bark mulch has been used to hide the shame of sheet mulching. And from a distance it looks…okay.
Upon closer inspection, you can see the shroud of death emerging from the bark mulch (which has no means of staying in place, especially on a slope).
And even close you can see the soil that’s blown in, along with the bark and other organic matter. Just add water, and you get weeds!
Weeds, weeds, weeds! Lots of weeds. Sunny weeds!
And shady weeds!
The weeds are thriving – but the trees are not. The crowns are dying…
…and the trunks are suckering.
But you’ll note that the trees in the first photo outside of the beds are thriving.
And it’s all because of that “weed control fabric.” Which is working so well that this landscape had to be treated with herbicide the day I was there – to control the weeds.
I was taught in horticulture school that the ideal soil is composed of 50% solids and 50% voids or spaces which are themselves composed of a variable amount of water from small amounts to as much as 25% water when the soil is at field capacity or the amount of water left in soil after gravity has pulled all the free water down in the profile. So the “ideal” soil always has 25% pore spaces or more depending on how much water is present. These conditions are vital for root growth since roots go through the chemical process of respiration which involves absorbing oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. For gas exchange to happen in this ideal soil, spaces or voids are important, and necessary. A well-structured soil has micro aggregates (pea sized or smaller clumps of soil) in high concentrations which creates many of these spaces and is said to have high porosity.
Porosity – the amount and types of voids – is determined by two major factors: 1) The size and distribution of the soil particles; and 2), how those particles are arranged. Sand, silt, and clay particles can be arranged and formed into pathways that help move air and water. These paths are formed by past root channels and the movement of organisms like worms and insects. These channels are glued together by exudates from roots, bacteria and fungi. This organic, both living and dead, soil fraction also add and stabilizes porosity. All together, soil particles, plant residues and microorganisms create a fragile structure that adds more porosity than just the pores and voids created by spaces between the soil mineral particles.
Structure and porosity can be physically destroyed or crushed. The soil can be squished by heavy equipment or constant foot traffic of animals, such as humans or horses, or others that constantly tread over the same soil. Compacted soil can be near the surface (the worst for trees since their roots are mostly near the surface), or lower down in the profile. A “plow pan” is actually a compacted zone at the depth of plow or ripping agricultural implements where soil structure is constantly destroyed at the same depth over and over. As soon as roots and worms create a new pathway and reinforce it with micro-aggregates and glues, it is destroyed again, creating a zone of loosened soil where the implement has traveled, but a zone immediately below what which has been compacted by the pressure of the implement.
Most horticulturists and many gardeners know that compacted soils are bad for plants growing in them. Shade trees frequently have restricted growth in these kinds of soils. This can happen at a young age when trees are just planted or on large specimen trees, such as in parks that have the soil compacted around them by visitors. Footpaths, picnic tables, playground equipment or any publicly attractive park feature will often have compacted soils in the area.
Deprivation of litterfall and mulch layers, either through wearing out (grinding of organic matter by foot traffic) of the mulch or by mulch/litter removal through raking will promote compaction by removing the cushioning effect of that mulch layer. Sadly, the tree itself can be the feature that attracts people to it, resulting in compacted soils all around its base that limits its health.
What is not so well known is why growth is slowed in compacted soils. The effects of compaction are multi-fold. Compacted soils are less porous because the compaction literally reduces the air pockets in the soil, making it more dense with lower oxygen diffusion rates. Soil with destroyed structure becomes less permeable to water infiltration and holds less water. Under these conditions tree roots may not be adequately hydrated, and cannot physically penetrate the highly compacted soil. Thus, they are not able to develop and expand and explore enough to supply the needs of the tree. Reduced soil oxygen, along with other site, soil, and tree variables such as water and nutrient uptake, are all reasons for restricted tree growth.
There is compelling evidence that different species of trees can exert greater pressure at their root tips to break through compacted soils. Different tree species also have different root architectures – finer, deeper, shallower, etc. Thus, there is a genetic factor in a tree’s ability to deal with this soil problem.
Soils are more or less compactable depending on their texture, structure and moisture status. Generally a dry soil is harder to compact that a moist one. Dry soils resist compaction (but still can be compacted) because the soil aggregates stiffen as they dry. Wet soils are easily compacted but people and machinery also easily sink in very wet soils. Waterlogged soils may or may not have structure, but the water in the pores, prevents further collapse of the soil structure. Soils that are moist (at field capacity) are just right for growing plants, and are also perfect for compacting and thus must be protected from compaction.
Soil compaction is measured by calculating what’s called bulk density (Bd). Bulk density is the weight of soil in a given volume, and is measured in grams/cubic centimeter. In order to measure bulk density a special soil sampling device called an “intact soil core sampler” is used. This device extracts a core of soil while preserving its structure. The volume of the sample is a constant. The soil sample is removed and dried to drive off all the water and then the weight of dry soil is divided by the known sample volume giving the bulk density.
Bulk densities vary depending on the soil texture (%Sand:Silt:Clay) and to a smaller extent on the organic matter content. Sands generally have very large particles, more pore spaces and lower bulk densities than silts, loams and clays which will
A Comparison of Root Limiting Bulk Density for Different Soil Types (NRCS 1998 in Dallas and Lewandowski, 2003)have the highest bulk densities. Thus compaction is determined by measuring both bulk density and soil texture. Generally, pure rock has a bulk density over 2.65 g/cc. Uncompacted sands may have bulk densities of 1.2-1.4, while loams and clays may have Bd from 1.5-1.8 g/cc. A sand may be compact at 1.4 but a clay may have a higher Bd of 1.5 and not be considered compacted. Organic soils can have Bd that are much lower – 0.02-.9 g/cc. Generally, soils (average of all textures) with bulk densities over 1.5 can be suspected to be compacted and will limit tree growth.
Bulk density for a given soil is not a fixed property, it can change depending on the history of what has happened to the soil. For instance, in an annual color bed or vegetable garden bed, the soil may be turned or tilled by the gardener, amended, and replanted. During this process structure is destroyed, but the organic matter, growth of the crop, and time foster a new soil structure, perhaps even more porous than the soil was previously. This can happen in one growing season. In the case of compacted soils around trees, it can take years for a mulch laid over a compacted soil to correct the compaction.
Another way of looking at this is: if you can get the sampler into the soil, its likely not compacted, but if you have to use a hammer to get it into the soil it might be compacted (or dry). Pressure required is going to depend on the soil moisture, as well as the state of compaction. Compaction can also be measured by a device called a penetrometer which quantifies resistance to penetration. We as gardeners can use a screwdriver, if you can push it into soil; it is less compacted than if you can’t. The screwdriver test is also used to test for moisture content–when soils dry out, they resist penetration. The depth of water penetration in an irrigated soil is the depth to where the screwdriver stops when pushed in. So, it is easy to confuse a compacted soil with a dry soil. Also, if a soil is compacted, water will not easily enter, so many compacted soils are also perennially dry soils since irrigation does not easily penetrate them. This can be seen as increased runoff when you try to irrigate or ponding if the compacted zone does not drain away.
How do we fix compacted soils with high bulk densities? I was always taught that chemical fixers like gypsum, soil penetrants, or other chemical means will not affect a structurally damaged and compacted soil. The only way to fix them is to physically un-compact them. So, further destroying structure by ripping, drilling, trenching, air spading, or in some other way breaking up the compacted layers is the thing to do. Basuk (1994) cites cases where soil modified to treat compaction actually re-compacts (bulk density increases) over time (2-3 years after a compaction relieving treatment is applied). Numerous studies indicate that breakdown of arborist chip mulches will lead to reduced bulk density, but little is known about actual bulk density reductions with mulch applications over time. I am confident mulches will reduce bulk density, but given the diversity of soils, textures and compaction levels, I can only imagine this is a variable response. Removing the cause of the compaction, (foot traffic, machine usage etc) is the first step. Mulching following some kind of “soil fluffing” procedure should begin the process of increasing soil porosity and reducing bulk density. It may take years to relieve compaction passively through the action of mulching. If soil can be mechanically broken up, the compaction issue is solved and soil structure will slowly be reformed in time depending on what is grown thereafter.
Bassuk, N. 1994. A review of the effects of soil compaction and amelioration treatments on landscape trees. Journal of Arboriculture 20:9-17.
Entomologists, Professional Credentials, and Designating Body
Entomology is the study of insects, and is a field within zoology, the study of animals. In the US, the primary professional and scientific society of entomologists is the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which formed in 1889 (ESA, 2019a). The ESA developed the Board Certified Entomologist (BCE) professional certification for professional entomologists with a bachelor’s degree or higher in entomology or a closely related discipline (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019a). The ESA later created the Associate Professional Entomologists (ACE) for those who don’t meet the education requirements of the BCE credential, but do have professional experience and training and work in the pest management industry (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019b). Both credentials are administered by the ESA Certification Corporation (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019a).
Relevance for Gardeners
Gardeners are likely to encounter entomologists in a few different capacities. First, professional certification of an entomologist is a sign of authority. This can be especially important when evaluating the credibility of information available online and reviewing the qualifications of authors. Gardeners should seek information from BCEs or ACEs, in addition to traditional sources of information on insect control like extension publications or peer-reviewed literature. Gardeners are also likely to encounter an ACE in the event that a professional is needed for helping with pest control – whether that be in the garden or in the home. If gardeners are seeking an insect control professional, an ACE professional credential is a good indicator of professional experience and training.
Type of Credential: professional certificate
The BCE and ACE credentials are professional certificates, which means that it is a voluntary program (Knapp and Knapp, 2002). Being a voluntary program, it is legal for entomologists to practice without the certificate. However, it will be up to gardeners to evaluate the experience, training, and education of the entomologist.
Education and Professional Experience Requirements
A bachelor’s degree or higher in entomology or closely related discipline (ecology, zoology, biology, etc.) is required for the BCE credential, while the ACE credential does require a college degree (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019c). BCEs are required to have three years of professional experience if their highest degree is a BS, two years of experience with an MS, and one year of experience with a PhD. ACEs must have 5 years of verified professional experience in pest management. In addition, ACEs must also have an active license or certificate that allows them to apply pesticides without supervision.
BCE certified entomologist must past the BCE Qualifying exam with a score of 70% or higher (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019d), while ACEs must pass the ACE exam with a 75% or higher (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019e).
Code of Ethics
BCEs and ACEs are bound by codes of ethics for the respective programs (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019f; g).
BCEs are required to complete 120 hours of continuing education units via continuing education or professional participation over a three-year reporting period (ESA, 2019b). At least 72 hours of those CEUs must be from continuing education for each reporting period. ACEs are required to complete 18 CEUs over a three-year reporting cycle (ESA Certification Corporation, 2019f).
ESA. 2019a. About ESA. Entomological Society of America. https://www.entsoc.org/about/esa (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA. 2019b. CEU Requirements. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/ceu-requirements (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019a. About. ESA Certification Corporationf. https://www.entocert.org/about (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019b. ACE Certification. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/ace-certification (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019c. BCE Requirements. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/bce-requirements (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019d. BCE Examinations. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/bce-examinations (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019e. Studying for the ACE Exams. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/studying-ace-exams (accessed 27 August 2019).
ESA Certification Corporation. 2019f. Maintain my ACE Certification. ESA Certification Corporation. https://www.entocert.org/maintain-my-ace-certification (accessed 27 August 2019).
Knapp, L., and J. Knapp. 2002. The Business of Certification: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Program. 2nd Revised edition edition. Association Management Press,U.S., Washington, D.C.
How do you know that plants will do well in your garden? Do you research the types of plants for your region, study different cultivars, and select only things that have been proven to do well for your conditions? Or do you buy what catches your eye at the garden center, plant it, and then see what happens? I used to joke that my home garden was a horticulture experiment station, since I’d try all kinds of random plants or techniques and see what works for me. Now, I get to do that as a fun part of my job through the All-America Selections (AAS) program. You’ve likely seen the AAS symbol on plants or seed packets at the garden center or in catalogs. Heck, you may even have them in your garden (and not know it). I compare it to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that you used to see on appliances, cleaners, etc. The AAS program is a non-profit started in the 1930’s with the goal of evaluating new plants so that home gardeners can purchase high quality seeds and plants and to assist the horticulture industry in marketing innovations from their breeding programs. You can read more about AAS and its history here.
A few weeks ago I traveled to Chicago for the All-America Selections (AAS) Annual Summit to receive their Judge Ambassador Award. I had signed up a few years ago to be a trial site for edible crops for AAS. The following year I talked my colleague Scott into signing up as a judge for their ornamental trials. The fun thing about the program is that we get to grow all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers that aren’t even on the market yet. We get to see how well they grow compared to similar plants and rate them on a number of factors including growth habit, disease resistance, and performance plus flavor (for edible crops) or flower color/form (for ornamentals). It can be hard work, but it is rewarding to help identify true plant innovations and to see your favorites be announced as winners.
How the testing works
While the AAS Trials may not have the rigor of academic crop research, I do appreciate the procedures in place that provide objective and high standard results.
Breeders, developers, and horticultural companies submit their new plants that are planned for future introduction to the board of AAS for consideration in the trialing program. During the application process, novel traits of the plants are identified to ensure that the plant offers something new and exciting – these are the traits that judges will observe and score. The board reviews the application to determine if it fits within the program rules.
One great thing about the program is that trial judges are professional horticulturalists from universities, seed companies, botanical gardens, etc. – they’re people who know how to grow things and know what quality plants look and act like. There are trial sites all around the country, providing for replication and generalizeable results for most regions of the country. The conditions plants are grown in also vary by location. My trial is at a farm where management is minimal. When we were at the summit we visited the trial gardens at Ball Horticulture which looked much more maintained and pampered compared to mine. This gives data on a variety of maintenance levels as you’ll find in home gardens – some gardeners are very conscientious about maintaining their plants and others have a more laissez faire approach. In order to win as a full national AAS winner, the plants have to perform well across the country in all these different situations. Sometimes those that perform well in a few regions but not the others will be designated as regional winners.
Second, the tests are blind. This means that we do not know what the exact plant is, who the breeder or seed company is, or any other info other than what type of plant it is. To the judge, each entry is just a number. It could be from a seed company you love (or hate), your best friend, the breeder who was your advisor from grad school, etc. This makes the results fair and reduces the chance for bias toward or against a plant based on its origins. The ratings are just based on the plant.
Another part of the trial is comparison. It is one thing to grow a tomato plant and say “yep, that’s a good tomato.” Its another to grow a tomato and compare it to similar cultivars to say “yep, that’s a good tomato….but it is better than what’s already available on the market.” The goal of the program is to show how new plants have merit over older plants. We only need so many new tomatoes (and let’s face it, there are lots of new tomatoes – we test WAY too many in the AAS process for my liking). The board of AAS judges reads the entry info from the new cultivar being tested and selects plants (usually two) to compare it against. If the trial is a yellow cherry tomato, it will be grown and tested alongside other yellow cherry tomatoes. The scoring is based on whether its performance or taste is as good as or better than the comparisons. If most judges don’t rank it as “better” then it has no chance of winning.
Confidentiality and Proprietary Plants
The fact that the testing is blind, paired with the fact that results of “failed” tests are not released, lends itself to confidentiality. Another important factor about the testing is the proprietary nature of the tests and test sites. These are new plants that haven’t been introduced to the market (except for the case of perennial trials) and are usually for proprietary or patented plants. Test sites should have some sort of control over who enters them and signs prohibiting the collection of seeds, pollen, or cuttings are placed at the site. Believe it or not, the world of plant introductions can be dog-eat-dog and cutthroat.
So what if it doesn’t win?
One of the cool things about the test is seeing the announcements of the winners early the following year. You see the list of plants and think back to what you grew the previous season. If often find myself thinking “oh yeah, I remember that plant, it did really well” and sometimes even “how did that win, it did horrible for me.” This is a good reminder that we can’t base generalized garden recommendations on anecdotal evidence. What did well for me may not work for someone else and vice versa. All the results from the test sites go together to provide a general view of the plant performance. It will do well for some and not others.
So if most of the judges rank the crop as not performing, looking, or tasting as good as the comparisons the plant doesn’t win. And that’s it. Due to the confidential nature of the testing you won’t know that it failed the test. Even I won’t know that it failed the test. It will likely go on to market without the AAS seal where it will face an even tougher test – the test of consumer demand. Of course, many people may grow it and be successful, and some may grow it without success.
What are the AAS Winners and how do I find them?
There’s a list of plants announced each year through the AAS website and social media channels. You can find a list, in reverse order of winning (meaning most recent first) on the AAS Website. The site also has a searchable database if you’re looking for a specific plant. Since these plants are owned by lots of different seed companies and breeders, there’s also a retailer listing on the site. The AAS program also supports a number of Display Gardens across the country, including botanical gardens, university gardens, and others where the public can see the most recent winners growing. Here in Omaha we maintain a display garden for the ornamental plants at our county fairgrounds. We also have our on-campus garden which is used for our TV show Backyard Farmer (the longest running educational TV program in the country, BTW) which serves as a display garden for both ornamental and edible crops.
I recently shared the AAS Testing Program with the local news here in Omaha. Check it out:
Some of my favorite recent AAS Winners Asian Delight Pak Choi – this was planted in May and didn’t bolt. We were still harvesting it in October.
Pepper Just Sweet – these plants were big and healthy even when everything else was struggling. The peppers were delicious.
Regular blog readers will remember that we moved to my childhood home a few years ago. With an acre or so of landscape I finally have enough room to put in a vegetable garden. My husband built a wonderful raised bed system, complete with critter fencing, and we’ve been enjoying the fresh greens and the first few tomatoes of the season.
We filled these raised beds with native soil. During a porch addition I asked the contractor to stockpile the topsoil near the raised beds. The house was built almost 100 years ago and at that time there were no “designed topsoils” (thank goodness) – soil was simply moved around during construction. Some of this soil had been covered by pavers and the rest had been covered with turf. [You can read more about designed topsoils in this publication under “choosing soil for raised beds.”] There had been no addition of nutrients for at least 7 years so I was confident that this was about as natural a soil as I could expect.
I’ve always advised gardeners to have a soil test done whenever they embark on a new garden or landscape project, so before I added anything to my raised beds I took samples and sent them to the soil testing lab at University of Massachusetts at Amherst (my go-to lab as there are no longer any university labs in Washington State for the public to use).
What I already knew about our soil was that it’s a glacial till (in other words it’s full of rocks left behind by a receding glacier). The area is full of native Garry oak (Quercus garryana), some of which are centuries old. The soil is excessively drained, meaning it’s probably a sandy loam. And that’s about all I knew until my results came back.
Because nothing has been added to this soil for several years, and because I had removed all of the turf grass before filling the beds, I assumed that the organic matter (OM) would be quite low. Most soils that support tree growth have around 3-7% OM. Hah! Ours was over 12%! All I can figure is that centuries of leaf litter has created a rich organic soil.
So here’s lesson number one: Don’t add OM just because you think you need it. Too much OM creates overly rich conditions that can reduce the natural protective chemicals in vegetation. This means pests and diseases are more likely to be problems.
I was pleased to see our P level was low. First soil test I’ve ever seen in my area where P was below the desirable range! Does that mean I’m adding P? No – because there is no evidence of a P deficiency anywhere in the landscape. And my garden plants are growing just fine without it.
Lesson number two: Just because a nutrient is reportedly deficient, look for evidence of that deficiency before you add it. It’s a lot easier to add something than it is to remove it.
Likewise, our other nutrient values are just fine, and I was pleased to see that lead levels were low. Given that this is an older house that had lead paint at one time, and given the fact that the soil being tested was adjacent to the house, I was prepared for lead problems.
However – we do have high aluminum in the soil. Exactly why…I don’t know. Perhaps the soil is naturally high in aluminum? There’s no evidence that aluminum sulfate or another amendment was ever used. In any case, that was an unexpected result that does give us some concern for root crops. I’ll be doing some research to see what vegetables accumulate aluminum.
Finally, note our pH – 4.9! This is completely normal for our area, which is naturally acidic. In addition, the tannic acid accumulation from centuries of oak leaves has undoubtedly pushed the pH even lower. Are we going to adjust it? Again, no. There is no evidence of any plant problems, and even our lawn is green. Why would we adjust the pH if there is no visual evidence to support that?
Which leads to lesson number three: Don’t adjust your soil pH just because you think you should. If your plants are growing well, the pH is fine. Plants and their associated root microbes are pretty well adapted to obtaining the necessary nutrients. If you have problems, don’t assume it’s a pH issue. Correlation does not equal causation! You’ll need to eliminate all other possibilities before attempting to change your soil chemistry. And remember it is impossible to permanently change soil pH over the short term. Permanent pH changes require decades, if not centuries of annual inputs (like our oak leaves).
Will I test my soil again? Probably not. I have the baseline report and since I don’t plan to add anything I don’t expect it to change much. If I had a nutrient toxicity I would retest until the level of that nutrient had decreased to normal levels. But with everything growing well, from lawn to vegetables to shrubs and trees, there really is nothing to be concerned about.
Lesson number four: Unless you have something in your soil to worry about, don’t.
This is the first post in a series in which we will explore the world of professional credentials and designations, highlight disciplines related to gardening with certification or licensing programs, and outline potential services professionals from each of those disciplines can provide to gardeners.
Professional designations are designed to help clients identify experts within specific disciplines. In upcoming posts I will highlight professional designations relevant to various aspects of gardening. Professional certifications, licensures, and credentials related to gardening include:
Board Certified Entomologist (BSE)
ISA Certified Arborist
Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg)
Certified Horticulturalist (CH)
Certified Professional Forester (CPF)
Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS)
Professional Landscape Architect (PLA)
Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA)
Before I highlight each of those professions and credentials in future posts, I want to first provide context and explain the purpose of professional certification and licensing.
Most of us encounter professional designations on a daily basis without noticing. For example, you’re likely familiar with credentials such as Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Registered Nurse (RN), or Doctor of Medicine (MD). Such credentials are often identified with postnominal letters in the form of an acronym listed after someone’s name in print. In some cases these postnominal letters indicate both an academic degree and a professional certification or licensure, such is the case with medical doctors (MD). In some disciplines the degree and designation can be separate. I’ll use myself as an example (not as a humble brag, but as a convenient example). My business card says “Colby Moorberg, PhD, CPSS”. The PhD refers to the highest academic degree earned (Doctor of Philosophy, PhD), while the CPSS refers to the Certified Professional Soil Scientist professional certification. There are countless professional designations in current use, each of which comes with postnominal acronyms. That alphabet soup can become confusing. Yet to further complicate the matter, details vary greatly from one professional designation to the next. Such differences include the type of professional designation, education requirements, qualifying exams, codes of ethics, continuing education requirements, professional experience, and designating bodies.
Types of Professional Designations
Professional designations can take the form of professional licenses or certifications. According to Knapp and Knapp (2002), licenses are granted by government agencies and are required for people to practice or engage in their profession. The process ensures that licensed individuals have met the minimum education and experience required to be competent in their field without risk to themselves or the public. For example, engineers and physicians are required by law to have a license issued by a state licensing board before they can practice in their respective profession. Such professional licenses are somewhat analogous to the requirement that people operating a motor vehicle have a driver’s license – it’s illegal to drive without one.
Knapp and Knapp go on to contrast professional certifications from licensing by stating that certification is a voluntary process administered by an organization (not a government agency) to recognize individuals that have met predetermined qualifications or standards. Such certifications help establish the credibility of a professional within a specific discipline when a license is not required. Consider a certified public accountant (CPA). Many people might think twice about trusting an accountant with their finances or tax preparation if that accountant was not certified, even though a license is not required for someone acting as an accountant. Professional certifications are typically administered by professional societies, and are usually used in professions where the immediate health and safety of the general public is not impacted by a professional in the respective discipline.
Education requirements are put in place in most certification or licensing programs to ensure that the professional has the knowledge base necessary to be successful in their field. Certification and licensing programs often require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a related major, but not always. For example, a Certified Professional Forester is required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in forestry or a related major (Society of American Foresters, 2019), while a ISA Certified Arborist could become certified without a college degree if such an individual meets additional professional experience requirements (International Society of Aboriculture, 2019). Licensing boards or certifying bodies typically have panels of professionals within a discipline that review college transcripts of those applying to become licensed or certified in order to ensure each person with a credential meet the program’s minimum education requirement.
All licensing boards and most certification programs have an exam that someone must pass in order to become licensed or certified. Similar to degree requirements, such exams help ensure the professional has the minimum level or expertise necessary to be proficient in their field. In some cases, professionals must pass two exams, one when they start their professional career fresh out of college, and a second after they’ve worked professionally for 3-5 years.
Code of Ethics
Many licensing and certification programs require licensees or certificants to abide by a professional code of ethics. This is a useful feature for clients (gardeners wishing to hire a professional) because it provides a mechanism to report a professional if they are acting unprofessional or unethically. Such codes of ethics are also useful to licensed or certified professionals because it gives them an “out”, should they be asked to do something unethical by a client or an employer.
Most licensing and certification programs require a minimum number of documented hours (continuing education units, or CEUs) dedicated to staying up-to-date. These hours are documented and must be met within a 1-, 2-, or 3-year cycle. Such continuing education requirements benefit gardeners hoping to hire a professional, because it ensures that professional is staying current in their field and is learning the newest technologies and techniques. Programs that require professionals to abide by codes of ethics often require professional ethics training for each cycle as well.
Certification and licensing programs often have a minimum number or years of professional experience required in order to become certified or licensed. Usually during the period in which someone is gaining experience, they are working under the wing of someone fully licensed or certified. Such requirements help ensure that fully certified or licensed professionals have documented professional experience, and have had the opportunity to apply academic knowledge to real-world applications.
Professional certificates or licenses often vary by the group, organization, or licensing board that bestows the professional credential on an individual. In some cases there are competing organizations that offer competing certificates.
The primary way in which gardeners benefit from hiring certified or licensed experts in their fields is that professional credentials ensure a minimum knowledge and competency by the professional. In addition, these professionals are often bound by their respective professional codes of ethics. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. In the case of certified or licensed professionals, this often means it will cost you more for the services of a certified professional. As we explore the different professions and professional credential programs relevant to gardening in future posts, I will discuss gardening-related services that can be provided by each type of certified or licensed professional, and scenarios where spending the additional money to hire a certified professional might be worth the added cost. I hope this information enlightened you to professional designations, certifications, and licensing. Hopefully it will help start a conversation between you and gardening experts to determine how they might be of service to you.
Have you encountered certified or licensed professionals in the gardening world? Discuss your experience in the comments, or suggest certification or licensing programs I may have missed in my list above.
Disclosure: I am a Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS), and I am a member of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) Soils Certifying Board which oversees the CPSS program.
Knapp, L., and J. Knapp. 2002. The Business of Certification: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Program. 2nd Revised edition edition. Association Management Press,U.S., Washington, D.C.