Buying locally-grown plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Real, Live, Learning Experience

What a crazy spring! But it finally, finally came here to the Blue Ridge Mountains (Linda Chalker-Scott refers to them “speed bumps”).

My Ornamental Plants Production & Marketing class has been at work since early February, growing plants and marketing them at the Hort Club Plant Sale as part of their lab experience.  Of course, they are completely at my mercy as to what they get to grow (bwuhh ha ha *evil hand wringing*).  And due to their professor being a complete plant dork, they wouldn’t know a potted mum if it hit them upside the head. Not that there’s anything wrong with mums.  But with so much fabulous stuff to choose from – they can just look that mum crop protocol up in a book if the need arises.  They do get to experience a few zonal geraniums, but that’s only because the University’s past-President buys 50 red ones from us every year.

So what do they grow? Fabulous goodies you could never, ever find at a garden center in SW Virginia.  Variegated Manihot esculenta. Dr. Cho’s newest Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ (gloss black with deep blue veins).  Awesome landscape begonias such as ‘Gryphon’ and ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’. Fun annuals like Torenia and Osteospermum. Fifty-two different things – fairly ambitious, considering there are only 11 students.  We fill a 40′ x 80′ house plus two “research” greenhouse sections that I commandeer the moment they come available.

My production students always start out the semester rather tentative, and then get more engaged as time goes on.  We do a 2.5 day field trip across the state to visit top greenhouses, nurseries, and garden centers in early April.  My gang comes home with a real appreciation of the hard work and long hours required to be successful; more important, perhaps, is their exposure to the tremendous passion and enthusiasm of the people in the business, many of who are alumni of our department.

SO…thirteen weeks later, we have greenhouses crammed full of really great plants,a bunch more ordered in from top area nurseries, an enthusiastic mob of customers with pent-up plant lust, and some very proud students.

And that’s the best part – the students get to/have to work with (gasp) the PUBLIC.  Very disconcerting for some of them. The Plant Sale Chair for the club, who is also in my class, is a terrific student but a bit shy.  Of course, he got the loudest customer of the day. She hollered  “Hey, boo boo! Tell me about this plant! Sez here you grew it!”  Ten shades of red later… I thought he was going to faint. But he did regain his composure and helped her with some other things.  He also made me promise to never, ever tell his classmates what she called him.

But you’re not in my class 😉


Here comes “boo boo” with his very nice Cissus discolor (Rex Begonia Vine).
Names withheld to protect the totally embarrassed.

Closing the loop

Just a short post today as I am participating in an Extension planning meeting for most of the day.  One up-side to the meeting is we are meeting and having lunch at Brody Dining hall here at MSU.  If you’re around my age and attended college in the 80’s, the thought of eating at a dormitory dining hall might elicit memories of a hair-netted cafeteria lady glopping amorphous slop on your tray next to the mystery meat of the day.  Boy, how times have changed.  Today, the quality of dining hall food is point of competition for universities angling for students.  The Brody dining center is set up like a food court, daily choices for students include a fresh salad bar, southwest food, sushi, made to order pizza, home-style comfort food, even kosher food.

The dining halls are also part of MSU’s sustainability initiative.  Food wastes from the dining halls are collected and sent to an anaerobic digester and composted at the MSU Student Organic Farm.  The compost is used at the recently completed Bailey hoop-houses on campus to produce salad green and herbs for use in the dining halls, providing a closed-loop system.  Is the food produced in the hoop-houses going to make the dining halls completely self-sufficient?  Probably not in the foreseeable future.  But they do provide a good opportunity to promote horticulture.  The project has generated numerous press articles and there are posters around the dining hall highlighting the project.  In an age when many bemoan the public’s disconnect between farm and fork, the Bailey GREENhouses remind students, especially those that might not think about it otherwise, where their food comes from.

Bounce – it’s not just a fabric softening sheet…

…it’s an Integrated Pest Management tool!

[Note added after-the-fact: this was a  tongue-in-cheek bit of  hyperbole – kind of like “it’s not just a Job, it’s an Adventure.” Did not mean to imply that it actually IS an IPM tool. Very badly worded. Hence the beating I took in the comments. Live and learn.]

Fungus gnats (Bradysia spp.) are a pain in the bottom for commercial greenhouse growers. The adults are more of a nuisance than anything else –it just looks bad when a customer picks up your 6” pot of pansies and a bunch of little black gnats take flight.  It’s the larvae that are problematic. Adult females lay the eggs in especially damp growing media, and the newly-hatched larvae feed on the roots. There’s both direct damage and also speculation of easier infection of root-borne pathogens, of which there are plenty. 

 
Fungus gnat larvae, just making a living…

Standard control measures include insecticide drenches, biological controls including a specific strain of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis – sold as GnatrolTM), nematodes, etc.  One of the easiest control measures is the one I teach my students: to not over-water, i.e. “grow dry”. But that can be difficult in a big greenhouse range with many different-sized containers, all which drain/dry out at different rates. Propagation houses also have high humidity levels and have to stay moist for rooting/germination purposes and are thus favored by fungus gnats.

Entomologist Dr. Raymond Cloyd of Kansas State University and his group were intrigued by Master Gardener anecdotes of dryer sheets repelling mosquitoes, though no research had been done. Could your common Bounce sheet also repel other pests? And, to take it a step further, what, exactly, repels them?  The answers are “yes” and “lots of volatile compounds.”

Their study was published last month in the journal HortScience. Honestly, I’ve never seen descriptors like “controls static cling” and “gives clothes a fresh scent” in a Horticulture journal. Hee! Plus the researchers made it clear this experiment specifically used Bounce Original Outdoor FreshTM. Still kind of humorous, but really good science and the part that’s usually overlooked in the translation to a News Story. Do NOT extrapolate results to include Bounce Spring Fresh, Fresh Linen, and certainly not Downy or Snuggle brands. 

The study had a simple design, releasing lab gnats (ha!) into a  many-chambered container and observing to which chamber the gnats gravitated to (or away from).  There were five different variations on this theme, including an alluringly soggy media sample; when the sample of fabric softener sheet was introduced, they stayed away in droves. All five experiments showed a fairly drastic aversion to the sheet. To determine what was fending off the gnats, they did a steam extraction on sheet samples and ran the condensate through a gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer to measure the volatiles.



Figure from Bounce® Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnat, Bradysia sp. nr. coprophila (Diptera: Sciaridae), Adults. Raymond A. Cloyd, Karen A. Marley, Richard A. Larson, and Bari Arieli, HortScience Dec 1 2010: 1830–1833

Well, there you have it. Linalool is a monoterpene alcohol found in lavender, basil, and coriander, and is known to be toxic to mites and insects.  Citronello is another monoterpene and lends lemony-freshness to lemon balm, pennyroyal, and rose geranium and has short-term “repellent activity against mosquitoes.”  Benzyl acetate, though not specifically mentioned in the results, is another natural fragrance compound, found in jasmine – and is also an industrial-strength solvent. One man’s solvent is another man’s perfume. Or fabric softener. I bet their lab smelled GREAT, by the way.

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6

The Glories of The Winter Greenhouse

I’m a Southerner. With a capital “S”.  Which is why I am Suffering, with another capital “S”. Here in the Blue Ridge mountains of western Virginia, we have officially surpassed Anchorage and Denver in total snowfall for the season. Today’s batch adds up to 24″ on the ground at our farm.


Blueberries in the snow. If one more person says “Probably good for all the insect problems,” I’m going to get violent.

The chickens are not happy. They’ve been cooped up (ha! I didn’t really mean to do that!) for 10 days straight. I myself suffer from cabin fever, limp hair, seasonal depression, and a persistent cough.


Hell no, we won’t go!

What keeps me from going totally nuts? Only the best $12,000 ever spent – no,no, not granite counter tops…it’s our very own greenhouse. This modest 24′ x 48′ polycarbonate sheet hoop house may not resemble a Victorian conservatory (you can get one of those beauties here), but it works like a champ.  Yes, we have greenhouses on campus for research and teaching, but that’s work; and pet plants are frowned upon.

Nothing beats your own private winter hideaway. My plant-diva-friend Elissa uses her crowded greenhouse for not only her immense plant collection, but also a festive (if cramped) happy hour.

As sleet pelts the roof, I’m surrounded by green: tropical plants dug up from the garden before frost and those “pets in pots” accumulated from hither and yon.  The humidity is wonderful – I can hear my skin go “aaahhhh” after a couple of hours.


Herd o’ Agaves and succulents. They’re perfectly happy with the cool temperatures – several are blooming.

I’ve dreamed of one for years; then finally took the jump 16 months ago. Again, it’s nothing a homeowner’s association would ever approve of; just a commercial-grade, heavy duty, Quonset-type production house. Stylistic concerns were sacrificed for square footage. The most common complaint from home greenhouse owners is “I wish I had built a bigger one.”

The other concern is heating costs. It has a propane heater, and propane’s not cheap, nor environmentally friendly. But we run it pretty darn cold – around 48 F night temperatures, which certainly helps. Are the tropicals thrilled? Not really, but they’re alive and hanging in there (however, the begonias are really grumpy right now).

Some PVC pipe + overhead misting + heating mat = broccoli spinach, and basil seedlings, happily germinating at a 75 F soil temperature, despite an air temperature below 50 F. Basil?! Yes, I realize I’m totally jumping the gun timing-wise here, made worse by the fact that I teach both greenhouse management and ornamental plant production (do as I say, not as I do!).

Yep, more fun than you can shake a shovel at!
I’ll take your questions, comments, and snowballs now…