Building healthy soils?

I love living in Seattle…but I’m getting increasingly impatient with the City’s “Building Healthy Soils” propaganda.  For years I’ve questioned their recommendation to perpetually amend landscape soil with organic material to no avail.  Let’s see what you all think of their “fact sheet” (which you can read here in its entirety).

“The best way to improve the soil is to add plenty of compost or other organic matter throughout the entire planting area before planting. Thoroughly mixing these materials deep into the soil helps provide water, air and nutrients to plant roots.”

Hmm.  No mention of how to determine IF your soil needs improving; without a soil test, you have no idea what your baseline organic matter level is.

But perhaps this recommendation is only for vegetable gardens and annual beds?  Nope.  In the next paragraph, we’re told to “Mix in organic material before planting lawns, perennials, trees and shrubs.”  We’re given helpful how-to instructions:  “Use a shovel or digging fork to mix amendments into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. It is important to amend the entire planting bed — not just small holes for each plant. When planting individual trees and shrubs in lawns or existing beds, amend an area at least 3 feet wide, or 3 to 5 times as wide as root balls over 12 inches in diameter. Rototill large areas where digging is impractical.”

Now we’ve got a serious problem.  This practice is recommended for existing beds.  Not only will extensive digging or rototilling destroy any soil structure you might have, it will also take out the roots of any desirable plants in the vicinity).

But let’s continue to ignore reality and go on to the annual recommendations for adding compost to soils.
“Clay soils: 16 cu. feet (.6 cu. yard) = 2 inch layer of compost for new gardens. Use 1 inch per year in established gardens.”
“Sandy soils: 24 cu. feet (.9 cu. yard) = 3 inch layer of compost for new gardens. Use 1 – 2 inches per year in established gardens.”

Is the compost used as a mulch in these existing gardens?  No – the guidelines are prefaced with this instruction:  “Gardens: mix compost to 10- to 12-inch depth.”  (Can’t say this does much for promoting root growth either.)

This document shows a breathtaking lack of understanding of how landscapes function, especially over the long term.  It takes an agricultural practice (annual organic amendment of crop fields) and misapplies it to permanent landscapes.  It is devoid of the research which continues to show that improper soil amendment can cause serious problems such as soil subsidence, perched water tables, and nutrient overloads.  This last point is especially important to anyone living near aquatic ecosystems, since excess nutrients always end up in the water.

Before you plant this year, find out what your soil needs before amending it.  And remember that mulching is the natural (and sustainable) way to add organic matter to the soil.

Devious dandelions

As Austrian reader Johannes explained, the difference in dandelion flower height is due to herbivory – in this case from a lawnmower.  Dandelions are quite adaptable to variable environments (the phenotypic plasticity Johannes also mentioned) and flower heights will increase or decrease depending on these variables. This ensures that the flowers will be accessible to pollinators, yet not decapitated by lawnmowers.  It’s just one of the fascinating traits that make weeds successful!


A Taraxacum teaser

It’s spring and the dandelions are happy to see you!  I’ve taken photos of two groups of dandelions just footsteps away from one another. The populations are both in full sun, with similar types of soil and water availability. You’ll note that one group has very short flower stalks, while the second has longer stalks:

So what’s responsible for the difference in flower stalk length?  And for extra credit, what’s the scientific term for the phenomenon?

If this isn’t something you’ve noticed before, you will from now on!  Answers Monday!


This time of year is very exciting for the students in my plant propagation class because now is when they all get to try grafting.  In particular, they get to place buds from an apple tree onto a rootstock.  There is nothing like placing a bud from one tree onto another to make a person feel as though they’re a horticulturist (NOT HorticulturALIST — that’s not a real word).  Especially if that bud successfully grows on the plant where it was placed and produces a happy new tree — What a warm fuzzy feeling!

There are all kinds of things that a rootstock can offer to the bud placed on it.  The rootstock can make the tree a dwarf, it can be resistant to certain diseases which the bud isn’t, it can even add some degree of cold hardiness.  In return, the bud produces a cultivar that the grower wants such as ‘Honeycrisp’ apple.  Additionally, the bud also offers an older tree.  This probably doesn’t make sense at first, so think about it for a second or two.  The bud that was grafted onto the rootstock came from a mature tree and so it may be more mature than the rootstock (which may have come from a seed — if the rootstock came from something besides a seed — like cuttings — then the rootstock may also be quite mature).  Because the bud from which the top of the tree will grow is more mature than the base the tree will usually come into bearing sooner than if it were grown from seed.

Tree age is a funny thing.  Though you wouldn’t expect it, the base of a tree is actually the youngest part of the tree physiologically while the older portion of the tree is at the top from which most new growth comes.  The reason for this is that the bottom of the tree was laid down first as the tree first emerged from the soil and so the bud from which that growth came hadn’t had the chance to age much yet.  After a few years of growing up the terminal bud developed more and more “age” and so the top of the tree is more mature.  Confusing?  It confuses me too — and I’m oversimplifying things quite a bit here.  Making it even worse, no two tree species seem to age in exactly the same way.

Pardon If You’ve Seen This Before…

But it still makes me smile.

First published in December 2005, it’s still up at Red Shirt Knitting.  Seattle yarn artist Erika’s story is posted, as is a chronological progression of photos and events since the original “fitting”. 

She actually got some pretty funny tree questions/comments about potential girdling, the possibility of damage from moisture buildup (I like her response “What are YOUR sweaters made from…neoprene?”), etc.

Tortured urban tree examples abound: poorly planted, pitifully pruned, and other horrors.  I think Miss Erika should get some kind of award for this public display of [tree] affection.

Organic or local?

I grew up on a small farm (30 or so acres) near Tacoma, Washington. We raised our own Herefords, I gathered eggs from my frizzle chickens, and we all enjoyed apples, plums and cherries from our fruit trees.  Neither of my parents were farmers by profession, though my grandfather owned a dairy farm in Oregon.  Eventually, my husband and I hope to move back to the family farm, if for no other reason than preserve it from the surrounding encroachment of houses.

I’ve been thinking about things I might do for fun or profit on the farm.  Home grown beef for sure.  A veggie garden – finally – on some of the only native soil left in the area.  We’ve got lots of options and the space to try them out.

Now back to the question in the title: organic or local?  Our family property has been managed gently since we moved there in the late 1960’s.  Nothing’s been added to the pasture soil other than what the animals deposited themselves.  We’ve had the apple trees sprayed yearly (a requirement because of apple maggot), but this is a targeted application with little affect outside the trees.  The cattle were never treated with hormones or other additives – they were about as free range as you can get.

I’ve heard from others that organic certification standards have become increasingly difficult to meet and some growers think they have become increasingly meaningless.  On the other hand, locally-grown products are becoming more available.

Is it time for a new standard – locally grown, with some requirements (e.g. soil tests) to demonstrate safety?

Friday puzzle revealed

And we have a winner!  As Karen guessed, these are lichens on decomposing granite:

This photo is from the Fortynine Palms oasis area in Joshua Tree National Monument.  These lichens (symbiotic amalgams of fungi and algae) could be decades or centuries old – they are very slow spreading. 

Most creative answer goes to TT, who thought it looked like sweet potato casserole!  The quartz does look like marshmallows.

Disney and Japanese Beetles

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at Epcot Center in Florida.  It was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my career so far.  I spoke 6 times over the course of 3 days.  The focus of my talk was garden remedies.  I started by talking about Paris Green (a good story for next week), then made fun of some of Jerry Baker’s, Myles Bader’s and Joey Green’s recommendations, and then proceeded to talk about which homemade cures do and don’t work and why.  And then I asked the audience for questions.  I always ask the audience for questions at the end of my talks, but I’ve never had such a diverse audience before (both gardeners and non-gardeners from all across the country), so it was interesting to see which problems came up the most.  The winner was…. Japanese beetle with fire ants and deer coming in a close second and third.  With that in mind I thought I’d devote this column to Japanese beetle control.

Above is my newest prize possession — A statue of Mickey thanking me for speaking at Epcot

The first rule of Japanese beetle control is that you can’t control Japanese beetles.  Nobody has found a sure-fire cure yet and, if you try too hard, you’re going to poison yourself and everyone in your neighborhood.

The second rule of Japanese beetle control is like unto the first.  Don’t trust garden center employees to know a damn thing about Japanese beetle control.

The third rule of Japanese beetle control is not to make the problem worse that it already is.  Using a trap to lure Japanese beetles to their demise will kill a few — and may make you feel like you’re doing something — but you will be attracting more beetles to your yard than you kill.

The fourth rule of Japanese beetle control is that killing grubs doesn’t stop the adults.  In other words, while killing Japanese beetle grubs is possible (usually using imidacloprid), killing those grubs won’t prevent adults from flying into your yard after they’ve hatched from someone else’s yard.

The fifth rule of Japanese beetle control is that Japanese beetle control is dirty work. Most of the “organic” and biological controls just don’t work that well.  If you want to spray a concentrated dish soap spray on the beetles that will kill them, but it won’t last long and it will burn your plants.  Same thing with a spray of one of those citrus insecticides.  The organic insecticide pyrethrum will kill Japanese beetles, but it won’t last long and spinosad (another organic insecticide) which works for some beetles (it’s better on other insects)  just isn’t considered that great.  A biological control called Milky Spore Disease is supposed to kill Japanese beetles while they’re grubs, but the truth is that it usually kills less than 50% even in good conditions.

The sixth rule of Japanese beetle control is that, if you’re willing to go to a little bit of trouble, lose a few leaves, and use a little bit of a synthetic insecticide there is a way to protect your plants to some degree.  If you’ve ever been around these beetles then you’ll know that they prefer some plants over other — for example, they love roses, and so they’ll attack roses first.  If you spray roses with permethrin (a synthetic insecticide) you can get 7-14 days of clean roses, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll kill many of the Japanese beetles before they move on to other plants — this is called trap cropping.

The seventh rule of Japanese beetle control is that these beetles will seek revenge for their dead relatives.

Another fine product…

I’m spending this week in Palm Desert, CA for a little R&R in the sun.  In the morning, with my pot o’ Earl Grey, I read the local paper (The Desert Sun).  Last Sunday’s paper provided me with an article about an “intelligent water incubator” (all material in quotes was taken from the article).  Pieter Hoff, a “Dutch scientist, author, and major exporter of lilies and flower bulbs” has invented the Waterboxx, which “produces and captures water from the air through condensation and rain.”  He claims a four year test in the Moroccan Saharan desert showed an 88% survival rate for fruit tree saplings “grown without irrigation.” He now wants to test his invention in the Coachella Valley desert “to create a money-making business model with trees” and of course to help save the environment.

The Waterboxx is a plastic rectangular box, but we’re told the inner technology is more complex.  The box is put around the seed or sapling and provides water “in small doses.”  It also “protects roots against sun, wind, weeds, rodents and some animals.”

I visited the web page and you should too.  The technology section is fascinating.  It includes an animation explaining how the box functions; apparently the box was designed to protect seeds in the same manner as bird poop.  I was interested to see that the box requires 4 gallons of water when it’s set up; not exactly a “no irrigation” methodology.  And that a wick inside the box releases about 50 ml of water a day to the soil below the box.  The last frame tells us “with the waterboxx we can transform most of the deserts into forests.”

I won’t test your patience by dissecting all the silliness in this article and the web site.  As you might expect, there is no peer-reviewed science on this product, nor even a research report.  The plant and soil science is marginal; the ecological science is horrific.  The box effectively prevents water from reaching the soil around the seedling, doling it out in miniscule doses instead.  Not only could a decent organic mulch layer do the same job (and do it better), but I question the “greenness” of creating yet another plastic product with a limited lifespan.   This system is so removed from reality that it’s incredible that anyone takes it seriously – yet it’s been out there for several years now and has won several awards.

Oddly, there’s little specific information about the inventor.   All I could find definitively is that he comes from a bulb-raising family in The Netherlands and has written a book:  CO2 – a gift from heaven (under the name Petrus Hoff).